At the Telluride Film Festival last fall, director Wim Wenders prefaced the American premiere of his “Faraway, So Close” by announcing that, despite what many on hand had already heard, “This is not a sequel.”
What curious viewers then saw was a non-sequel that only happened to have much the same cast, characters, setting, visual design and thematic concerns as “Wings of Desire,” the German filmmaker’s widely beloved 1986 tone poem on the secret relations between angels and mortals.
A few months later, with “Faraway, So Close” now playing in limited release, Wenders has backed off his Telluride disclaimer and is no longer quite so disingenuous--or as much in denial--about the film’s status as a bona fide follow-up, queasy as he still is at the idea of having crafted something so intrinsically Hollywoodian as a continuation of his most popular picture.
“I’ll never ever do anything remotely like a sequel again, because it’s such a trap,” bemoans Wenders now. “I mean, we finally avoided it, but it was a hard job to find the film a language of its own. We didn’t keep much of the first three weeks of shooting, because we were still fighting with the ghost of ‘Wings of Desire.’
“With every film you set out to invent a certain world from scratch. That is the beauty of filmmaking, to redefine the world with each movie. And if you do a sequel, that liberty vanishes--it’s predefined. Of course, a lot of films today are made on predefined ground, on recipes. And I’ve always spoken so much against it, and here I was doing a sequel,” he says, the word sounding slightly distasteful rolling off Wenders’ gentle Germanic tongue.
So why bother taking on the trauma of self-limitation?
No modern city unwracked by war had gone through such change in so short a time as the setting of “Wings of Desire.” And Wenders was confident “Faraway” would turn out to be a very different film than its predecessor because it was set in such a different city, one in which a wall had come down and--by the filmmaker’s accounting--many more had gone up.
The original film “had been essentially a fairy tale. Or maybe fable--does it exist, that word?” says Wenders, whose mastery of English is nearly complete. “The angels had been some sort of a metaphor for a better person we’re all carrying inside ourselves. And ‘Faraway, So Close’ deals much more with the contemporary reality of that city--a certain hostility toward everybody who doesn’t belong, a certain kind of disorientation that the German people just go through at this point.”
Both films are based around what happens when an angel leaves the safety of the ether and opts for the sensual, bittersweet tangibility of human existence. In the first film, Bruno Ganz, as the angel Damiel, got off fairly easy in making the shift from spirit to substance. But six years later, more adversarial forces are at work in the city: The thoughts of the average denizens (audible to the angels and the audience) have become more protective and paranoid, making Berlin a lonelier place to become mortal. And gangsters are at work, making it more dangerous, too. As the film extends from a meditation on isolation to an action thriller, what’s consistent is that Otto Sandler’s Cassiel, “Faraway’s” fallen angel, has a far tougher time of it.
“You can say that again,” Wenders says. “Bruno landed very softly, in the arms of the woman that he wanted to fall in love with. Cassiel ends up in the gutter before he even knows it, like a homeless foreigner, and treated like it.”
Wenders says he decided in principle in late 1991 to make a film about how Berlin had changed, and tried to find a set of characters who could reflect it. Not until a few months of conjecturing later did it dawn on him that only by revisiting the broad, God’s-eye perspective of “Wings’ ” heavenly beings could he really show the subtle spiritual shift that disturbed him.
“In spite of the dark shadow of the wall, Berlin of the mid-'80s was sort of an island of peace,” recalls the director. “Not much violence. The wall created--in a strange sense--protection. So it was a privileged place, and of course with the fall of the wall that privilege was gone--luckily, because no one wanted that built in the first place. But it became a very open city.
“Two open cities. I mean, it’s still two cities pulled together, and that once belonged together, but 50 years is a long time in the life of any city. And East and West Berlin lived such different lives. It’s difficult to imagine, probably, in America, because you just don’t have any parallel experience to express it. If you’d say, ‘On the other side of the East River we have Prague, and now we’ll build a few bridges and New York and Prague will become one city,’ it’s not that different.
“And there’s a remarkable absence of calm and generosity--and I wouldn’t say love, because it seems to be too big of a word, but of friendliness--in the Germany of today. People in the East are hostile to the people in the West, because they feel heavily underprivileged and that things don’t move fast enough. And people in the West feel betrayed because they’ve been told that the reunification wouldn’t cost them that much, that they would prosper from it, and instead they really have to pay the bill now. So everybody’s sort of reproachful. And Germany’s never been a place of much laughter.”
Though the plot convolutions take much wider turns this time around, Wenders’ message is, if anything, simpler in its emphasis on compassion.
“The main reason I made this film with the angels again was because of their way of looking at things. I only discovered in the course of making ‘Wings of Desire’ that the subject of the film had been the loving looks of these angels, and how to translate that into a movie. I felt these years later that that caring or loving look should be the subject of another film, and this time it should be the issue . . . that they could talk to us about a different idea of seeing, whereby you not only take in but also have to give with your eyes.”
There’s a scene in “Faraway, So Close” in which the human Cassiel has his picture taken in an instant-photo booth with Nastassja Kinski, who plays the angel Raphaela, on his lap. When the prints come out, of course, his ethereal seatmate isn’t visible.
A recorded conversation with Wenders threatens to have much the same result. The filmmaker speaks in such a hushed tone--in an accent as gentle as any German inflection is going to get--that occasionally his words simply don’t make it as far as the chromium dioxide, making a later playback sound suspiciously like one of the movie’s humorous one-way conversations.
This softness is not to suggest that the 48-year-old filmmaker--who looks both continental and boyishly ruffled today, with his all-black garb and his cockeyed plastic-framed glasses--is a dispassionate fellow. Throughout a two-hour conversation in his Chateau Marmont bungalow, Wenders has that calm director’s readiness that leaves him always literally on the edge of his seat, as if he might be required to bound and attend to a detail at a moment’s notice.
One of the subjects that most arouses Wenders’ passion is the degeneration of visual imagery and the quality of perception. His last film, “Until the End of the World,” wound up its final stretch concentrating on what one character called “the disease of images.” And “Faraway” includes many exchanges between the angels about how humankind makes golden calves of the material world at the expense of the metaphysical: “People have created an image of everything to allay their fears,” Raphaela laments.
Any irony in this protest, considering Wenders has been in the image-making business since his first feature in 1970?
“Yeah, seems like the wrong thing to say for a filmmaker,” Wenders admits. “But I really do think we’re slowly entering into an age where images cannot really be trusted anymore. They’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re meant to show us something. Now they’re always trying to sell us something. And with that overdose sometimes it’s difficult to be able to differentiate between true images and false ones. Sometimes I feel I’m even relieved in a film when it doesn’t look out for beauty but for other things. . . .”
Sounds, speaking of angels, like the old saying about Satan coming back as a being of light.
Wenders has even changed his feelings about black and white, which counts as a major loss of faith. After he made “Wings of Desire"--which, like the sequel, uses color for the human perspective and black and white for the angels'--Wenders told The Times: “Black and white reveals the essence of a person, I think, much more than a portrait in color. The angels are spiritual beings. They’d see the truth more than we can--and, for me, colors are very much the surface of things.”
Six years later he’s changed his tune: “I don’t think that applies anymore. I slowly even wonder whether black and white still stands for what it once stood for. Advertising plays with black and white a lot. A lot of MTV is in black and white. There is a tendency now to use it only for fashion-level aesthetics, and not as a different way to look at things stripped of their surface.”
As a youngster Wenders schooled himself in the films of directors like Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann, sometimes seeing five or more American films a day--though it’s not surprising that more recently he’s found solace in the likes of Tarkovsky, whom he considers “the last filmmaker who I feel has really, truly gone for the whole range of possibilities that films have.”
Twenty years ago or more, and especially in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Wenders protests, “films were much different in that they could be read much more like novels. And I feel films more and more don’t do that anymore--that they come as closed systems, and fill all the gaps. Everything you’re supposed to feel is already there. And I feel it’s really because the way sound is used today has gotten so complex, you’re bombarded with so much more information than ever before. And whenever something is just starting to sink in, you can be sure that the next thing is already following that.
“Or is it just myself? Maybe I’m getting old,” he allows, without much conviction.
Older, maybe. Curmudgeonly, no. The rambunctious “Faraway” is one of the oddest ducks of Wenders’ career: What starts off as a somber exercise in spiritual existentialism ends up at some point turning almost into an action film, with occasional broad bits of comedy, even. It’s an Everyman odyssey with conspicuous cameos marking the acting debuts of Lou Reed and Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s extremely heavy on plot, perhaps overly so, yet finds its considerable emotional power in tender, incidental moments. And, of course, it’s not a sequel and it’s “Wings of Desire II.”
With all these contradictory notions colliding, not surprisingly the film has inspired a broad range of reactions from different audiences, from adoration to disdain, since it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last spring--which makes Wenders feel that, as a movie, it’s uniquely alive.
“It’s a film that needs a certain type of openness. And I think it returns that openness, too. I’ve made a dozen or more films, and most of them have a certain weight of communication with people; you can yell at them or you can be friendly or unimpressed, but they stay stubbornly the same. But ‘Faraway, So Close’ is extremely fragile, I would say. It’s a prima donna. And some days it’ll blossom, and other days it’ll show you a cold shoulder. I’ve seen it become like a snail, especially in Germany--pull back its shell and become very closed. And I’ve seen it just open up and become very generous. . . .
“I like feeling that in movies, myself--that they can have different faces. I don’t know what it is, though. It’s sort of scary that the film changes with the reception of it.
“It’s actually a much more sophisticated form of interactive--is that the word I’m looking for? Everybody’s trying to come up with all these interactive ideas for movies right now. And I feel movies are already interactive.”
Since completing “Faraway, So Close,” Wenders spent the last six months editing a five-hour version of “Until the End of the World” that just premiered in Italy and that he hopes will show in L.A. eventually. “In hindsight it felt like the film that had been released worldwide had been a Readers’ Digest version,” he says of the 2 1/2-hour cut that bombed internationally and left even most of the director’s fans cold.
“Maybe I made one mistake, because I thought it was possible to pack a film so much. I thought, ‘Well, it’s a science-fiction film, and people will see things differently in a few years. Already audiences are so much more astute and capable of taking in information in a nanosecond.’ We tried to give it a form in the future, and of course it was a mistake to try to (edit) a film as if the film was really coming out in 1999. It was jumping so excessively--and now the jumps are filled with transitions.
“Of course I’m unhappy about the fate the film had. I terribly regret that.” But he’s delighted with his five-hour cut, and believes the full work better flatters many of the actors and contributing musicians, “so I can look them in the eye again.”
Next up on the production docket is Wenders’ first outright comedy--what he calls “my life’s dream so far: that one day I would be old and wise enough to do something very silly.”