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Fallen Angels: A Comparison of Wings of Desire and City of Angels
What would it be like if an angel could give up existence as he knows it and become human? What would cause him to want to do this? Would it be worth it if he did? Both Wings of Desire and its American remake City of Angels seek to answer these questions. And although they generally arrive at the same conclusion, they take different paths and worldviews to get there. A note: Both films use the term “fall” to mean an angel giving up angelhood to become human. As a Christian, I believe that fallen angels are not in any way humans, but demons. But, for the sake of ease and clarity, I will use the term “fall” as the films do.
WINGS OF DESIRE
The original German film directed by Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, begins in moody black and white in the city of West Berlin. The first words deal with children--their curiosity, their innocence, their dreams and desires. When the angel becomes human near the end of the film, he will be like a child. As an angel, his mission is to observe and comfort. He has no senses: he cannot feel, smell, taste.
Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, quickly emerge as the main characters. They walk around Berlin, listening to people’s thoughts and studying their way of life. As they do so, it becomes apparent that they, in a certain way, actually wish to be human; to do the things humans do. Damiel becomes infatuated with Marion, a beautiful circus performer. She has just lost her job and feels as though nothing matters. Before very long, Damiel can’t stand it anymore, and tells Cassiel that he’s made the decision to jump. In doing this, he “falls” and becomes human. The first few days are both wonderful and agonizing, as he discovers blood, color, pain, pleasure, warmth, touch, smell, taste, rain and evil. The first thing he does is look for Marion. He finds her, they see each other, and they know immediately they are supposed to be together. At the end of the movie, Damiel is helping Marion with her trapeze, telling us in a voice-over that now that he knows about man and woman, he knows what it is to be human (that is, humanity is at its fullest in the relationship between a man and a woman) and he knows what no angel knows.
Wings of Desire was made in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breaking up of the Berlin Wall. That mentality is very present in the film. Cassiel makes the comment that each German citizen is a private state, enclosing themselves away from each other. This thought is carried on in Wim Wenders’s sequel, Faraway, So Close, made in 1993, after the collapse.
Wenders uses several Biblical allusions that contain angels, basically intimating that all the things that angels did in the Bible--wrestling with Jacob, eating and drinking, etc.--were only pretenses, not the real thing. Wenders’s angels want to actually do the things they see humans do; from trivial things such as coming home from work and feeding the cat to unpleasant things such as having fevers. An interesting point is that Damiel and Cassiel want to lie--though their teeth. God is almost completely non-existent in Wings of Desire. Cassiel and Damiel discuss the creation, but not the Creator. Their account of creation sounds almost evolutionary.
Wenders loves to play with the ideas of childhood, time, and the parallels between Damiel and Marion. Comments on the way children look at things are repeated over and over, most likely indicating Damiel’s childlikeness after he falls. During scenes in which Damiel is watching Marion, she remembers her childhood. Time is also an important theme. Damiel has eternity as an angel. He would give it up, if only to hold one apple in his hand. Marion feels as though she’s waited an eternity for love. Only when Damiel loses his eternity does she find love. There are many parallels between Damiel and Marion. At the beginning of the film, Damiel asks several questions in a voice-over: “Why am I me and not you? Why am I here and not there? When did time begin and where does space end?...How can it be that I didn’t exist before I came to be and that someday, the one who I am will no longer be who I am?” After we meet Marion, she asks these same questions. As she leaves the circus tent after losing her job, one of the stagehands remarks “There goes another fallen angel.” She often mentions colours, which Damiel cannot see until he falls. It seems that although she is a human and he still an angel at this point, they have a lot in common. Perhaps she is becoming more and more angellike as he becomes more and more humanlike, until they meet. This theme is repeated in City of Angels, with a slightly different style.
The majority of Wings of Desire is in black and white, mixed with sepia tones. The viewer sees the images as the angels do (the angels can’t see colour). Whenever there isn’t an angel present, we see colour. It looks like that as Damiel moves toward the decision to fall, he changes from pure black and white to sepia until his fall, when he and everything else are finally in colour. But because this is Berlin in 1988, the colour is pretty dingy. The black and white images are much more beautiful, and make the black and white portions of the film more lyrical.
FARAWAY, SO CLOSE
Faraway, So Close is Wenders’s 1993 sequel to Wings of Desire. It continues the story with the fall of Cassiel. Most of the story has no counterpart in City of Angels, but it is worth mentioning for a few reasons. First, it explains more fully Wenders’s concept of angels. They carry word and light to humans. They are neither word nor light, but merely messengers. They are nothing. To them, we are everything. Cassiel tells us this in almost those exact words at the beginning of the picture. Another angel, a woman, has been added, and she repeats them at the end. Angels are almost innocents, not really knowing right from wrong once they’ve fallen. They cannot do anything. They can carry messages and comfort, but cannot change the course of events. God is still non-existent. The angels make all their decisions by themselves.
Second, Faraway, So Close is important because more is shown of what an angel goes through on earth immediately after he’s fallen. A good bit of this sequence is incorporated into City of Angels. Several of Cassiel’s experiences as a very new human (rain, being mugged and robbed, not having money to get food, etc.) are experienced by Seth in City of Angels.
CITY OF ANGELS
City of Angels tells of Seth, an angel, who travels around Los Angeles taking dead people home. As he’s doing this one night, he notices a young heart surgeon, Maggie Rice, and he wants to see her more and more. He wonders what it would be like to be human, and discusses the possibility (or impossibility) with his friend Cassiel. After watching Maggie for some time, Seth makes a bold move and allows her to see him. She is fascinated, although mystified, by this man without a past who challenges her entire belief system, which is based on her own abilities make things happen and keep people alive in her operating room. Before long, she discovers his true identity and also that he can fall, which he does. They have one ecstatic night together, then she is tragically killed in a highway accident. The movie ends with Seth joyously, though with a bittersweet edge, bodysurfing in the Pacific, a thing he couldn’t do as angel with no sense of touch.
Director Brad Silberling says that his reason for making City of Angels was to celebrate “the miraculous in the everyday.” [City of Angels commentary]. That is, Seth’s inability to feel, touch, or taste helps us to appreciate those things that we, as humans, take for granted. City of Angels is not primarily about angels. It’s about human beings. Angels are used merely as something that is not human to highlight the wondrous things that humans have which are often overlooked. I would have to say that there are probably three reasons to use angels. Wim Wenders used angels; angels are popular in mass culture today; and “angel” is both a recognizable term (a made-up creature would had to have been explained more fully) and a fairly ambiguous term at this time (“alien” conjures up E.T., Independence Day, and The X-Files, none of which would work in this case). Other than that, Silberling probably could have chosen anything that didn’t have senses as humans do.
From Maggie’s point of view, the story is about a woman preparing for her own death. As things move out from under her control, she becomes ready to have absolutely no control as she dies. Perhaps Seth was sent to accomplish this without either him or Maggie realizing it. An inconsistency here is that although it is made very clear in the beginning of the story that angels were never human--therefore when humans die they do not become angels--it seems that Maggie is becoming more and more angellike. She can sense things mentally as well as physically, she is lighted more ethereally, and seems to be taking Seth’s angelic place after he falls.
There are many issues and questions brought up in the first half of the film. Unfortunately, the second half bails out on the answers. But because it is so interesting that a 1998 film would even mention things like these, I’ll list a few. After Maggie loses her patient in the first few scenes, she talks with another doctor (later shown to be her boyfriend):
As she talks over the same incident with a friend: “Now I feel that none of this is in my hands. And if it isn’t, what do I do with that?” Maggie knows rationally that it wasn’t her fault that the man died. She did everything she could, but she couldn’t save him in the end.
Later, when she’s talking with Seth:
When Maggie and Seth are in hospital lab and she’s showing him her bloodcells under a microscope:
In these few exchanges, City of Angels almost gets around to God. But these questions, as provacative as they are, are never answered. Probably they are questions which the screenwriter and director wonder themselves, and for which they have no answer.
I, being the romantic that I am, have two personal favorite scenes which I can’t leave out. First, right after Seth’s fall, he searches for Maggie. He meets one of Maggie’s friends and she doctors his wounds from his fall (which is physical, off of a tall building). She asks what happened to him. “I fell.” “Evidently. Off a train?” “I fell in love.” It’s just such a beautiful and simple statement of the power of Seth’s love for Maggie. And my other favorite is after Maggie’s death, Cassiel comes to comfort Seth. Cassiel asks “If you’d known this was going to happen, would you have [fallen]?” Seth replies, so poignangly, “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, then an eternity without it. One.” The most romantic stories, to my mind, are those in which the lovers are not able to be together at the end.
As far as the production goes, City of Angels is well-thought out, well-directed, and well-produced. There couldn’t have been better casting choices than Meg Ryan as Maggie and Nicolas Cage as Seth. Cage is an exceptionally good actor, portraying the difference between Seth as an angel and Seth as a human with seemingly no change in appearance, and Ryan is long overdue for an Academy Award nomination. The cinematography choices are excellent. The whole thing is in colour, but in the falling sequence, the shots of Seth falling are intercut with black and white images of those things he has seen in his travels as an angel. Before his fall, colours are muted and rather dark. After, there are bright reds and oranges and yellows. Also, before he falls, there is little background noise; generally all that is heard is the dialogue of those in close proximity to the camera. After the fall, all sorts of traffic and airplane and construction sounds are heard. Obviously, although Seth could see and hear as angel, his sight and hearing were selective. Several images stand out, mostly after Seth’s fall: the light on Maggie’s face after she helps save a baby’s life; Seth’s fall itself; Maggie “flying” home on her bicycle before she hits a truck (the highway accident); Seth floating in the waves of the Pacific.
Although the basic premise of both Wings of Desire and City of Angels is the same, that of angels becoming human, the details of execution are quite different in several ways. Probably the most obvious is that in Wings of Desire, the angels either cannot or do not make themselves visible to humans. Marion and Damiel never meet until after he falls. This makes their immediate attraction a little bit suspect. In City of Angels, on the other hand, there are many scenes in which Maggie and Seth converse before he falls. The courtship of the two is believable and touching. All ends happily in Wings of Desire--Damiel and Marion are married and working together at another circus. In City of Angels, however, Maggie dies tragically at the end and Seth must go on living as a human without her.
The German version contains many more scenes of the angels merely observing and listening to people, whereas in City of Angels, this angelic funcion is established in the opening scenes, then hardly referred to again. Damiel is more desirous of all human qualities as opposed to a certain part of humanity, that is, love. Seth wants total humanity too, of course, but he is mostly interested in being able to love Maggie as humans love each other.
There are several instances, including the one above, that I believe illustrate the cultural differences between Germany and America. Although both movies told basically the same story, the entire mood and tone was different in each one. The German film is Post-Modern in its thought: Marion has completely given up on her own abilities to do things and needs Damiel to give her something to live for. The American version is firmly back in a Modernist ideology: Maggie believes that she can do it all herself, and needs Seth to let her know that she can’t. Although the world as a whole has moved even past Post-Modernism in the 1990s, the United States through history has lagged behind Europe in its philosophy. The philosophy of City of Angels is perhaps an illustration of that lagging. The German film doesn’t spend any time at all on the philosophical questions mentioned in City of Angels, and doesn’t mention God in any way, shape or form. City of Angels gets very close to God sometimes, but never quite makes it. It is interesting that, as far from Christianity that America has gotten, the Europeans have gone even farther, at least in their art forms.
Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t a very pleasant place to be; an atmosphere of doom and entrapment pervades the film (much of this is gone in Faraway, So Close, made after the break-up of the Soviet Union). Although some might argue that Los Angeles isn’t a pleasant place either, it’s certainly preferable to the dingy, dirty Berlin shown in Wings of Desire. Wings of Desire is romantic only in its cinematography and in the longing of Damiel to be human. There is no “romance” between Damiel and Marion. They are obviously going to be together for the rest of their lives, but it is not a “romantic” relationship. In the American film, however, the romance is the main idea. It is heart-rending at times, and I’ve cried every time I’ve seen it. Again, there is nothing so romantic as lovers that cannot be together.
I thought that Wings of Desire was probably a better movie, although I concede that I may have been influenced by numerous highbrow critics who like anything foreign, but I loved City of Angels. It may veer toward sentimentality and be a bit maudlin in places, but I’m a sentimental sap, that’s all, and I thought the concept was beautifully realized with a thoughtful screenplay and dynamite acting. In closing, I would like to clarify that I do not believe that the portrayal of angels in either movie is Biblically accurate. We are not told much about angels, and in general I disagree with the “angel cult” that seems to be forming in the United States lately. Hebrews tells us that Christ is “much superior to the angels.” I do not belive that when angels “fall” they become human, or indeed that they can become human at all. But I would also like to restate that I don’t think Brad Silberling (City of Angels), at least, meant to say that this is definately how angels are.
Both Wings of Desire (and its sequel Faraway, So Close) and City of Angels are well-done, well-made movies worth the time it takes to watch them; and they provide an interesting window into the culture of another country and how it compares to our culture.
City of Angels audio commentary by director Brad Silberling, City of Angels DVD, Warner Bros., 1998
Ebert, Roger. Video Companion. Andrews & McMeel, 1995
Kael, Pauline. For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. Dutton, Penguin Group. 1994
The Bible, Hebrews 1:4, New International Version
This paper originated as a paper for General Psychology, Missouri Baptist College, Spring, 2000.
©2000 by Jandy Stone