I am going to place this review on both Wings of Desire and City of Angels. There are references in each movie’s reviews to the other, so I’d prefer to share that there is no need for comparison. They each share a theme, but little more. They are each amazing movies and watching both is best as they are wonderful movies by any standard. To compare them is to say one is better than the other, and that is unfair.
Both movies tell the story of Angels. They can’t be seen, and have no direct ability to interact with the humans being watched. Observers, they are eternal and watch us. There is an occasional sign from them if they are moved in some way to get a human out of the way of a bus headed at them, but such is not why they are here. In both movies, we meet an Angel who decided to fall to Earth, give up eternity and become a human to feel, taste, hurt and did so to love someone. The fallen one is a glutton for human experiences and living life to its fullest. One of the observer Angels finds him and learns that he too can fall. Having a desire for a human woman, he falls to be with her. He has a companion Angel who is supportive and through their conversations we learn all the mechanics of being an Angel.
The premise is intriguing and allows insight, through their observations, of what it means to be human. It explores the human condition — no small task.
Wings of Desire was the original movie, and it is very much about the human condition. The Angels are the device to explore it. The Criterion Disc is excellent as all their collection discs have features to help understand the movie. This contains a solid interview with the director where he is very candid that the idea started as a notion, and evolved in production with the actors adding much to the story. There are four main characters: The Angel who falls in love with a stunning trapeze artist in a traveling circus. Next, his companion Angel who worries about his friend. Third, the fallen Angel, now human. Finally, the very important woman, the trapeze performer.
The movie is very much a classic art house foreign film, a German and French production set in Berlin with The Wall still standing. It is sparse, overt, character-driven and often abstract. The director lets the story emerge while filming, and the subject matter matches the almost serendipitous filming and storyline. The beautiful trapeze artist was the director’s then girlfriend, the main actors ones he had worked with prior, and the interesting addition of Peter Falk as, well, Peter Falk in full bloom while playing Columbo and he is known for Colombo fame by characters in the film. In an interview with Peter Falk, he found the premise interesting and decided to join the cast. The trust and comfort of the cast in the director is reflected in the film. The director lets the camera sit on faces. Eyes are intense and shown as key scenes. Just tight shots of the faces or eyes without words. The film is very real looking. Real locations, real people being observed — and that is the important element. He filmed real people doing everyday things. As the two Angels observe them, we can hear what they do, which are the inner dialogues of the people they observe. That is key to the understanding of the human condition. In attempting that, the use of the Angels, who can hear the thoughts, is not possible any other way. That makes the premise powerful to tell the story of the main character falling to Earth work, and to give insight to what it means to be human. If there is a punchline, I would guess the decision to be human says it best. Better to have lived than never lived at all. Love rather than never loved at all.
Wings of Desire is engaging, and the story unfolds nicely. It has been an inspiration to those viewing it and was a critical success and continues to gain praise. It’s simple and complex at one time. It makes you think. It is a pure movie that allows us to join the journey of discovery along with the cast, crew and director. It’s in the masterpiece category by most all critics and essential viewing for good reasons.
City of Angels should not be compared to Wings of Desire, although comparison is inevitable as it certainly follows the premise and is a US/Hollywood version of Wings of Desire. The problem in doing a remake is that will always be compared to the original. In that sense, remakes rarely are viewed as equal or better. I personally don’t think that is needed. Let the new version stand on its own as if the original was never made. That is the only way to approach City of Angels. If you do, you will appreciate the film for what it is: A beautiful, mystical film that goes far beyond what most Hollywood movies ever obtain, which is beauty. It is art.
Visually, City of Angels is stunning. As the title implies, it is set in Los Angeles. There are two worlds seen. The city, and the lofty heights Angels inhabit. They are everywhere. They are observing from the tops of skyscrapers, signs over freeways, and view things from a distance humans can’t. They have rituals of gathering at the ocean and the library. They all wear simple black trench coats and when in group, do not speak. They are shown as mythical, but have a purpose though none is defined. The treatment gives the Angels beauty and it is well done. We learn that they study humans up-close as well. In that, we meet one Angel, Seth, who is in a hospital operating room watching a human die, and essentially there to escort the soul to life beyond. In this film, humans go on. He observes a female surgeon, and “falls” for her. He follows her and hearing her thoughts, develops an attraction to her not typical of the Angels. He meets a glutton played by Dennis Franz who is an Angel who fell to Earth to be a human, and loves it. They are aware of each other and in that process Seth decides to fall, give up being an Angel, and feel the pain and joy humans experience. It’s a love story, pure and simple. The movie examines that love is the key to being a human.
More happens to support the pain of love and the nature of mortality here. The film does a great job of showing the difference of watching life from a distance, vs. living it. It speaks to jumping into real life, which is to love someone and put them ahead of yourself. That is a strong message and a beautiful love story. The premise shows the power of love and how we are not “above” hurt and heartbreak like the Angels.
The film works visually, and it features the true talent of Nicholas Cage. He is an elusive talent. He appears in so many film that don’t use him well you sometimes can forget how magic he can be in good film. His expressions, and above all his beautiful eyes, are key to this film. His haunting presence, eyes that touch you, and his look of awe make this a great performance and gives the character both an angelic and then very human quality that are the heart of the film. This is about his performance, and it is through that we learn the reason why we live to love, and to be loved.
Two wonderful movies. Two very different takes on an eternal question. Each has great performances and direction, and a premise that challenges us to think about who and what we are. This is not about one being better than the other. They are both touching, moving, enlightening experiences. City of Angels would be considered a masterpiece if Wings of Desire had never been made. But, it would not be made without Wings of Desire. So, I’ll leave it as maybe it was meant to be. Divine inspiration for all audiences telling us what matters, made in times when the value of the soul was being discarded for the loveless world we now all share. Let’s share it with the Angels from both these beautiful films.