Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Why Not Suicide? Reflections on Wenders’ Wings of Desire by Roger Orellana

Is humankind inherently bad? Even the most optimistic person cannot help but to build a melancholic attitude towards humankind, an almost tangible disappointment. Artists are exceptionally talented at evoking that question through art. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout conveys the idea that some people are forever doomed to miscommunicate, consequently devastating any parties involved. Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away presents the tragedies that occur out of man’s incapability to love. What a shame, one must think, that this entire group which I belong to must be so destructive to itself. Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy, although it is executed as a light-hearted comedy, nevertheless conveys the sad truth of the monster that capitalist man becomes because of his implacable sense of ownership. No, no one must be blamed for being ashamed and severely disillusioned by what has become (and truly, what always has been) of humanity. After viewing humanity tearing itself apart in such monstrous ways, one is placed in the tricky position of hopelessness. Indeed, one may conclude, humanity is a base and filthy thing. But even such claims can be welcomed with cold skepticism. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is the antithesis to this general disillusionment of humanity evoked by the previous films. Wings of Desire is a celebration of the condition of being alive anytime and anywhere.

Once the film is over, the credits commemorate the dead. Wenders dedicated Wings of Desire to three monumental film directors: Yasujiro Ozu, Francois Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky (Wenders 2:04:44). Ozu is one of those directors who teaches how to grow past imperfections and whose excellence is seen through making the simplest of stories into incredible cinematic masterpieces that celebrate life. Roger Ebert, in his film review of Tokyo Story, accurately describes the director: “Ozu is not only a great director but a great teacher, and after you know his films, a friend,” (Ebert, par. 4). Among the aforementioned directors is the great Truffaut, one of the titans of the French New Wave. He went from being a juvenile delinquent to one of the greatest directors in film history. His The Four-Hundred Blows (1959) rescued me from a time of tormenting pessimism by showing me that, although life can be especially hard even for a child, there is always hope for the future. Tarkovsky is a director who influenced so many and yet he refused to be influenced by previous filmmakers. Despite that, his films offer an incredible layer of complexity to life. Tarkovsky’s filmography is not the most cheerful, but it is undeniably beautiful and the images he creates are unforgettable. Andrei Rublev (1966) is an incredible example of Tarkovsky’s views, celebrating art in times of darkness and death. Wenders’ direct influence by those directors indicates a great deal about where his philosophies are oriented. There is a specific pattern in the conclusions of the films of Ozu, Truffaut, and Tarkovsky: they are generally optimistic and demonstrate hope for the future, despite also providing images tough to swallow. Wings of Desire follows that pattern. Wenders demonstrates the darkness that lurks in man’s life but concludes by choosing life over anything. Wenders’ dedication of Wings of Desire to the aforementioned directors indicates that he wishes to continue their legacy of celebrating life through motion pictures.

Wenders also celebrates life through the character of Damiel, the protagonist of Wings of Desire, who is an immortal angel who spends his time on tall skyscrapers observing the unfortunate heirs of the desolation of WWII, the poor Berliners. Damiel has the great luxury of living out of time, out of pain and consequently, out of suffering. Many men would give anything to possess such extraordinary privileges. Moreover, it is also evident that man is bound to the pattern of avoiding suffering and increasing his own happiness. What could be better than not having to worry about suffering? Damiel, the angel, the elevated creature that lives out of time, decides to shed his unique gifts to transform into a human. This would seem like a reversed metamorphosis, the superior creature becoming a lower version of itself, mortal and vulnerable. But Wenders states the opposite by demonstrating that life is worth living, and that it is not irrevocably lost to suffering. After Damiel falls in love, he is filled with an enormous longing for the small things in life. He longs to live as a mortal creature despite witnessing all the chaos and pain of life, because love is such a fulfilling and beautiful feeling, and man can love but an angel cannot. The ability to love, then, becomes man’s greatest gift and most extraordinary faculty, inciting the envy of creatures that are surcease of emotion. Thus, Damiel sheds his immortality to become mortal, feeble, but loving. Wenders concludes Wings of Desire by stating that the ability to love is the greatest gift of mankind, and that as long as there is love, there is nothing better than being alive.

Wenders celebrates life by telling the audience to become proactive and live. Cassiel and Damiel preserve and maintain reality by watching over Berlin before it was even Berlin. They are spectators, voyeurs that observe humans and their struggles. Cassiel and Damiel mimic the viewer of the film. Leigh Singer of the British Film Institute notes that “Ultimately, Wings of Desire is a visionary film about vision: the act of watching, with all its fascinations and limitations,” (Singer, par. 4). The angels, just as the movie-goer, are fascinated in many ways by human conflict, but at the same time are unable to intervene or do anything about the people they come to care about. This is why Cassiel is forever tormented by the man whose suicide he could not prevent. Damiel, however, breaks out of his state of spectatorship to have a place on earth and becomes a human. Damiel becomes proactive and as a consequence he learns to be amazed by the small yet incredible pleasures of everyday life. This transformation into proactiveness is Wenders’ way of calling the audience to action. Essentially, no matter how good cinema and books and our cellphones are, there is a world of life out there, and all the small things are worth experiencing. In this way, Wings of Desire becomes a celebration of life and all the joy that the small things can bring.

It is not uncommon to be severely disillusioned by life. But one can find solace in the fact that people like Wenders can celebrate the good side of life through art, thus persuading us that life is indeed worth living. After being spiritually broken by Walkabout, Swept Away, and The Gods Must Be Crazy, Wings of Desire is like molten gold that joins all the pieces together. Indeed, there are many films that end in an optimistic note, but it is an empty optimism. Wings of Desire ends beautifully by demonstrating that it is man’s capacity to love that make life worth living. I can think of only a handful of films that depict ideas as honest and beautiful as that. Much more can be said in praise of the film that would only repeat what other critics have already said. But this film is undeniably a gift.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. “Tokyo Story Movie Review & Film Summary (1953) | Roger Ebert.”, 9 Nov. 2003,             1953.

Singer, Leigh. “Five Visual Themes in Wings of Desire – Wim Wenders' Immortal Film about             Watching.” British Film Institute,    visual-themes-wings-desire-immortal-film-about-watching.

Wings of Desire. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander. MGM, 1987. Film.

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