Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) (1987)

Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) – 1987

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk

Tackling the spiritual subject of the lives of Angels and their influence on the lives of human beings, Wings of Desire follows  Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) as he becomes fascinated with and eventually falls in love with a young trapeze artist (Marion Played by Solveig Dommartin) performing in West Berlin (pre-fall of the Berlin Wall).  The film aspires to much more than simplistic confirmation of faith or belief.  Instead, Wim Wenders struggles with the ideas of how his angel characters experience the world while avoiding the cliché of making them infallible beings of infinite grace and experience.

Firstly, if the story seems familiar, you might be thinking of the far inferior re-make, City of Angels, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.  If you haven’t seen the re-make, congratulations, if you have, at least it can only go up hill by watching this film after the fact.  The story follows an angel named Damiel who, along with his fellow angel Cassiel, roams the city following humans through all stages of their daily and life-changing experiences.  As the story progresses, Damiel expresses his desire to experience the things that people do everyday (food, love, human contact, tactile sensations, pain, smells, etc…), and his ultimate desire to leave his angelic status behind and become human.

The look of the film mirrors the pacing and the story in-so-much-as it is very lyrical and flowing.  The world of the angels is very stark, and contrasty, filmed entirely in a silky black and white.  Every crag and wrinkle of the people that they follow are visible, just as it would appear to an omnipresent, all-seeing angel.  The human world, however, is filmed in lush, saturated color.  Every joy, and mood, and taste, and experience of the human condition is on display visually, contrasted with the stark black and white world of absolutes.  The passion and experience that these visuals convey, represent the question that Damiel is wrestling with throughout the entire movie.  Is a life of passion, and emotion more satisfying than a life of eternal order, and knowledge, when each is separated from the other.  Is there a halfway point between the two worlds, and if so, do the benefits of one out-weigh the other.

I have to say that I didn’t really notice the music in this film, with the exception of the very obvious concert scene featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and that isn’t necessarily bad, it just is.  Overall the film seemed very quiet and relied heavily on the weight of silence and the power of dialogue.  This means that you don’t get the standard emotional swell of music when you are supposed to feel happy, or sad, or angry.  Since you still feel these emotions, it is clear that despite the absence of these musical cues, the movie is strong enough to get across its points without them.

One other element that may seem familiar is the lead actor, Bruno Ganz.  If he seems familiar, it might be because he is a famous face in modern German cinema, most famously for playing Hitler in the film Downfall.  His power as an actor is obvious when you watch him on-screen.  For a film that is so visually striking as this one, when you find yourself trying to choose whether to look at the beautiful scenery or keeping your eye on the main actor, you know that you’re watching a dynamic performer.  The actor (or actress if you prefer) who plays Marion, Solveig Dommartin, imbues the role with a luminosity that makes you believe an angel might choose a mortal life.  Her wistful carefree nature provides the romance of the story, while ironically it is Ganz who provides the audience with necessary grounding and realism.

Wings of Desire is a slow-paced film, one that relishes the opportunity to show the characters, situations, and the world that it’s about, but it is very worth the time and energy spent watching it.  Wim Wender’s visual poem to the city of Berlin is a definite influence on indie movement in the films of the early nineties, and on into the 2000s and beyond.

Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) (1938)

Olympia Festival of Nations

Olympia Festival of Beauty

Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) – 1938

Director – Leni Riefenstahl

Starring – Adolph Hitler, and Jesse Owens

Notorious darling of the nazi propaganda machine, Leni Riefenstahl, once had a legitimate career as a filmmaker.  Starting off as an actress, she moved her way up the ranks to produce and direct both narrative as well as documentary films on varying subjects.  This film, split into two parts, is a documentary of the 1936 Olympic games which were held in Nazi controlled Berlin (this was, of course, before anyone knew that was a bad thing).  With both parts clocking in at nearly 4 hours together, it is a daunting watch, but is it worth it?

The Festival of Nations is the first part of the duo, and it is introduced by a long montage of shots panning and dollying through the ruins of classical Greek architecture, and featuring dramatic lighting, a fog machine, and classical statuary.  From there we move on to the running of the Olympic torch from the past into the future (1936), into the stadium in Berlin where the legions of people from each nation proudly march in formation and wave their country’s flag, and await the beginning of the games.  Afterwards we are treated to (or subjected to, depending on your view), nearly two solid hours of footage from the numerous contests of the games itself.  The Festival of Beauty is very similar in structure and length but features a different variety of events, and then at the end rounds out the games with a closing ceremony.

The pros and cons of this film are all weighed out fairly evenly, and in some ways cancel each other out when considering the value of this film historically.  Firstly the black and white imagery is very captivating, alternating between slow motion and full speed  footage of the athletes and with grand sweeping shots of the stadium and the crowd.  The images captured here are completely focused on the relationship between form and function of the human body.  The slow motion shots recall the photography of Eadweard Muybridge in the way they dissect and analyze each and every detail.   Riefenstahl’s camera lingers on each athlete, highlighting the raw power that comes from their muscles working together.  Unfortunately this introduces one of the main problems with the film.  There are only so many different ways to show the same action over and over and over and over and over again.  A guy running is a guy running no matter if you have 2 shots of him doing it or 20.  Likewise, since a lot of the different events are visually very similar, it would have been nice to condense them down to about half of what they were (there is only so much you can do to show track events in interesting ways without getting in the runner’s way)

Second, the film presents an interesting view back in time to what it was like before the Nazi party was as vilified as it is (and clearly deserves to be) today.  This olympics, while hosted by the Nazis, was attended by all the major players in WWII (with the notable absence of the Russians), England, France, Poland, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Japan, and of course the US.  There are numerous scenes of large crowds saluting Hitler (who appears numerous times throughout), German athletes saluting, and lingering shots of a proud waving Nazi flag indicating the winner of the event.  It is in this film, that exists the footage of America’s Jesse Owens dominating each event he participated in.  Unfortunately, there were a number of references referring to him as “…the best of America’s negros…” or talking about pitting his prowess against that of the “white race.”  This provides some interesting questions, “Does the history of what happened after the games, deface and ruin what happened at the games?”  “Is the film art, propaganda, or both?”  With the exception to how the African American athletes are referred to, each nation seemed to get equal billing and equal credit for their contributions to their events.  Does this mean that it should be viewed without the stigma of what the Nazi’s did?  Whether or not it should be judged without bias, it never will be.

Finally, the best part of this documentary comes from watching these men and women at the top of their game, doing what it is they are best at.  This is somewhat marred by the fact that there is an announcer giving the play by play.  The film would have worked better with more of the montage elements of the athletes performing, and less minutia on who was winning.  Also, the symbolism and pageantry was a little heavy handed, and could stand to have been edited down quite a bit.  The main focus of the film (and consequently, the most successful part) is the study of movement, and form found in the mechanics of the human body, not in the history of what actually happened.  I suppose I understand why these elements were included, but they are distracting, and slow.