Many films act as messages urging viewers to take action against the atrocities in humanity whereas others communicate that, at their core, humans are basically good. Beginning with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, advancing onto Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy, and ultimately scrutinizing Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away, our class concluded our “Art of Interpretation” with Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Set in Berlin, the film follows two angels as they comfort mortals. Although Damiel and Cassiel offer sympathy to humans, they lack true human emotion. Inspired by trapeze artist Marion and her beauty, Damiel’s desire is to transform into a human being. The initial three movies that depict the harm done by Western Civilization strategically serve as a set-up for this last film that displays the good that can be found in humanity.
Walkabout is a tale of two city-bred siblings who, following their father’s suicide, are forced to trudge along the scorching desert in search of home. Every detail in Roeg’s film is carefully considered and decided upon. More specifically, costume choices are deliberately made, as they tell a story in themselves. The director spends a generous amount of time focusing on those who are clothed versus those who are naked. Despite the soaring temperatures of the Australian Outback, the female protagonist refuses to remove a single article of clothing. She opts to restrict the heat from escaping her body in her classic schoolgirl plaid skirt and crisp white button down. However, once she finds a break in the auburn, ashy desert at a secluded flowing stream, the teenage girl strips off the oppressive clothing to bear only skin. She lets out a sigh of relief as her arms aid her in floating across a pond. Critic Patrick Gibbs recalls this scene as “memorable for its lyrical quality when the girl’s inhibitions seem finally to be dispersed by the force of nature and she swims nude” (par. 2) and alludes to her fear of judgment. Her discomfort with nudity plays to her apprehension of revealing her true self. The only place the girl finds serenity is when she has the freedom to be exposed in the comfort of privacy.
The protagonist’s anxiety reflects society’s own, grander-scale angst. One frequently puts forward a mask to avoid judgment from his peers. Western civilization encourages this behavior by labeling certain identities as superior to others. For instance, one may lie about his or her sexual orientation or personal interests to conceal one’s true qualities and quirky characteristics. In the process, the colorful individuals that comprise our society lose just that: their individuality, their distinctiveness, and their rarity. Through the inclusion of scenes depicting the girl both clothed and nude, Roeg draws on our society’s need to eschew our fear of judgment, let down our façades, and express what makes us unique. Walkabout is suitable for interpreting our first film as it poses the dangers of judgment and the extremes that some must go to in order to feel truly and completely comfortable.
Similar to the close scrutiny of Nicolas Roeg’s work, many of us slid Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy under a microscope. The movie depicts Bushman Xi’s journey to the end of the Earth, clumsy scientist Andrew’s developing crush on Kate, a South African transplant, and belligerent guerillas causing mischief in the jungle. Although at first glance the film appears to be nothing short of a comedy, Uys embeds deeper messages about ownership for his audience to consider. When a Coke bottle is dropped into the Kalahari Desert and found by the Bushman’s hands, the indigenous people question the motives of the “gods” (Uys, 0:06:57). What was originally an object of many usages quickly has become a weapon to their society. Uys alternates scenes of children taking blows to the head, playing rough games of tug-of-war with the glass bottle, and even the adults getting in on some of the action (Uys, 0:10:16). Critic Vincent Canby comments on the situation, “…the bottle also introduces the Bushmen to feelings of envy and ideas of ownership, thus threatening their idyllic society that, until then, has existed without poverty, greed or crime” (par. 6).
The homeostatic upset in the Bushmen’s community speaks to the danger of possession. Although the people had never owned anything before, as soon as the bottle entered the picture, the Bushmen became animal-like and unwilling to share. Similarly, those in Western society are so focused on gaining that lusted-after competitive edge that they often forget to help a neighbor out. They wildly climb the ladder to success at the expense of their equals until they are no longer equal. In reality, the results lack any hint of success, but, rather, the human condition suffers. The Gods Must Be Crazy is fitting for a second film as it introduces the barbarism that results from ownership.
Swept Away acts as an additional interrogation of what it means to be civilized. Wertmüller’s film follows capitalistic yacht-cruiser Rafaella and communistic crewmember Gennarino as they seek to escape their isolation on a stranded island. In the process, these two characters undergo personality changes. The director uses the protagonists’ roles to explore the notion of gender and sexism. Gennarino, normally a passive young man, endures a complete one-eighty as he transforms into a disturbingly dominant version of himself. Rafaella, once a snooty, reliant woman becomes docile and obedient to Gennarino. Blogger Samantha Storms writes, “Wertmüller’s violent scenes of abuse and manipulation serve…as representations of the issues that the female gender must face in daily life…” (par. 6). As soon as the two protagonists undergo these extreme changes in personality, they slip into classic gender roles of dominant male and submissive female. This situation speaks to modern day sexist stereotype of men as physically and mentally superior to women. Ladies are often belittled for trying to independently secure a steady income, choosing to go through life without a husband, and engaging in traditional “male” pastimes, such as sports. Simply put, sexism is yet another symptom of a civilization out of balance. Swept Away powerfully addresses the misogynistic challenges within Western society.
Wenders’ Wings of Desire directly responds to the impact of judgment, ownership, and sexism in our contemporary lives. The film thrives off of uncertainty in order to delve deeper into what it means to be human and to provoke its audience to question its conventions. Wings of Desire assures viewers that the concerns raised by the former three films are minor compared to life’s inherent beauty. For instance, the commuters on the train are too jaded by the anxieties of daily life to see the angels around them paying witness to their woes. In contrast, the children, not yet corrupted by the limits of the rational mind, easily sense the comfort emitted by Damiel and Cassiel. Moreover, trapeze artist Marion, although an adult, is conscious of the angel’s presence because she has maintained passion in her art. The juxtaposition between characters who are aware of Damiel and Cassiel’s angelic presence and those who are not is analogous to the characters who can appreciate life’s beauty and those who cannot.
The all-too-human struggles in Roeg’s Walkabout, Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy, and Wertmüller’s Swept Away are but a prelude to the transformation into mortality celebrated in Wings of Desire. Wenders focuses on Damiel’s yearning to exchange his status as an angel for a chance at experiencing life as a human. He has quieted the violent thoughts of a Holocaust survivor, eavesdropped on the concerns of commuters, and solaced the escort struggling to meet ends. Reviewer Jessica Winter discusses his desire for mortality, “The angel wants to live ‘not forever but now,’ to trade the unbearable lightness of being for the heft and dirt of the mortal coil. He rhapsodizes about being able to feel his own bones, to let the newspaper blacken his fingers, to ‘feed the cat like Philip Marlowe’" (par. 4). Damiel has seen all the tragedies that life can unexpectedly throw at its members, yet still wants to experience what it means to be human. The angel appreciates the little things in life that Walkabout’s female character, the Bushmen, and Rafaella are too consumed by life’s evils to see. Damiel minimizes the concerns, looking beyond them to discover a world swelling with affection, beauty, and gratitude. Blogger Ariel Hannanian puts it best, “…his urge to live among these flawed individuals suggests there is an innate beauty in being human” (par. 1). Wings of Desire is an intriguing film to wrap up our investigations because it resolves any loose or alarming thoughts that the audience may have experienced concerning our lack of humanity to one another. It portrays civilization in an optimistic light and asks us to see that, although society is tainted with tragic moments, it has its good ones, too.
Yes, no doubt our humanity is flawed, but only in so far as we choose to bury the flaw and not address it. Nicolas Roeg, Jamie Uys, and Lina Wertmüller communicate the brutalities of our judgments, the struggles we encounter with ownership, and the nagging stereotype of sexist behaviors. However, I suggest that the sequence of films is methodically ordered to conclude with a film that transcends those atrocities. Through Damiel’s journey into true human feeling, Wings of Desire explores the intrinsic good in our humanity. Wim Wenders calls on viewers to take action, improve humanity, and make Damiel’s perspective of the world a little less difficult to see. After all, it is the little things that make life big.
Canby, Vincent. "Is 'The Gods Must Be Crazy' Only a Comedy?" The New York Times,
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Hannanian, Ariel. "Awakenings into Adulthood via Wim Wenders." Taking Giant
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Storms, Samantha. "Passion’s Dark Side: Roeg’s Walkabout vs Wertmüller’s Swept
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