Wings of Desire, Christian Rogowski, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140370, £12.99, 96pp
I was pleased to receive a review copy of this book, in the German Film Classics series, as I was interested if it could persuade me that a film I’d failed to complete viewing twice was actually the classic critical opinion suggested. It must be 15 years since I’d last failed to get through Wim Wenders’ film but since then I have visited Berlin so I was looking forward to re-viewing the film; but first I read the book.
Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987 and won Wenders the Best Director award. It is a portrayal of life, and Berlin, before reunification when the director was at the top of his arthouse reputation; his previous feature had been the well-regarded Paris, Texas (West Germany-France, 1984) and his role in the New German cinema of the ’70s was feted. Paris, Texas was filmed in America and one of the constant themes in Wenders’ work was the (his) relationship between Germany (Europe) and America in the post-war era. Like Godard, in the ’60s, there was a love-hate tension: the love of American culture and democratic values and the hate of its imperialism. For Godard, there was a linear progression from one half of the dichotomy to the other during the 1960s; Wenders remained conflicted, as the protagonist of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) said, “The Yanks have colonised our unconsciousness.” This film was the third of the road movie trilogy; the others were Alice in the Cities (West Germany, 1974) and Wrong Turn (West Germany, 1975), all starring Rüdiger Vogler as Wenders’ ‘stand in’. Wrong Turn was scripted by Peter Handke, who also contributed to Wings of Desire and, after the revelation of Handke’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, which hit the news again recently after his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, casts something of a shadow over the film.
Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ best fiction film in my view, is set both in America and West Germany but of Wings of Desire, as Rogowski says:
. . . the decision to film in (West) Berlin, in German, to address specifically German issues in a highly poetic, literary, manner and to enlist the help of none other than Peter Handke . . . the film seeks to reclaim something that is authentic, significant, and unique, both to the (divided) nation as a whole and to the individual person. (18)
The ‘poetic’ emphasises the arthouse elements to Wings of Desire, where being obtuse is anything but a problem. So it is helpful that Rogowski diligently unpicks the references and offers enough context, for those who are younger, about Berlin just before the Wall came down. Although he obviously admires the film, that doesn’t prevent him having a critical gaze. The climax of the film, where Bruno Ganz’s (fallen) angel finally meets Marion (Solveig Donmartin) in the flesh, is dissected in some detail showing the problems in Handke’s script (the attempt to recoup Nazi discourse) and the uncritical celebration of heteronormative union. Rogowski is fair to Wenders as he acknowledges the last point is not something that would have been widely understood in 1986.
Donmartin and Wenders were a couple at the time of the film and (from 2020) it does look to me like an indulgent love letter to her, utilising the trope of the ‘mysterious woman’ who will ‘save’ the man (Handke names her Woman in the script but at least Wenders humanises her in the film with a name). Although I did get to the end of the film this time it was only because I forced myself. Much of my irritation was rooted in the constant reverse shot of the angel Damiel watching the world go by; Ganz is an actor I admire but I found his patronising smug smirk insufferable.
The gender politics has (inevitably) dated but that is no reason to condemn any text as all are of their time. However, I didn’t like the film when it came out so my view hasn’t changed.
Monographs on individual films are a popular publishing format; the BFI Classics and Modern Classics have been running since 1992. Their obvious strengths are offering an in-depth consideration of a film; which, of course, are also its weakness for although the monographs usually contextualise the film, the focus has to be on the text. Exactly what breadth of scope is ideal for writing about film I wouldn’t like to say; it depends upon the film, genre, director, producer and so on.
As noted, Rogowski offers an excellent guide to the film and an example of how useful he is can be seen when he points out that there is a key reference to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history that could be “lost on English-speaking viewers, since it is not translated in the subtitles . . . ” (68). This refers to Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ which witnesses (as does Damiel and his companion Cassiel, played by Otto Sander) “history as perpetual catastrophe” (69). Hence the guide does more than contextualise in that it offers clarity for non-German speakers.
Rogowski is also generally sound in his analysis of the specifically filmic elements but betrays his background, as a Professor in Language and Literature, when he questions whether two pairs of men walking in the same frame, one pair in the background, was intentional (72). Film students know that everything is assumed to be of significance.
The quality of the film stills in the book is superb; they are large enough to be seen clearly and printed on high quality paper. However, the book isn’t structured by chapters, so there’s no Contents (or index), which compromises its use as a reference book. Recommended if you (think you’ll) like the film.
New German Cinema director Wim Wenders made his first feature documentary, Lightning Over Water (Sweden-France-Germany, 1980), about American film director Nick Ray. Although he still makes fiction films, documentaries have been increasingly important to Wenders and this one, co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, won ‘Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes. His co-director is the son of the subject of the documentary, the extraordinary photographer Sebastião Salgado.
Although Wenders occasionally speaks on the voiceover, and appears in a few ‘reverse shots’ of him filming Salgado, he lets chronology structure this ‘sort of’ biopic. That works perfectly because it brings us full circle back to Brazil, which Salgado had to leave because of the fascist government in the 1960s, to see the results of the ecological project Salgado had instituted at the suggestion of his wife, Lélia. Throughout we get to see the extraordinary images that constitute the photographer’s career, often from extreme places such as the gold mines of Brazil and the genocide in Rwanda. It is after the latter that Salgado loses his will to document the evils of men and turned toward the environment; he has lived an incredible life.
What’s missing from the documentary is the cost to his family. He’d spend months, maybe years, away from his wife and children; they seemed to have stoically accepted his absence though the cost to them must have been high. I would also be fascinated to hear about Salgado’s technique in creating his incredible shots. All we get is a brief interjection about how it is important to frame shots against the background.
It’s a small quibble as that was clearly not the sort of documentary that Wenders and Salgado (jr.) wanted to make. Similarly the economics of the gold mine are barely explained and so reveals the limitations of photojournalism. If all we get is the image then we will not understand the world better. Particularly when they are as great as Salgado’s as the ‘breathtaking moment’ works against intellectual consideration of the social context. This isn’t to criticise Salgado and, as we see at the end of the film, he is trying and succeeding in ‘doing good’. The fact that his books cost an ‘arm and a leg’ further restrict his impact: a coffee table book for the bourgeoisie to show how much they care is not going to change the world.
Enough grousing, this is a brilliant film.
An earlier post on this film is here.
GFT3 was packed for the second screening of this documentary at 10.45 in the morning. It all bodes well for a new film by Wim Wenders for whom documentary has been the most successful film mode in the UK in the last twenty years (i.e. Buena Vista Social Club, 1999 and Pina, 2011). He co-directs Salt of the Earth with Julian Ribeiro Sagado and it is his co-director’s father, the photographer Sebastião Salgado who is the subject of the film.
Going into the screening, the only thing I knew about Sebastião Salgado was that he was a great photographer as evidenced by an exhibition I had seen at what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford in the 1990s. A single B+W image of the thousands of workers toting loads up and down the steep sides of an open cast gold mine in Brazil has stayed with me ever since. That image (and associated film footage and stills – see the image above) is used early in the film to introduce us to Sebastião before we see him at work more recently and then flashback to his university days and the launching of his career.
Salgado was born in North-East Brazil on a farm/plantation and after degrees in economics he found himself working for agencies like the World Bank and making frequent trips to Africa. He was living in Paris with his wife Lélia when the couple made the brave decision to invest in a new joint career in photography. Sebastião became a social documentary photographer who spent months and then years away from home for long periods on ambitious projects like ‘Workers’ and Lélia worked with the agencies, catalogued the images and organised the project material.
My viewing companion is a photographer and he confirmed the talents and skills that Salgado employs. Working mainly in B+W in the earlier projects, he shows great technical mastery of exposure and light control, most evident in the extraordinary depth of field of massive landscape images. He also has a fabulous eye for composition and, presumably enormous patience and the social skills to persuade his subjects to ‘pose’ informally to make his compositions work.
The key moment in Salgado’s story came when he experienced the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. After coping with other disasters like drought in the Sahel and blazing oilfields in Kuwait, the massacres in Rwanda devastated him and he lost his faith in humanity. In the final stage of his life he has turned to wildlife, the environment and isolated communities who live off the land. We follow him shooting for new projects in Siberia, and the rainforests of South America and Indonesia. He and Lélia have also transformed his family farm, ravaged by deforestation, and replanted 2 million saplings as the basis for a new national park. Salgado’s life has been remarkable – and he is a good storyteller.
The documentary is expertly compiled from archive and new footage. France is the main production partner and Salgado speaks in French most of the time. Wenders provides an excellent introductory commentary in English (the language of international cinema) and there is some Portuguese. I found every moment of the 109 minutes compelling and I think this will be a big hit. Salgado’s images on a big screen are extremely powerful. I should add one note of caution. When I spoke to a friend who also remembered seeing the exhibition in Bradford, he said that he did worry that the images had been presented as primarily art objects and not in their proper political context. I understand this argument and I think that it is something to consider, but in terms of the film’s narrative I think that Wenders and Julian Salgado foreground this issue so that viewers are aware of it. Even so there are a handful of images from Africa in both famine and genocide sequences that are truly horrific and some audiences will find them upsetting.
Curzon have got the rights for the film in the UK but since it doesn’t have a BBFC certificate yet it may be some time before it hits cinemas. Here is the US official trailer. Feast your eyes on these images and I defy you not to plan to see the film if at all possible. You won’t be disappointed.
(These notes were produced for a recent evening class on ‘film adaptations’. I enjoyed working on Wim Wenders’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Ripley’s Game and I thought the film worked well. I’m not sure how many of the class members accepted my arguments, but there was general agreement about the effectiveness of the train sequences.)
If you haven’t seen the film, it deals with the attempt by Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) to persuade a picture framer Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) to carry out a murder. Ripley’s motive is unclear, but he is able to manipulate Jonathan who has a medical condition which he thinks is terminal. The murder victims are mafiosi.
Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany/France 1977) appeared when Wim Wenders was firmly established as one of the leading auteurs of the ‘New German Cinema’. Wenders’ films began to appear in the UK and the US from the mid 1970s and it quickly became apparent that his work was often concerned with American popular culture, particularly Hollywood and popular music. In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, Wenders was able to explore a fascination with American detective fiction of the more ‘literary’ kind and to indulge his own cinephilia in casting two icons of Hollywood filmmaking, Nick Ray and Sam Fuller. Yet, as Timothy Corrigan points out, the kind of love/hate relationship towards American culture expressed by Wenders runs through many of the films of New German Cinema:
For the New German cinéastes, the America of Hollywood became a pivot for this dual movement, the object of both an imaginative hate and an imaginative love – hated for its post-war invasion of German film culture, yet loved and respected for its proficiency. (Corrigan 1994: 4)
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
American novelist Patricia Highsmith is one of the ‘most adapted’ writers of her generation. She wrote short stories that were later used in TV shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents but she is best known for the numerous adaptations of her novels, Strangers on a Train (1951) and three ‘Ripley’ novels, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970) and Ripley’s Game (1974). Her 1962 novel Cry of the Owl was adapted by Claude Chabrol in 1987 and is currently being adapted again for a UK/Germany/French/Canadian production scheduled for release in 2009.
Highsmith was not properly appreciated by the American reading public in her own lifetime. Alcoholic, bisexual and accused of misogyny, Highsmith was seen as a ‘difficult artist’ and her novels, although ostensibly ‘crime fiction’ were treated as ‘too highbrow’ for a mass readership. Possibly more of a problem were her leading characters – often seen as ‘repellent’ and ‘morally ambiguous’. Her biggest readership was in Europe and she moved to live in France and then Switzerland from 1963 until her death.
It isn’t surprising that several of the film adaptations of Highsmith’s work have European origins. Wenders’ Ripley, played by Dennis Hopper, followed the first incarnation by Alain Delon in René Clément’s Plein soleil (France/Italy 1960) (from The Talented Mr Ripley). 1999 saw Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the same title and in 2002, Italian director Liliana Cavani made another version of Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich as Ripley. In 2005 the Canadian Barry Pepper appeared in Ripley Under Ground directed by fellow Canadian Roger Spottiswoode. The three Ripley novels all have European settings (there were also two later Ripley novels, not yet adapted).
Although often classified as ‘crime fiction’, Highsmith’s novels and stories are mostly not ‘whodunnits’ but ‘whydunnits’, focusing on the psychology of the criminals. Ripley is a potentially charming conman with little in the way of moral scruples, preying on other men with weaknesses for his own gain. Readers/audiences have to struggle to identify with an anti-hero and a ‘good man’ who is weak and can be suborned.
Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, involves two men who meet by chance on a train where one manipulates the other into a pact that involves murdering a person they don’t know for the benefit of the other. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the adaptation was partly scripted by Raymond Chandler, another alcoholic writer who ‘enjoyed’ a difficult relationship with Hollywood – hired to write scripts based on other people’s ideas whilst his own acclaimed novels were adapted by others. Although for the current mass audience a relatively obscure Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s most highly regarded works by cinéphiles (no 100 on IMDB’s Top 250). Wenders was very conscious of the Hitchcock film:
“Writing the script . . . for Ripley’s Game, I realised that this kind of story always tends to be done the way Hitchcock did it . . . Of course, I’m trying to avoid creating the same emotions in the audience, but it’s the techniques that keep intruding.” (Wenders quoted in Corrigan 1994: 8)
Wenders and Hollywood
Wenders’ two previous films released in the UK in the 1970s both had American connections. Alice in the Cities (1974) concerns a German photojournalist travelling through America, ostensibly making a documentary report, but in reality lost in reflection until he somehow becomes responsible for a small girl looking for her grandmother back in Germany. Kings of the Road (1976) sees two young men travelling along the border between West and East Germany as one of them mends projectors in local cinemas and discusses the decline of German film culture in the face of Hollywood domination. After he made the Ripley film, Wenders then made a film about Nick Ray before taking a job at Zoetrope for Francis Ford Coppola in 1982 and directing Hammett, a fiction featuring the ‘hardboiled’ detective story writer Dashiel Hammett.
Wenders’ casting of Nick Ray as the painter Durwatt and Sam Fuller as the gangster boss in Der Amerikanische Freund repeats the trick used by Jean-Luc Godard in A bout de souffle (France 1959) when he cast the director, and great fan of American crime cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville in a lead role. Ray was the great American director born into a German family (as Raymond Nicholas Kienzle) in Wisconsin in 1911. His most famous creation was the 1955 film of Rebel Without a Cause – featuring Dennis Hopper in a minor role. Sam Fuller was more of a maverick character whose 1950s/1960s independent films are characterised by energy and bravura camerawork. Fuller, like Ray, became a favourite of the French New Wave directors. French film director Jean Eustache has a minor role in the film and Gérard Blain, although primarily an actor was also a director. Peter Lilienthal and Daniel Schmid were also directors and since Dennis Hopper had directed as well, a total of seven directors featured in the cast.
Adaptation and the crime film
Studying Der Amerikanische Freund gives us the opportunity to explore what Christine Geraghty (2008) has to say about film adaptations. She contends that we need to go beyond a simple test of the ‘fidelity’ of the film to the book and to consider the other influences upon the adapters and the audiences who watch the film. As we noted, Wenders himself was aware of the pressure of comparisons and attempted to steer away from Hitchcock’s ideas about similar stories. This is quite difficult, given the material, as a long train sequence reminds us not only of Strangers on a Train, but also other Hitchcocks such as North by Northwest (1959), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) as well as other writers’ stories about murder on European trains (e.g. Agatha Christie and Graham Greene).
In his Monthly Film Bulletin review (January 1978), Tom Milne suggets that Wenders and his cinematographer Robby Müller are able to create “an irreproachable film noir ambience”. In a Sight & Sound article (Spring 1978), Karen Jaehne comments on the tight shots and family ‘close-ups’ and the use of primary colours to present Jonathan’s wife and family. These visual motifs work differently than the book’s descriptive passages – as does the metaphor of ‘framing’ of and by Jonathan.
Der Amerikanische Freund follows the novel quite closely. The main changes see a greater focus on Ripley’s American identity and a switch between Paris and Hamburg. In the novel, Ripley and Jonathan live near Paris and travel to Germany. This is reversed in the film. Wenders also ‘borrows’ the forged paintings from the second Ripley novel to provide a sub-plot. Highsmith notes that he only paid for the rights to one novel, but seems to have approved of Wenders overall. However, she preferred Delon as Ripley.
Brilliantly faithful to Highsmith so far as it goes, but really an imaginative transposition in which Tom Ripley becomes the quintessential ‘Wenders Hero’ in search of a human landscape for himself. The film becomes a repository for a film buff’s memories, dreams and nightmares. (Sight & Sound capsule review, Summer 1978)
References and further reading
Timothy Corrigan (1983, revised and expanded 1994) New German Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Christine Geraghty (2008) Now A Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield
Roy Stafford, 29/4/08