The Humanism of Wim Wenders - 4/11/06

When looking at the films of Wim Wenders, a viewer might take note of a few things. It will probably be obvious after a few screenings that Wenders transcends the boundaries of nations, using actors of all different origins and languages and filming wherever necessary and fitting, whether in Europe or North America. The viewer will probably also become aware of his use of a strong visual emphasis, hinting that the most necessary component of cinema can take a movie places that some dialogue and plots simply cannot. And finally, anyone who watches a Wenders film will have to notice that time and the role it plays on the relationships between humans is perhaps his first and foremost interest, and ways to explore it being his realization as a director. Three of his films - Wings of Desire, Faraway, So Close!, and Paris, Texas, are, at their respective cores, chiefly humanistic works which provide a backdrop that allows viewers to fill in the blanks with their own feelings and thoughts.

Wings of Desire is a perfect example of a film in which the viewer is able to gain an uncommon connection with the characters because we are able to hear their thoughts. The film hinges between two perspectives: the world as perceived by angels, and the actual world of humans. The angels see in black and white, and can read the thoughts of everyone. The first part of the film concentrates mainly on their observations as they travel around Berlin, watching and listening to people. Some they see are wrapped up in their own little worlds; others are concerned with the big questions of life and mortality. They see and hear about every aspect of human life, but like the black and white photography suggests, they are not able to experience it and therefore perhaps not able to fully understand it; the ups and downs, the minute details and overwhelming problems every human deals with. They have seen wars waged and empires fall, but they have always been passive observers, unable to intervene in the human drama, left only to watch it play out with sad hearts and pitying eyes.

It is when the angel Gamiel (Bruno Ganz) sees a circus performer that he finally desires to be human. He falls in love with her and watches her performing her trapeze act, alone in her dressing room, wandering the streets and dancing to music. She is a free spirit, but at the same time she seems so alone in the world. It seems as though they are aware of each other's existence; that they connect on a level that is more than simply physical. It is at this point when Gamiel decides to become human. He wants to experience love, not merely watch it unfold in the lives of others. He takes the leap into the world of humans and is able to taste and see and talk to people, and is finally a part of what he has only observed for so long. His transformation is profound - he is at last human, both an adult and in a way a child, being protected and watched by the angels of the world. He meets the woman he has been pursuing for so long, and immediately, they become one. He realizes they have been part of the same experience from the start.

Faraway, So Close!, the sequel to Wings of Desire, is much like its predecessor. The action centers around the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), Gamiel's former companion. He is still wandering Berlin, occasionally checking on his former friend and taking interest in a few characters, like a woman and her daughter and an elderly Nazi they care for. When the woman's daughter falls from window, he rushes to catch her and unwittingly becomes human. He is astounded by the experience, much like Gamiel was after his transformation in Wings of Desire. However, Cassiel quickly becomes confused and his experience in the human world is much more misguided than Gamiel's seemed to be, because Gamiel had a purpose for becoming human. Cassiel's induction into the world was simply a mistake.

From the very start he is manipulated by a character named Emit Flesti (Willem Dafoe), whose name is actually "time itself" reversed. Following this obvious suggestion, the film studies both the effects of time on Cassiel, as well as his interactions with certain characters that lead him towards a destructive path. Time is not kind to Cassiel - he has no muse like Gamiel did. He quickly becomes an alcoholic, thanks to an introduction by Emit, and sleeps on the streets. Eventually he becomes entangled in an illegal weapons operation, which earns him money and respect and for a while he is happy. But he soon discovers that it was not what he first thought and leaves it all behind, only later to come back and try to get rid of it as a final good deed. Unlike Gamiel's experience in Wings of Desire, his time on Earth is marked by destruction and uncertainty. This contrast between the two films is Wenders' statement on the effects time can have on someone's life. No matter how short and insignificant a life may be, it becomes woven into the very fabric of time, ebbing and flowing in myriad positive or negative ways.

At first glance, Paris, Texas seems like a radical departure from the elements of the first two films. It is presented in vivid color, the characters speak English, and the stories are drastically different. However, upon closer inspection, Wenders seems to be only furthering his inspection of human interaction, if only through a different perspective. In the beginning we find the protagonist, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering through the Mojave Desert. We are not sure why, or for how long. Later we find out he has been missing for four years, leaving behind a brother and his own wife and son. As the movie progresses, the viewer gradually is introduced to clues as to why he left.

From the start the viewer understands that Travis is on a quest. He is not lost, but he has lost something. His general demeanor hints that he has lived a hard four years while away. His appearance is scruffy and neglected, and he does not speak to his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) when he is picked up from a clinic in Texas. He has obviously been gravely and hideously hurt, but the viewer is just not sure how. He goes home with Walt, and we learn that his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), has been staying with Walt and his wife ever since he left. Gradually, and at first awkwardly, they are reintroduced to each other. At this point, it seems like Travis might be able to live with them somewhat happily.

Of course, as we learned from the beginning of the film, Travis is a wayward soul. It is possible he was momentarily happy living with his brother's family, but even so he was still aloof and distracted. As we learn more of his story we come to understand that he and his wife had a major falling out, leaving Hunter without a family. When he hears rumors of his wife's wear-abouts in Houston, the viewer knows that he is going to try to find her. He ends up taking Hunter with him, as if he is hoping for some sort of family reunion. But in the end things do not turn out so happily, and he again goes on his way leaving behind any indication of his former life - something that was lost long ago never to return. Similar to the angels in Wenders films, he becomes a protector; an observer who seems sadly disconnected from but content with his relationships with whom he cares about.

It is undeniable that all three of Wenders films are beautiful. Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! alternate between black and white and then color photography, which add an extra layer of interest and contrast the worlds of the angels and humans. They contain a fair amount of dialogue, but they are strongly visual films that express equally as much through shots of humans interacting and living their lives in a city that contrasts post-World War II destruction with Cold War-era visuals. These are intensely powerful when considering the way time and history have impacted people's lives and what the angels have seen. Cities are also used as backdrops for much of the action in Paris, Texas. They stand in stark contrast to the sprawling desert where we first see Travis, but at the same time they do little to mask his alienation and loneliness. The visual cues in Wenders' films are deliberate in that they do not just show a story but pull the viewer in to experience it on the same level as the characters they are watching.

The most endearing quality in Wenders' films is the way in which they evoke an emotional response from the viewer. There is a refreshing lack of over-sentimentality because the characters in his films are real. They have real problems and the solutions they reach might not be the most desired from a viewer's perspective, but in the end they are satisfying. According to Wenders, the human condition cannot be explained, but merely explored, and the degrees to which it can be probed know no bounds. The attempt to answer the great questions in life has found representation, in filmic form, through Wim Wenders.

Works Cited

Wings of Desire. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Otto       
Sander. Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.

Faraway, So Close!. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Otto Sander, Bruno Ganz, and Nastassja
Kinski. Bioskop Film, 1993.

Paris, Texas. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Aurore
Clement, Nastassja Kinski, and Hunter Carson. Argos Films, 1984.

Ebert, Roger. "Paris, Texas." RogerEbert.com. 1 January 1984. 12 April 2006 <
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19840101/REVIEWS/401010366/1023>

The Internet Movie Database. 1999-2006. 13 April 2006 <imdb.com>