Blindspot 2016 marathon #1: Wings of Desire
For a whole bunch of reasons I only got to three of my Blindspot films in 2016. I’m going to try to finish up the last 9 over the next two weeks, complete with reviews. Pray for me.
Wings of Desire (1987, Wim Wenders)
I’ve always loved old things. Old objects that were once held by someone centuries ago. Old homes that have seen ages pass. Old letters, pieces of personal correspondence that become time capsules for thoughts and feelings. I love objects that stand as sentries for the passage of time, that connect us to our ancestors and will do so for our descendants. There is a beauty to the inexorable creeping of time, and how inextricably it is connected to change.
The angels in Wings of Desire are this sort of sentry. They are the opposites of agents of change. Since the dawn of time they have walked the Earth following a simple set of rules: Keep to yourself. Let things happen. Always remain serious. Do no more than look, gather, testify, verify, preserve.
An angel named Cassiel (Otto Sander) recites the rules of their great endeavor with a weary wistfulness. His fellow immortal, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and have have just finished going back and forth with their favorite fantasies of the wonders of mortal life. Damiel waxes about what it would be like to tell a lie, or to take his shoes off, or to eat a meal. There is a bittersweetness to their words, but it falls short of true malaise. Damiel and Cassiel take their work seriously. They wander Berlin, watching, observing. Children can see them, and they smile and wave. Adults can’t see angels, but angels can still attempt to comfort them, to gently influence them. We see Damiel whispering positive intonations into the ear of a depressed man on a subway, until the man stops repeating the downturns his life has taken and resolves to start anew. On another occasion, he cradles a man who has been seriously injured in an accident and helps him stop panicking, until a passerby comes to help. The angels can hear what people think, and we hear them to, in whispered, disjointed interior monologues. It’s jarring at first, but I quickly fell into the film’s trance; I write a lot about how much empathy matters in movies to me, and one of the great notes of this film’s empathy is how it finds meaning in the profoundly understandable stresses of day to day life. Every day Damiel and Cassiel encounter countless people experiencing every range of emotion, and there’s now way for them to truly interact for better or for worse. All they can do is empathize.
Damiel is clearly interested in one particular human, though: a woman named Marion, who works as a trapeze artist at a local, two-bit circus. Marion is French, and we get only hints about her life. We sense that angels lack a god’s omnipotence, that they can only glean from a person what that person thinks. Marion is troubled but not despairing. She enjoys working for the circus and is upset and lost when she hears that it is being forced to shut down early for the year. She goes back to her trailer and listens to music. Damiel follows her and observes her. He has clearly fallen in love with her, but Ganz injects an innocence into Damiel’s longing. He knows all about humanity but he is limited in what he is able to feel. His feelings more Marion are most acutely clear in a scene when she spins on a rope high above the ground for a paltry audience of schoolchildren. She is overcome with the joy of performing, and Damiel is absolutely mesmerized.
That scene is one of many demonstrations of the film’s constant humanism. We know the angels have witnessed the highs and lows of humanity, but they- and Wenders- remain enthralled by the simple joys and sorrows of life. Peter Falk plays himself in a key (and splendid) role. He is on set, working on a film, and we hear his thoughts as he sketches the portrait of an old woman working as an extra, or as he meticulously picks out a hat that he thinks suits his character. Later, Falk reveals that he can sense Damiel’s presence, and has a one-way conversation with the angel about the pleasures of having a smoke and a coffee, or of rubbing your hands together to get them warm.
This is not a film with much of a plot. It observes the characters as the angels observe humanity, patiently and with a touch of warmth and sympathy. In the film’s second act, Damiel makes a decision that would be a huge plot turn in a more conventional film, one that could easily segue into melodrama. I won’t spoil it, on the off chance you’re both reading this review and haven’t yet seen the film. But like all the rest of the movie, it leads more to observation and conversation than melodrama.
Wings of Desire is a quiet film, gentle and warm. I watched it last night and enjoyed it, but it has stayed with me these last 24 hours like a good cup of tea. It is lovely in its simplicity. It makes no attempts to make grand statements about humanity. I imagine anyone who observed people at an individual level from the dawn of time would be unable to make blanket statements about all people, after all.
It made me wonder, would I consider trading places with one of these angels, with the rules they have? I don’t think so; I’m with Peter Falk on this one, that the joys and pleasures of living are worth mortality, but I think Wim Wenders also makes the case that there is value to the sort of wisdom gained by the angels, that by knowing and observing and trying hard understand, we can also gain greater appreciation for the small pleasures that come our way. In a film full of monologues about the meaning of our individual lives, the longest, and the last, comes from Marion. Having worked through her a fog of loneliness and indecision, she makes a declaration of love:
Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it because today I am finally lonely. No more coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if destiny exists, but decision does exist. Decide. Now we are the times. Not only the whole city, but the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are more than just two. We personify something…
Marion’s monologue is, I think, as thrilling an ending as this movie could have had; a declarative moment of clarity, for one’s own happiness, in a film that observes how often we find ourselves lost in hazes of indecision, about characters devoted to a cause that renders the concept of “happiness” irrelevant in the face of the passage of ages.