Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

Shinobi – Heart under Blade: film could have been cut above other live-action films based on manga / anime

Ten Shimoyama, “Shinobi – Heart under Blade” (2005)

Based on a novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” written by Futaro Yamada in the late 1950’s, this movie will appeal mainly to fans of the manga and anime, both called “Basilisk”, that are also based on the novel. Watch the movie closely though and you’ll find themes that will set you thinking: the age-old opposition between free will and predestination; the determinism that states that what you are and what you do are the products of your background and social history and you can never break away or overcome your past; the question of how people bred, born and trained for war can cope with peace; what is the point of war anyway; and how misfits and outsiders can be accepted in normal society.

The film is set in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that brought 260 years of peace to Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa (Kazuo Kitamura) is wary of any threats to the country’s recent unification after 150 years of warfare (a period mined by Akira Kurosawa for insipiration for his films) and in particular is concerned about two clans, the Iga and Koga clans, based in two hidden mountain villages that have waged a vendetta against each other for centuries and are currently co-existing under an enforced 400-year peace. Tokugawa’s advisor cunningly sees a way of obliterating these two clans and wiping out any potential resistance to his master and suggests the clans demonstrate their prowess and powers at a ceremony by sending one representative warrior each. After this demonstration, Tokugawa announces that the enforced peace between the two clans is to be lifted and invites the clans to choose their five best ninja warriors to fight to the death. The one warrior to survive this all-in cat-fight will determine which of Tokugawa’s sons will succeed him as Shogun.

Unbeknownst to all, including their own people, it happens that Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kogas and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Igas fell in love some time ago and married secretly. As a result of Tokugawa’s invitation, both Gennosuke and Oboro find themselves nominated as members of their respective clans’ lists of the five best warriors and moreover, after the aged heads of the two clans foolishly whack each other into oblivion – illustrating that even in those days, when you were supposed to respect aged people for their wisdom, the reality was that being older didn’t necessarily mean being wiser – must lead their teams in this battle to end all battles. Gennosuke determines to find out from a senior noble Hattori Honzo (Yutaka Matsushige) what actual purpose this fight might serve as he suspects there is a hidden motive and he takes his warriors on a long trek on foot to Sumpu to meet this guy. He invites Oboro and her warriors to follow him and his team.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the Koga and Iga warriors taking one another out in ingenious and gruesome ways, their skills and superhuman powers on display though a number of characters don’t live long enough for the audience to fully appreciate the fighters’ abilities, until only Gennosuke and Oboro are left standing. In the meantime, the Shogun sends his armies to destroy the Koga and Iga villages. Realising their families and homes are doomed, Gennosuke and Oboro face a hard decision: one of them must sacrifice himself/herself and “lose” the battle of the clans.

The cinematography is gorgeous, emphasising nature and landscapes and in particular the passing of seasons, and this is the major highlight of the film, more so than the CGI-enhanced fighting scenes, some of which look surprisingly cheap. The overall idea with the emphasis on nature and its cycle is that all characters in this film are locked into an inescapable cosmic game which must be played out to its bitter end; the ninja warrior followers certainly feel this way and are either resigned to their fate or can’t see that they can be more than what they were bred, born and brought up to be.  They believe that without war, without a leader they can serve, their unique skills and abilities are as nothing and will wither and be forgotten. Only Gennosuke sees that there may be a place for the Igas and Kogas in a new world of peace; he questions the idea of being born for war and of wasting lives in violence, particularly in a scene where he defends himself from a horde of black-clad ninjas and slays them all, only to cry out in frustration at a situation where he is forced to kill for no good reason.

The colours of the film are worth mentioning: blue looks bluer, red looks redder and so on with all other colours, giving an intense look that is slightly unreal, even a bit cartoony, and demonstrating that, yes, we are in a world where real-life people like Ieyasu Tokugawa co-existed with people who are both human in their thoughts, feelings and shortcomings, and beyond human in their skills and abilities.

With the film’s emphasis on plot and pleasing the target audience (“Basilisk” manga / anime fans), acting and character development aren’t a great priority which is a pity; the characters of Oboro and Gennosuke at least could be more developed than they are so those viewers who don’t know the manga and anime film could sympathise with the lovers and feel their pain. The romance develops too quickly and next thing you know they’re married in a very brief ceremony (the groom hands his mother’s keepsake to the bride) and that’s it. From then on the action switches to the clans’ feud and how it will play out. The couple’s cardboard cut-out ninja companions are a mix of people who could be remote kin to the superheroes and supervillains of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes: Nenki Iga (Shun Ito) might be cousin to Wolverine of the X-Men team with his retractable iron claws and Kagero Koga (Tomoko Kurotani), the woman with poison for blood, has her analogy in Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy. Pity then that Nenki only has a couple of minutes to showcase his wares before Kagero finishes him off! The only ninja companions who get much to do and say are Koshirou (Mitsuki Koga) and Tenzen (Kippei Shiina): Tenzen especially voices his opinion that they, Kogas and Igas all, exist for war and have no place in a world of peace; significantly he chooses to die by kissing Kagero on the lips rather than rely on his symbiotic relationship with his pet internal tapeworm tenants which oblige him by cleaning and healing his wounds and injuries in super-quick time.

The plot is easy to follow and well-paced, progressing steadily to the surprise climax where the Shogun tells Oboro that her people and the Kogas are not normal people and can never be fully accepted into normal society because of their talents, and Oboro reacts by disabling herself of her unique power. This could be interpreted in different ways, not all of them happy: one interpretation could be that only by suppressing your uniqueness can you be accepted by others; another is that Oboro realises that to end their vendetta, the Igas and Kogas must join the rest of humanity and give up their warring ways by compromising their culture and talents. It’s a sad moment in a sense then when Oboro renounces her old life to spare her clan and Gennosuke’s clan from annihilation. The villagers may be saved and may be allowed to rejoin normal society and be able to resolve their differences with outside help and not have to resort to violence – but at what cost to their unique ways of life, their crafts and their arts?

The Romeo-and-Juliet plot may have been done to death many times already and there’s probably not much here that’s original and fresh but the film is a visually gorgeous and colourful feast for the eyes with lush forests and landscapes (a couple of waterfall scenes do look suspiciously unnatural, as though superimposed on a blank background behind a couple of actors) and the fight scenes and CGI effects are sometimes interesting if not always convincing. If the film had put more emphasis on developing interesting characters and elaborating on its themes, it could have been a cut above other live-action Japanese sword fantasy films based on manga and anime – ah, we’ll never know what could be.

Dororo: a fun escapist samurai-fusion film let down by cheap effects

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

Based on the original manga by Astroboy creator, Osamu Tezuka, “Dororo” is a fun and entertaining escapist fantasy adventure about two wanderers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo, in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Curiously this Japan resembles pre-Tokugawa Japan in its culture and politics: the country has been split up and is ruled by warring clans each eager to wipe out the others and reunite the land by force and tyranny. Leader of one such clan, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kichi Nakai), is so keen to be the first Great Unifier since Ieyasu Tokugawa that he readily enters into a Faustian pact with a group of demons at a temple: the evil ones demand the body of his first-born son as payment. When the child is born, the demons seize and dismember him, leaving behind bare scraps of flesh held together by the baby’s spirit. Daigo Kagemitsu forces his wife to abandon the child and she does so tearfully, sending him off in a basket to drift down a fast-flowing river.

The baby is found by a sorcerer who painstakingly sets about reconstructing the tiny body using the remains of children killed in past wars together with various prostheses that include swords hidden in the boy’s new arms. Scenes of the reconstruction look amusingly (and intentionally) like their equivalents in old Frankenstein movies: the sorcerer distils the life essence of the dead children amid a collection of boiling potions in glass containers all joined together with transparent tubes and he uses magic that resembles electricity to animate the body parts. The boy, wrapped in bandages, floats in a soup of life-sustaining liquid. The process has to take a long time as the boy needs bigger parts and prostheses as he grows up. The sorcerer takes time to educate the boy as well. On reaching the age of 20, the boy (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is as ready as can be to take on the demons which is just as well as the sorcerer conveniently gives up the ghost and commands Hyakkimaru to destroy his life-work so that it should not fall into the wrong hands for evil purposes. Hyakkimaru burns the sorcerer’s house and life-work and begins his odyssey around Japan in search of the 48 demons who took his original body parts.

He acquires a side-kick, Dororo (Ko Shibasaki), who, on seeing him despatch a spider-demon in short and spectacular FX-enhanced order at a tavern, becomes curious about him and learns of his history from the time the sorcerer found him from a mysterious lute-player (Katsuo Nakamura) who happens to be the sorcerer’s friend. Dororo is a teenage thief, orphaned at an early age and commanded by her mother to suppress her gender identity by impersonating a boy; the girl desires revenge upon the Kagemitsus for destroying her family and community. Together Hyakkimaru and Dororo – incidentally, they acquire their names as nicknames, their real names being unknown – cross the length and breadth of a scenic and beautiful wild countryside (the movie having been filmed in New Zealand), killing the various demons who were part of the group that negotiated with Daigo Kagemitsu, in order to recover Hyakkimaru’s physical inheritance piece by piece … until they come to the lands of the Kagemitsus where Daigo Kagemitsu’s son and heir Tahomaru hears of Hyakkimaru’s arrival and seeks him out, inviting him to come and meet his parents …

The screenplay is better plotted than I expected: Hyakkimaru and Dororo could have spent the entire film chasing and killing rubber monsters and CGI ghouls with Dororo falling in love with Hyakkimaru along the way and Hyakkimaru unable to reciprocate until he has regained all his body parts. The showdown with Daigo Kagemitsu could have been shelved for a sequel but “Dororo” chooses to meet this head-on with a revelation that the demons handed Daigo Kagemitsu a dud deal, taking the first-born son’s physical being and going to town on that with some el-cheapo cheesy Godzilla cast-off costumes and computer effects that are irregular in quality, but most of all failing to deliver all of their client’s enemies to him in good time.  Yet Daigo K never appears to want his child back or at least take the contract to the relevant Department of Fair Trade. The movie can appear rather uneven: in its early scenes and the later scenes where Hyakkimaru confronts his father, the movie adopts a serious and drawn-out (maybe too drawn-out for fans of action) tone, and in other scenes where the two young ‘uns confront and kill demons, it’s quite flippant and the demons are more cartoonish than terrifying, but the screenplay holds up in spite of the changes in approach. I guess the emphasis is that the business of killing demons is secondary to Hyakkimaru discovering his true heritage and what it means to be human, and on how Dororo copes with finding out that the man she is following is the son of her family’s killers and whether her thirst for revenge is fulfilled.

Shibasaki and Tsumabuki do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters: Shibasaki’s Dororo comes across as a stock jester or clown character in the vein of similar characters in other Japanese samurai movies though the acting involved is substantial and Shibasaki does a convincing job throwing jokes, tantrums and tomboy bluster; while Tsumabuki’s Hyakkimaru has an uphill battle demonstrating an increasing capacity for feeling, empathy and humour when he has to acquire humanity bit by tiny bit. After all, by the time he’s resolved his issues with Dad, he’s only halfway to full humanity with 24 more jigsaw puzzle pieces to collect. No wonder then that he appears robotic throughout the film and only seems to become a bit human at the end. There are hints in “Dororo” that acquiring humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that becoming human means becoming vulnerable to wounding, both physical, mental and emotional; it would have been good if Shiota had played up that angle more so that the whole business of tracking down the demons and killing them, one by one, just to get your body parts back, one by one, becomes more complicated on an existential level. Particularly also if you decide to bring some futuristic neo-Buddhist beliefs about the relationships between material desires and the nature of suffering into the picture: the more human you become, the more subject to desires you also become, and the more likely you will sin and cause other people to suffer.

Combining manga and various movie references, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, Japanese folk mythology and some old-fashioned story-telling with flashback sequences and a bit of philosophising about family members sticking together, “Dororo” juggles its influences and the genre-mixing fairly well to deliver a fun light-hearted ride at least. The major complaints I have are that the special effects and the CGI work aren’t of consistent quality and often look cheap, especially when the rest of the film looks good and sometimes even majestic, and the various demons Hyakkimaru meets tend to be animal and plant spirits rather than real demons straight out of people’s worst nightmares: we have the spider-demon, the tree-demon, the lizard-demon, the moth-demon, the fox-demons … all not terribly original and restricted in their roles as particular animals and plants. Sure, some can morph into humans but they don’t morph into anything else to make life more fun for themselves and extra difficult for everyone else. The futuristic world created for Hyakkimaru and Dororo should look more of a pastiche of different cultures, past and present, within and outside Japan, than it does. Armchair experts in mediaeval Japanese culture and history would recognise a great deal borrowed from Japan’s Sengoku warlord period (about 1450 – 1600) which preceded the Tokugawa shogunate; the film looks like one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures remade on a budget. The one part of the film that’s truly cosmopolitan and outstanding is the music soundtrack which features considerable bluesy-sounding flamenco-style guitar music.

If a sequel to “Dororo” gets off the ground, I’d expect a bit more character development and maybe some delayed teenage angst on Hyakkimaru’s part as he acquires more human feelings and emotions, and maybe questions whether it’s really worth his while getting all his body parts back. Reading some of the comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) though, I found one which stated an sequel is not likely as the estate of Osamu Tezuka does not like the film and has refused permission for sequels. I have never seen the manga but apparently the film makes drastic changes to the original manga story – to take two examples, the manga Dororo is a young preteen boy, and the tone of the manga itself is more serious than that of the film – and possibly it is changes such as these that the estate objects to. For the time being anyway, manga fans and the general public alike can enjoy the film as a post-modern samurai-fusion flick and if some people are inspired to read the original manga, that will be a bonus.

Pan’s Labyrinth: film of dark fantasy, horror and historical drama that inspires hope and courage

Guillermo del Toro, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
This is an excellent film that successfully combines dark fantasy and horror with historical drama set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944 to inspire people with hope and courage. The Spanish Civil War has ended several years before 1944 with the triumph of General Franco and his forces though rebels still hide in the forests, building up an underground network of resistance. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) brings his heavily pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), to his country homestead. Carmen is severely ill and in no fit state to travel but Vidal insists his son must be born “where his father is”. Where his father is means hunting down, capturing, torturing and/or killing the rebels with as much savagery as dear old Dad relishes. Literally hitting the odd rabbit poacher around the face with a bottle and killing him is par for the course. Reading bed-time stories to Junior must be out of the question, which would kill any attempts on big sister Ofelia’s part to be acquainted with the baby as she fills her life with books of fantasy, in particular one about a princess who left her underground kingdom to live in the world above, got lost, aged and died. The underground realm is still open to the return of the princess’s spirit if she were to undertake three tasks to prove her identity and worth.
Hey, hey, Ofelia discovers she may be that princess as a couple of insect-fairies introduce her to a monstrous faun (Doug Jones) living in a circular labyrinth deep in the garden next to Vidal’s homestead. The faun commands her to perform the three tasks within a certain time period. They turn out to be dangerous and difficult as they mirror her knowledge and experience of the world around her and take on aspects of the brutal and severe society she lives in and of the values and beliefs she has been taught. In one task, she just manages to escape being eaten by another monster (also played by Doug Jones) and the faun, on hearing the details surrounding that escape, tells the girl she is not fit for her tasks and refuses to deal with her any more.
In the meantime her stepfather Vidal lives out his own fantasy about creating a new Spain and bringing up his son to know of his father and grandfather’s deeds, grand to Vidal but horrible and undeserving of celebration to viewers; he fails to see that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Carmen’s doctor (Alex Angulo) are secretly helping the resistance. Eventually the two are caught: Mercedes manages to mutilate Vidal and escape but must leave Ofelia behind; the doctor is executed. Carmen gives birth to a healthy son and dies. Ofelia is left alone with Vidal, the faun comes back to her with the third task, and from this point on, Ofelia and Vidal’s respective fantasy worlds draw closer to the inevitable collision.
The actors play their roles efficiently but they are only playing stock characters as the film’s focus is on celebrating hope and imagination in situations and environments where people, institutions and governments actively or passively repress creativity and intelligence and turn populations into expendable robots. This applies as much to contemporary Western societies where people’s thinking and imagination are shaped and dictated to by distant unseen individuals and corporations with hidden agendas as it does to societies where the brainwashing and repression are more obviously blunt, brutal, clumsy and at times backfiring on the regimes’ objectives. It’s easy to criticise Baquero’s blank and stoic portrayal of Ofelia but viewers must consider such a portrayal as a distancing device among other things (for example, being po-faced would not attract the attention of a hated step-parent); likewise, Lopez’s portrayal of Vidal which can be theatrical and makes him as much a comic and pathetic character as a black-hearted sadistic villain has to be seen in the same light. The scene where Vidal tries DIY surgery is full of black humour: it shows just how insecure about his own masculinity Vidal is, that he refuses to ask for help. Perhaps this says something about the nature of repressive authoritarian regimes: they look secure on the outside but on the inside, who knows how really fragile they are?
The adult female characters Carmen and Mercedes are worth mentioning as complementary opposites. Carmen is a helpless mother, symbolic of the common people whose only function is to do the bidding of the political and social elites, represented by Vidal’s dinner party guests who include the local gentry and padre; her death in childbirth demonstrates her complete exploitation (she’s only useful to Vidal as incubator of his heir) and by implication that of the people she represents. Mercedes is more of a mother to Ofelia, promising to rescue her, but can’t help the girl even when she keeps her promise; I see her as representative of the common people’s resistance to oppression which, however heroic, can be fallible and sometimes wavering.
Ultimately when two fantasy worlds clash, one survives, the other crumbles and apparently disappears. Ofelia is confirmed as the true princess of the underground kingdom in a self-sacrificing act that recalls Christ’s crucifixion. Vidal’s wishes for his son to know his father and grandfather and for the child to continue his ancestors’ deeds come to nothing in a scene where he gives the baby to Mercedes that demonstrates how truly far gone in his fantasy world Vidal is. Yet the reality is that Vidal’s new Spain continues for another 31 years while Ofelia’s world disappears with her with only fragments left behind. After 1975 it seemed that Vidal’s Spain had gone forever but with the country now on the brink of bankruptcy, the Zapatero government preparing to send the army in against striking air traffic controllers at this time of writing (7 December 2010) and various sectors within Spanish society clamouring for a rehabilitation of Franco and asserting that he “saved” the country from its “enemies”, can we really be sure that Vidal’s fantasy world simply isn’t lying underground, waiting to grow again?

Wings of Desire: lovely and gentle meditation on divided Berlin and nature of being

Wim Wenders, “Wings of Desire” (1987)

A romantic fantasy about an angel who yearns to be human becomes a meditation on the nature of physical being and spirituality and how they complement each other under the direction of Wim Wenders in the gentle and melancholy “Wings of Desire”. Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) watch over the city of Berlin, divided into West and East Berlin at the time the film was made, listening to the inner thoughts and feelings of the cities’ inhabitants, and seeking to preserve the history of this troubled and divided metropolis. The angels try to offer comfort to those in distress and experience a kind of delight and joy when children see them and smile. Damiel and Cassiel have lived for hundreds of years in this way, watching Berlin grow and develop, and occasionally reminisce about particular periods in Berlin’s long evolution; they even remember a time when the city did not exist and talk about glaciers having covered the landscape so their age can’t be measured in human-defined terms. No wonder then, while sitting in a convertible in an auto showroom – don’t ask why winged creatures would want to do this but they do – Damiel confesses to Cassiel that though he enjoys his immortal angel existence, he yearns to have a material body, to feel and experience mortal life as humans do, to interact with humans themselves. This desire becomes all the more urgent when one day the angels see a French trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), performing her routines in a small circus that’s losing money and has to close; Damiel later follows Marion to her trailer and discovers she lives a lonely life with the prospect of waitressing in an endless succession of cafes and restaurants and never being able to be a near-angel again. He feels her pain, distress and loneliness but try as he can to comfort her in her loneliness, his spiritual being makes communication between him and Marion impossible.

In their travels across Berlin, the two angels encounter other people, many of them also struggling with issues of being and existence, not just their own but their city’s being and existence: they see an aged man called Homer (Curt Bois) who, unlike his ancient Greek namesake, wants to be a poet recording Berlin as a place of peace, not as a place of war; they offer sympathy and help to a pregnant woman being taken to hospital; Cassiel tries to comfort a potential suicide; and the two angels observe an American actor, Peter Falk (Falk playing himself), come to Berlin to make a film about Berlin’s Nazi history. In one memorable scene, Falk is able to sense Damiel’s closeness while buying coffee at a food bar and addresses the angel directly, wishing that Damiel could be present physically so he can offer him friendship; Damiel is only able to stand and listen to Falk but cannot reply though the audience can see in his face that he too wants to be friends with Falk. Why is it that Falk, alone among adults, can detect Damiel’s presence?

You need to sit through three-quarters of the film to find out why Falk can talk directly to Damiel and whether Damiel’s wish to be human and to connect with Marion (and she with him) succeeds. The symbolism can be puzzling to viewers unfamiliar with Berlin’s history and grappling with the notion that once upon a time it was divided between two opposed ideologies, one of which now seems dead and gone, the other looking more and more like a cartoon parody of itself and, if anything, starting to resemble the one that’s dead and gone. On paper the plot is threadbare and banal but the film is really about the nature of Being (or Sein as Germans would say) rather than doing, and in that respect it’s a very German film with a very German theme. There was an American remake “City of Angels” starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan which, being American of course, turned the film of being into a film of doing. No room for Peter Falk there.

The sketchy plot allows for an exploration of opposites within the film: Damiel and Cassiel’s angelic being opposed to mortal human being of Marion and others; Damiel’s desire to be human and Cassiel’s opposition to that desire; Falk’s improvised and plain way of speaking opposed to the often poetic lines uttered by Damiel and Cassiel, composed by poet Peter Handke; and Berlin’s past culture represented in statues and a library building opposed to its current reality represented by abandoned city lots decorated in graffiti, people in their apartments living with unfulfilled dreams and desires, and music gigs attended by groups of punk rockers. Appropriately one such gig is given by the real-life Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds who perform “From Her to Eternity”, the lyrics of which echo Marion’s loneliness and Damiel’s desire; these days Cave zips between “high” and “low” art with his music and literary output so he was a good choice to perform in the film. The opposites represent the divided nature of the city with the implied hope that one day Berlin will be reunited and its halves reconciled. Even the film’s appearance is divided between the monochrome of the angels’ point of view (representing their inability to experience Sein in full) and the colour of the human point of view. Views of Berlin showing its faded glorious past and its current grungey appearance make quite an impression on this viewer.

Bruno Ganz is perfect as Damiel, at once immortal and ageless yet naive, energetic and bursting with child-like wonder. His face especially is a wonder, all thoughts, feelings and emotions, some being experienced for the first time, all mixed in together. The scene where he and Falk finally meet for real is memorable just to see the different expressions flit across Ganz’s face and imagine the thoughts he must be having. Peter Falk is a great choice to play against the German-speaking actors with his distinctive accent and direct, warm style which would make him the least likely of all people to be a former angel (spoiler alert) – this contrast between what he is in the movie and his surface appearance simply confirms the confounding of notions of “high” and “low” culture.

Parts of the movie can drag and seem overlong, especially the scene where Damiel and Marion meet which comes across as a bit overcooked. Nevertheless it’s a lovely film that captures and muses on a particular period in Berlin’s history and evolution. I understand that to appreciate this film more fully, I need to watch the sequel “Faraway, So Close!” which, like the opposites explored here, is itself opposed to “Wings of Desire” in its being, structure, themes and characters.