Christmas comes early for Portland film fans this year. No, not yet another completely unnecessary Grinch movie – save that thing for those on the naughty list. Instead, PMA Films (at the Portland Museum of Art) is screening Wim Wenders’ 1987 classic “Wings of Desire” from Friday through Sunday. It’s the sort of big screen revival that proves there is, indeed, a guardian angel looking out for all of us. (Or at least PMA screenings coordinator, Jon Courtney is.)
Made in a still-divided Berlin soon before the Berlin Wall came down, “Wings of Desire” is a story of angels. Actual angels, with actual wings (when they choose to use them), who, in director Wenders’ conception, act less like the guardian angels of lore, and more like observers of the millions of people who walk the streets of Berlin. Angels can hear our thoughts and listen in on the often-poetic daily inner monologues of their charges. The angels congregate in libraries, where the swirl of history, knowledge, learning and the individual reveries of the people reading there provide the film a continuous soundtrack of snatched thoughts to go along with its swooningly discordant score.
The angels all wear beatific expressions, with yearning eyes – they clearly love us, but their mission and their agency is tentative and vague. One, Cassiel (Otto Sander) describes their role as that of archivists of reality, explaining to his friend, the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz), that they are there to “assemble, testify and preserve” reality and history. That in a city where most current inhabitants have lived through the unthinkable. We see the angels reach out as if to encourage those in pain, but they can’t touch us. Then Damiel falls in love. Solveig Dommartin plays Marion, the lonely aerialist in a dying circus and, entranced by her and frustrated by his inability to experience the life he sees around him every day, he chooses to renounce his immortality to live, like her, as a human being. The film, which, in the angels’ perception, has depicted the world in crisply beautiful black-and-white, turns to color. It’s beautiful (the film is shot by the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot Jean Cocteau’s 1946 “Beauty and the Beast”), but the film’s shift in tone indicates how Damiel’s choice comes with unimagined challenges.
If the plot of “Wings of Desire” sounds familiar, maybe you saw the soppy and forgettable American remake, “City of Angels.” Or, perhaps, the narrative of the “un-human” outsider discovering the simple pleasures of human existence has been done, in myriad forms, over the years since the film came out. (Alien beings really dig ice cream, as we’re shown, invariably.) But “Wings of Desire” (while admittedly cribbing some elements from the 1946 British angelic fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death”) did it first, and best. The film was an international smash and elevated Wenders to the first rank of foreign “art film” directors. (He sunk back down, but that’s not the point.) And the film remains a singular achievement, a breathtakingly meditative (if that’s a thing), philosophical, visually stunning romantic fantasy whose immersive charms are best seen on the big screen, among the silent thoughts of other moviegoers.
Watch the trailer:
“Wings of Desire” is also very much a movie about loving movies, as exemplified by the film’s unlikeliest co-star, American actor and universally beloved TV’s “Columbo,” Peter Falk. Playing himself, in Berlin to film a movie about the Holocaust, Falk is the canniest choice Wenders could have made, the actor’s inimitable, avuncular inner musings eavesdropped on in delight by both Cassiel and Damiel – and us. (There’s a scene where Falk improvises over a selection of his movie character’s hats that I could watch forever.) Falk’s story weaves throughout the film in seeming isolation from Damiel’s, at least until it doesn’t. To say more would be to spoil one of cinema’s loveliest surprises, but Falk’s presence in the film expands upon the angels’ mission – movies, like the books in the libraries and the lyrical thoughts of the people who enjoy them, are, in Wenders’ cosmology, truly the place for angels.
“Wings of Desire” is playing at PMA Films from Friday to Sunday. Tickets are $8/$6 for PMA members and students with ID.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Thursday: “The Task.” This provocative documentary/art piece by Leigh Ledare locks 28 people of various ages and walks of life in a room and watches what happens when every single choice, movement and word is analyzed. With a live video chat with the director, who promises you can leave if you want.
RAILROAD SQUARE CINEMA
Starts Friday: “At Eternity’s Gate.” Painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel has made some extraordinary films about fellow artists. (“Basquiat,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Before Night Falls.”) Here, he enlists Willem Dafoe to play Vincent van Gogh in this appropriately impressionistic screen depiction of the life and art of one of the most acclaimed painters in history.