Berlin Stories

By FilmNerd March 20, 2009


Wings of Desire (Wenders, West Germany) is not actually the name of  Wim Wenders’ 1987 film. The title of Wenders acclaimed epic is Der Himmel ueber Berlin, which translates to The Sky Over Berlin. I would usually let such quibbles go—but not in this case. The Sky over Berlin is more apt here because this movie isn’t really about angels, or desire; it is about voids, memories, and the deep beauty of Western Europe’s ugliest capital.

When Wenders set out to make Der Himmel ueber Berlin, he wanted “to make a film really about the city, where the city could really show itself with all its facets.”  Partnering with screenwriter Peter Handke, he developed the story of the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz).  Together with his fellow angel Cassiel, Damiel travels through the city and is privy to the darkest, secret thoughts of Berlin’s inhabitants. He falls in love with an enchanting French trapeze artist, Marion (played by Wenders’ then-girlfriend, Solveig Dommartin, who had never been on a trapeze before she started practicing eight weeks before filming), and wishes to leave his eternal life for the mortal world.

This plot provides enough structure to pull the audience through a series of starkly melancholy encounters—one man dying in a motorcycle crash; another who contemplates jumping off a high roof to his death; a woman playing an extra in a movie, who remembers her half-destroyed house at the end of the second world war. 

Shot five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wenders later said, “none of us at the time thought we would ever see that wall come down,”   In fact, the film was made entirely in West Berlin against Wenders’ wishes, as his application for a permit to film in East Berlin was denied. A sense of resignation runs through this movie, buffered by a recurring infatuation with the beauties and pleasures of life—like the circus, or the eroticism of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

One beautiful thing about Der Himmel ueber Berlin is how it really unfolds, rolling over the screen in a string of associations. Handke’s script, which he only barely agreed to write, arrived in pieces day by day during the shooting. Much of the dialogue is voiced-over, comprised of internal monologues about identity, memory, and the self.  The film’s characters, including Peter Falk as himself, inhabit voids created by the destruction of war, and left by decades of bureaucratic neglect:  the Memorial Church, Anhalter Bahnhof’s crumbling façade, a hollowed out bunker that serves as a movie set for a film-within-a-film. The characters come into and drift out of contact with each other, each focused on him or herself, determined not to become lost in the void. Black and white film enhances the sense of memory, as does the thoughtful use of archival footage.

Perhaps the most compelling location in all of Der Himmel ueber Berlin is Potsdamer Platz. The geographical center of Berlin, it was also once the cultural center, until war and the division of the city left it razed to the ground and, in large part, within the infamous “Death Strip”—the swath of territory between the Wall and the barbed-wire fence that guarded it on much of its eastern side. Curt Bois, a German-Jewish actor who was forced to flee when the Nazis came to power, plays an old man named Homer who wanders through a barren, wasted field searching for Potsdamer Platz. A single building stands in the middle of a grassy field, and the open sky underlines the emptiness in this wasteland. As Homer walks along naming the businesses he once frequented—Café Josti, Kaufhaus Werther, the “renowned tobacco shop” Loehse und Wolff—it becomes clear that Wenders believes Berlin’s story can’t only be told by eavesdropping on people’s memories and thoughts. He had to get into the memory banks of its buildings: Architecture functions as an archive of destruction and loss, and as the tour guide of the movie.

Wings of Desire is playing at 7:30 on Saturday, March 21 as part of SIFF Cinema's  Moisture Festival On Film, which will feature a different film every night of the week.  Others include The Blue Angel and Playtime. Films are chosen for their relation to variété entertainment, and will be paired with live performances.  I hope this means there will be a trapeze show before Der Himmel ueber Berlin.

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