In a world where helpless civilians are constantly mutilated by poisonous gas, people are bullied to the point of resorting to suicide, and children are being ripped apart by bullets flying through their classrooms, it is easy for faith in humanity to be cloaked in clouds of hopelessness and sorrow. However, even in the darkest of times, light can be found. For instance, after tragedies meant to disband people and destroy hope—like the plane hijackings of September 11th, 2001, the Parkland High School shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombings—people did not give in to fear and let their hope be destroyed. They decided instead to continue living their lives as normal and band together to comfort each other, showing humanity’s natural inclination to aid one another. What about the people who commit these acts of terror? While it may be easy to conclude that they are naturally evil, bad people, this is not the case. These “bad guys” are simply sick, broken people. Broken by what exactly? The answer is simple, yet it is hidden in plain sight: civilization. The minds and souls of people are constantly being contaminated by flawed civilizations which function around unnecessary competition and determine your worth according to how much physical stuff you have. The film Swept Away, directed by Lina Wertmuller, focuses on the ways that civilization can destroy a person and shows what happens when someone’s humanity becomes ill. Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders, focuses on the contrary, however, and shows not how civilization can destroy people but how little efforts to restore humanity to its natural state can make a big difference. Swept Away and Wings of Desire convey that humanity is not broken in nature, but instead is diseased by the unwritten behavioral constraints of society which idolizes a “power to prevent” lifestyle and demands that material wealth and socio-economic competition the supreme aim of life. This illness can be cured.
The idea that humanity is naturally good is proven to us every day in our own lives. For example, as I was sitting in Hofstra University’s Student Center, I was reading an article about a school being shot up during a gun-protest walkout and began to doubt my faith in humanity. How could humanity possibly be naturally good if whenever people try to make a difference it is immediately shot down? After convincing myself there is no hope for a cure, I packed up my things and began to leave. As I was walking away, a random lady stopped me and handed me a meal voucher, saying “Go get yourself a lunch; it’s free.” It was at this moment that I realized I had been wrong for concluding humanity is evil because everywhere there are people who naturally feel inclined to help each other, even if they are strangers. Not only from this did I learn that humanity must be naturally good, and it is just plagued by civilization, but I also discovered that my mind had been transformed by society. My initial reaction to this stranger doing the right thing was that I did not need a voucher because I already had a dining plan of my own. However, before I could decline her offer, I stopped myself, realizing that my mind had been taught to think in a materialistic way; my immediate behavior was to ask myself, “Can this benefit me?” By thinking in a selfish and materialistic way we as people not only prevent ourselves from curing humanity but prohibit others as well by putting them down for trying to help others.
The concept that the flaws of civilization disease humanity is also often featured in today’s music and cinematography. In modern music, such as Jon Bellion’s song New York Soul (Part ii), we are warned not to adhere to civilization’s unfair and destructive “power to prevent” rules. Bellion delivers a message for all of the kids who are being raised in psychologically and spiritually damaging societies: “Let me give the kids just a little help/tell 'em money is not the key to wealth/cause if it can stop the pain how the fuck did you explain the bunch of millionaires that killed themselves” (Bellion). The flaws of civilization being expressed through modern music culture is not a new thing and can even be traced as far back as the band Pink Floyd, an English rock group which became active in 1965. Throughout their album, The Wall, a discussion of civilization’s brainwashing and ruining the minds and souls of people can be found in many of their songs, including “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” and “Comfortably Numb.” “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” is the story of how civilization infects their pure and innocent minds; it even features a chorus of schoolchildren shouting the lyrics: “We don’t need no education/we don’t need no thought control/no dark sarcasm in the classroom/teacher leave those kids alone” (Pink Floyd). “Comfortably Numb” has a similar message; it is the story of a man who has already been destroyed by the behavioral constraints of his society and explains that in his world “there is no pain,” stating how he has become “comfortably numb” (Pink Floyd). This resonates with the modern world because we have become desensitized. When Columbine High School fell victim to a shooting, people felt tremendous pain whether they were involved or not; however, with schools being shot up so often now, the victims are viewed as “statistics” instead of living, breathing souls. With terrorist attacks becoming a more prevalent reality, it is not uncommon for a person to respond to the statement, “There was a shooting today,” with shallow questions like: “Where?” or “How many people died?” Society itself has become comfortably numb.
Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away focuses on a communist, working-class man, Gennarino, who is constantly belittled by a bourgeoise woman named Raffaella. Swept Away was pretty comical in the beginning, but it quickly transformed into a film so disturbing that it was nearly impossible to watch, and yet I could not peel my eyes away from the screen for even a minute. When the two opposing characters shipwreck on a deserted island, we are shown how sick and twisted Gennarino has become due to his oppression in a “power to prevent” civilization. A “power to prevent” society is the more traditionally taught idea in which competition between individuals must be present, and individuals must repress themselves and others in exchange for a healthy society; however, it has quite the opposite effect. Typically, for a “power to prevent” civilization to function, both the oppressed and the oppressors must be present. A “power to prevent” lifestyle is based on the thesis that in order to succeed in society, one must “step on the backs of others” to “climb the socio-economic ladder” and rise in status. The theory embeds into the minds of the people a proposition that, in order for one party to gain, another party must suffer. For instance, throughout most of American history, America has based its civilization on an oppressive “power to prevent” system of capitalism; specifically, in relation to African Americans. Throughout all of American history, African Americans have been systematically oppressed and “put down” by the white upper and middle classes; slavery, sharecropping, poll taxes, literacy tests, black codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and more have all been in effect with the sole intention of keeping one class of people down in order for another to prevail. The conservative “power to prevent” capitalism which America has run on for much of its history would eventually lead to the Great Depression due to the formation of monopolies and an insufficient flow of currency as a result of an oppressor-oppressed based society.
In the context of the film, most people would be distressed on an uninhabited island; however, Gennarino sees the shipwreck as a blessing and uses it as an opportunity to “get ahead” because in his new habitat the normal unwritten constraints of society are turned upside-down. For once, Gennarino is at the top of the social ladder. While from an outside perspective it is clear that Gennarino and Raffaella’s chances of survival would increase greatly if they joined together as equals, Gennarino has been worn down by civilization so much that he is unable to rid his mind of the damaging oppression which he has dealt with his entire life; instead of joining together, Gennarino would rather inflict oppression on another person even after knowing how damaging it is. The effects of civilization on Gennarino are first shown in the scene when Raffaella says there must be some law against letting others go hungry and Gennarino responds: “If there was such a law they could put all of the wealthy people in the world in jail, but, since there isn’t, all you see in jail is the poor” (Wertmuller 49:20). While less evident, Raffaella’s mind has also been contaminated by the effects of societal competition. Rather than treating Gennarino like her equal when they shipwreck, Raffaella still ignorantly hangs on to her “power to prevent” ideology and treats him as a servant where the unwritten rules of society do not pertain.
Not long after showing how corrupted the two characters’ minds have become as a result of their flawed civilization, Swept Away features a sickening rape scene in which Gennarino first violently abuses her and then makes Raffaella beg for him to have sex with her. When viewing this scene for the first time, it was unbelievable. I even thought to myself, “This is ridiculously unrealistic. No one would ever act this way to another human being over as a result of their social status,” but if that were true, then school shootings and rape would not be a real worldly issue. Lina Wertmuller, a progressive feminist, was attacked for including these types of scenes and titled a traitor to the cause; however, she was simply misunderstood. These scenes were not included to belittle the value of women, but to show how deeply our humanity can be deranged from living in these “power to prevent” civilizations which do not only demand us to “act in a savage way to another version of ourselves,” but require us to create status (Gordon). In the rape scene, we are truly shown how deeply scarred Gennarino’s mind and soul are. After every punch, he exclaims: “That’s for causing inflation and raising taxes and hoarding your money in Swiss banks instead… and this is for the hospitals where the poor people can’t get in… and that’s for raising the price of milk and cheese” (Wertmuller 1:08:30). No human being would ever naturally beat and rape another person, but after being constantly belittled and dehumanized in a “power to prevent” civilization, Gennarino does so to establish dominance and put his own ill mind at ease.
Whereas Swept Away focuses on the many ways that civilization causes humanity to fall ill, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire focuses on how humanity can be cured. Wings of Desire is the story of two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, who watch over civilization and eternally attempt to ease a diseased humanity. The film spends a considerable amount of time presenting scenes in which the two angels aid distraught people laced in the pain of enduring their broken souls. For instance, in the very beginning of the film, there is a scene which takes place on a train full of working-class people who struggle to earn enough money to survive. Wim Wenders allows the audience to hear what is going through the minds of the train’s passengers who are overcome by the problems created from their own artificial habitats. The scene highlights this by showing one woman worrying: “How will I pay? With my small pension?” (Wenders, 23: 30). Damiel finally settles on trying to console a man who has lost everything in his life including his family, friends, and his faith. The man thinks to himself: “You’re lost. It can go on for a long time. Abandoned by parents. Betrayed by wife. Friend in another town. Your children only recall your stutter. You could hit yourself as you look in the mirror” (Wenders, 23:35). This man has become so hopeless that he is willing to inflict physical pain on himself, a common action in modern civilization. When Damiel sits next to the man and puts his arm around him, the man feels the hope he had lost and thinks: “I’m still there. If I want it. If I only want it. I can drag myself out again” (Wenders, 23:40). This scene symbolizes how everyone in society goes through the same type of pain, and if people would just care for one another, then suffering could be relieved, or at the very least be greatly minimized. It does not take an angel to treat another with kindness. In “power to prevent” civilizations people are told to mind their own business and care for no one but themselves, and if someone does try and reach out to another person, they are shamed. If this idea does not seem realistic enough, try giving a smile to a stranger passing by in your own life; many will look at you like you are insane.
Wim Wenders makes sure to exaggerate how much “power to prevent” societies have desensitized people in the scene where a man has been in a motorcycle accident and is dying on the street. Even though a crowd of people is surrounding him, no one even tries to help him. Although it is likely that none of the bystanders could actually save the man, they could have at least tried to comfort him so he did not die alone. Instead, they simply stared at the man like he was a freak and watched the life fade from his eyes. It is only until an angel comforts the man in his time of dying that someone else steps in to help. Wenders makes a point to show that this is how sick humanity has become. Even nowadays, while it is a much less intense scenario, if someone at a grocery store very obviously could not reach something from the top shelf, almost everyone would feel inclined to help them, but very few people would actually do something. Meanwhile, most people would just brush it off with a quick “not my problem.”
Perhaps the most important scene in the film is when a man so broken by society decides to commit suicide. This scene is absolutely pivotal because for the first time even an angel cannot save an already-broken man. Every person in the film up to this point could feel the divine presence of Damiel and Cassiel; however, this man’s mind and soul were so deeply ruined that he could not even feel “hope’s” head resting on his shoulder. When it is shown what the man is thinking before he takes his own life, the audience can see how ill his mind is because he is only able to ramble about nonsense: “It’s cold. My hands were always warm. A good sign. It crackles underfoot. What time is it? The sun’s setting. Logical. The west. Now I know where the west is” (Wenders 1:08:17). Wenders purposely waited a full hour to put this scene in the film to show a reality of civilized existence. Although the audience would think that the man would be saved because of one angel, they are proven wrong. This is to show how often times people will see someone in distress, whether it be in their own lives or on the internet and wait for some other “angel” to come along and help solve the problem, rather than just stepping up and doing it themselves. Perhaps if this man was cared about by others or simply asked how he was doing prior to this event he could have been saved. It is from this scene that the message of the entire film is clear, and more importantly, Wim Wenders gives humanity the key to cure itself.
To cure humanity, it will take more than two angels. Every single person must make an effort to be an “angel,” which does not mean that people must sprout wings and be touched by the hand of God, but instead they must simply give little efforts to make life better for one another. To save a broken humanity, civilization must abandon its “power to prevent” lifestyle in exchange for a “power to join” lifestyle based on love and feeling: for one another, life, and for humanity in its entirety. An example of a “power to join” lifestyle is exhibited through the first time Damiel and Marion meet as human beings. Not once does either of them mention the fact that Damiel is an angel and Marion is a mere human being. Instead, they accept each for who they are and are able to look past their major differences through the power of love. The first step to curing an ill humanity is to recognize that it is not okay to ignore the fact that our current “power to prevent” lifestyle is destroying the minds and souls of human beings, and change will not happen by itself. It is up to everybody to give a little bit of effort in their everyday lives to make a big change.
Jon Bellion. “New York Soul (Part ii).” The Human Condition, 2014.
Pink Floyd. “Comfortably Numb.” The Wall, Apr. 1979.
Pink Floyd. “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.” The Wall, Apr. 1979.
Wenders, Wim, director. Wings of Desire. 1987.
Wertmuller, Lena, director. Swept Away (1974). English Dubbed. YouTube, YouTube, 19 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzAEF5g35uw.