09 September 2012

Der Himmel über Berlin

In my student days in Auckland in the early 1990s one weekly highlight was a semi-regular trip to the Sunday night double features at the Capitol Cinema in Balmoral, which enabled me to catch an eclectic range of film treats. I still have fond memories of the scene in the indie Canadian road movie Highway 61 when a house party goes awry and the guests start chasing chickens around the house and blasting away at them rather aimlessly with high-powered handguns, all set to the effervescent 'It's Not Unusual' by Tom Jones. How could I forget the first time I heard the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, which was I think long before the film's New Zealand release - the Capitol crew used it as the soundtrack to an old silent black and white Hollywood cartoon sequence. So now whenever I hear Blue Swede I instantly picture cartoon animals gadding about. And it also introduced me to Troma B-movies, which have recently been put online for free viewing; it's not often you can say you've been to a double feature and the better of the two films was called Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. (Which is not saying it was great - it's more that the other one was really rather bad.  As it happens, Chopper Chicks was one of Billy Bob Thornton's first films).

The Capitol also played conventional art-house fare, and for that I'm very grateful, because it enabled me to see Wim Wenders' superb 1987 film Wings of Desire, or Der Himmel über Berlin (The Heaven Over Berlin). Wenders' moving tale of watchful angels providing solace to the troubled souls of Berlin struck a major chord with arthouse cinemagoers, and won Wenders the Best Director award at Cannes in the year of its release. The angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz, who many years later would famously play Hitler in Downfall) pines for the vibrant world of mere mortals after centuries of insubstantial mentoring of people in spiritual need. As he trawls the souls of the Wall-split Berlin with his angel offsider Cassiel (Otto Sander from The Tin Drum and Das Boot), Damiel encounters a lonely trapeze artist, Marion (the radiant Solveig Dommartin), and is instantly captivated. He resolves to renounce his immortality to enter the mortal realm to be with the woman he loves.    

Until last night I had only seen Wings of Desire once - but that didn't stop me from naming it my favourite film for at least a decade after I saw it at the Capitol. The film's superb imagery has entered the language of cinema, particularly its famous scenes of the angels perching on the shoulder of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) in the Tiergarten, listening out for souls in distress. Seeing the film again courtesy of the Goethe Institut's Wenders retrospective brought back all the other tremendous imagery of the film: the virtuoso first scene in the library, as Damiel paces the aisles and greets all the other angels who are providing a soothing presence for those in need, soundtracked with a superb choral piece that heightens the sense of otherworldliness; Dommartin's seemingly effortless and astonishingly graceful trapeze scenes; the visceral slap of a live club performance by Wenders' doomy favourite, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; a pleasing cameo by Peter Falk (TV's 'Colombo'); and the jarring switch from the angels' sepia monochrome world (filmed through an old silk stocking, apparently) into the blaring colour of the mortal world when Damiel trades eternal life for breathing, smelling, tasting and above all true love. It's also intriguing to see the old sundered Berlin, and the scenes spent wandering in the blighted wasteland of the Potsdammer Platz were of particular interest but no navigational assistance whatsoever when I finally visited Berlin for the first time five years later. By then it was Europe's largest construction site; now it's equally unrecognisable with its ultra-modern mix of gleaming office towers and U-Bahn stations.

Even seeing the film again projected from a DVD with all the inevitable image quality problems, as it was at the Film Archive, couldn't distract from the innate quality of Wenders' filmmaking and the performances he extracted from his actors. Ganz in particular is compelling and watchable as the enthusiastic, optimistic Damiel, while Dommartin (who sadly died of a heart attack in 2007, aged 45), who was Wenders' actor girlfriend at the time, is utterly convincing and learned all the complicated trapeze work from scratch in a mere eight weeks. I had avoided re-watching Wings of Desire for all these years, for fear that on second viewing it might not live up to the powerful sense of magic and beauty that the first viewing imprinted on me. But I'm happy to say that I should never have worried: Wings of Desire is a 20th century masterpiece, and one that all film lovers should see at least once.

See also:
Travel - My top five museums in Berlin
Review - Land of Plenty (dir. W. Wenders, 2004)

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