The Flutter of History

If any European director has succeeded Ingmar Bergman as the master of deeply philosophical and symbolistic films, it is surely Wim Wenders. Like Bergman, Wenders deals in stark and poignant images of the human condition, but in Wenders’ work, compassion and solidarity triumph over existential angst.

Wenders’ early films were set in the urban wastelands of post-industrial Germany (Alice in the City, 1974). He then switched to an American landscape and is most likely best known to U.S. audiences for Paris, Texas (1984), an empathetic portrait of working-class outcasts looking for love across vast, lonely stretches of the Southwest. More recently he has returned home to Berlin in a remarkable diptych, Wings of Desire (1987) and its companion piece Faraway So Close (1993).

It is our conviction that Wings of Desire is a truly great film; it’s one of our all-time favorites. The recent release of Faraway So Close has deepened our intrigue with Wenders’ evolving vision. For in this duet of films, Wenders has added a stunning new element to his trademark portraits of ordinary people who struggle to retain some humanity amidst alienation and life’s disappointments.

These two films introduce and share an extraordinary set of characters. Dressed in Euro-chic black overcoats, these characters omnipresently attend embattled and beleaguered urban dwellers. They listen to the most inward human thoughts, offering silent touches of hope, but are powerless to intervene in our anguish. These compassionate but constrained beings—recognized by children but invisible to adults—are angels.

Through these angels Wenders has ventured a profoundly empathetic journey into the human heart. Assigned from eternity to the earthly site that has become Berlin, a host of angelic colleagues perch over the city, drawn to the architecture of high places (especially winged monuments!). Yet the camera also takes us with them on their quotidian rounds through subways, housing projects, and streets. We hear what they hear: the unspoken yearnings, dreads, and perplexities of their human charges—a discourse of souls.

IF THESE FILMS testify to the existence of infinitely compassionate heavenly companions, they also narrate their quandaries. These angels long for incarnation. They are frustrated with their existence outside time (their point of view is always represented in the film in black and white), because they can only witness—never intervene in—the great and small joys and tragedies of human life. So the two films revolve around the "incarnational plunge" made by two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). It is the differences between these two central characters that set the films apart. In Wings of Desire, Damiel is lured over by a desire to experience the sensual dimension of human life; in Faraway So Close, Cassiel crosses because he is determined to make a difference in the mortal struggle between good and evil.

Wings has been aptly described as a "tone-poem," a lyrical meditation on the pain and passion of life. As Damiel slowly falls in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a circus trapeze artist, he is exhorted to "make the leap" by former angel Peter Falk (who, in both films, plays himself in a brilliantly quirky piece of casting). In one gently hilarious scene, Falk senses Damiel’s presence and offers his hand, commending the simple sensate pleasures of feeling newsprint on one’s fingers, smelling a cup of coffee, and rubbing one’s hands together when it is cold.

When Damiel does cross over (and the film switches to color), the results are delightful and compelling. Just as Damiel has given up his angelic detachment, so must Marion give up her lonely freedom. "There is no greater story than ours—man and wo-man," she intones. "Only the amazement of man and woman made me human," agrees Damiel in the film’s closing lines.

Yet Wings is far more than a love story. In a refrain reminding us of the pain of history, a Homer-like figure strolls through the burned-out landscape of Berlin on his homecoming quest for the kinder German past he knew before the Nazi Holocaust. The old man laments to an invisible muse that no one listens to him anymore; he is "the storyteller pushed to the edge of the world." This theme of German history and identity in turn becomes the central concern of Faraway So Close.

In Faraway So Close, it is Cassiel who jumps into the world, full of idealism that he can make a difference in history’s apparently losing battle against violence and betrayal. Cassiel’s film is equally driven by its subplot about a German family separated in the closing days of World War II. Now grown, a boy who had fled to the United States with his Nazi father (a propaganda film maker!) returns to newly reunited Germany to make quick and dirty money selling bootlegged Western porno films and surplus Soviet weaponry on the black market. Meanwhile he also seeks his sister, who had remained with her mother and grown up in East Germany.

This subplot is a subtle but unmistakable metaphor for the estrangement of the two post-war Germanys, and the ongoing trauma of the suppressed Nazi past (throughout Faraway Wenders splices in wartime newsreels like some recurring nightmarish flashback). But the conflict-ridden "reunion" of this family also portends the difficulties attending reunification between the opportunistic, cynical West and the beleaguered, authoritarian East.

Cassiel quickly becomes entangled in this sordid business of gambling and crime, losing his innocence to alcohol and despair on the way. He recovers in time, however, to foil the arms-for-porn racket—with a delightful assist from Marion’s circus colleagues. But this comes at the cost of his life, and the film’s penultimate scene—in which Cassiel hangs dying, suspended by a trapeze artist’s gear halfway between heaven and Earth, arms splayed cruciform-like—is thinly veiled allusion to the gospel.

INDEED, THESE ARE profoundly theological films. Wenders’ angels bemoan humanity’s "Fall" from original grace, identified with childlikeness and symbolized in the film by the circus. This lost innocence is articulated in Wings through the lyrical refrains of German poet Peter Handke (who is credited with co-writing the script):

When the child was a child...

many people seemed beautiful then

now only a few

it had a precise picture of Paradise

and now it can only guess it....

This is a Fall into history, however, as we are reminded by the Homer-figure who bears its burdens. Yet it is precisely history that the angels yearn to experience—surely suggesting the redemptive power of incarnation.

U.S. audiences no doubt accepted Wenders’ angelic fictions in Wings of Desire as so much poetic license; the film did reasonably well on the art-house circuit. Not so with Faraway So Close which, at least in Los Angeles, ran for mere weeks and disappeared. Perhaps this is because a second film with these characters revealed that Wenders means us to take his angelic protagonists seriously. They are offered not as symbolic props but as genuine mediators of the Presence—if we have eyes to see them (the film begins by citing Matthew 6:22). The angels’ parting words in Faraway make irresistible the conclusion that Wenders is evangelizing us:

You, whom we love. You do not see us, you do not hear us, you imagine us in the far distance, yet we are so near....We are not the message, we are the messengers. The message is love....Let us dwell in your eyes, see your world through us. Recapture through us that loving look once again. Then we will be close to you—and you to him.

Does the inheritor of Bergman’s mantle really believe in angels? See these films, and believe. n

DAVID BREMER is the executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council. CHED MYERS is a Sojourners contributing editor and the author, most recently, of Who Will Roll Away the Stone?: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis Books, 1994).

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