By Heather Baysa
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Given the gruesome effects of German mysticism on the twentieth century, it's wise to regard any new form of it with suspicion. That includes the films of Wim Wenders, a thoroughly postwar German who seems to embrace both pacifist Euro-modernism and traditional Catholic theology. To be a German filmmaker in any generation is to be burdened with thoughts as heavy as sauerbraten, and Wenders has a gift for shoveling them endlessly at the audience.
That may explain the presence in Faraway, So Close, Wenders's second film about invisible angels in the city of Berlin, of both Mikhail Gorbachev, who briefly takes a stand for world harmony, and Lucifer, gotten up as a slick street hustler in black sunglasses, who sets out to clip some wings. Between portraying Good and Evil, Wenders is a busy fellow: There's scarcely a moment in these 140 minutes that's not as dark as a Rilke poem or as dense as a textbook. Even when Wenders jokes, he's slow going.
Despite all that, Faraway is an even more intriguing piece of work than its famous predecessor, 1988's Wings of Desire. The destruction of the Berlin Wall and Europe's uncertainties in the post-communist era clearly put a new political twist on Wenders's sequel, but the eternal questions remain the same: What is human nature? Can heavenly grace influence a life? What's the relationship between faith and reason?
In Wings, Wenders's angel-of-choice was Damiel (played by lumpy Bruno Ganz, always the man next door), who wandered through the city picking up snatches of thought and conversation, witnessing human weakness and travail, but keeping hands off. Damiel's frustration was that he could not intervene in earthly matters, so when he gave up immortality for the messiness of human life, it was a heroic and touching act. Damiel's back--he now runs a pizza parlor aptly named Casa dell'Angelo--but the focus has shifted to Otto Sander's Cassiel, who, with his red hair and chiseled features, resembles a beatific Danny Kaye. With companion angel Raphaela (Nastassja Kinski), he soars over the city, hitches rides on bicycles and eavesdrops on lives--most notably that of an old chauffeur named Konrad (Heinz Ruhmann), whose haunting memories reach as far back as 1938, when he not only drove Nazi officers in his car but also helped a family escape to America.
Cassiel, too, takes on human form when he catches a child who has fallen from a balcony. Once this innocent learns to walk and eat, and acquires forged papers identifying him as "Karl Engel," his picaresque misadventures in Berlin include drunkenness and despair, run-ins with the mysterious entrepreneur Tony Baker (Horst Buchholz), glancing acquaintances with visiting actor Peter Falk (who plays himself, as well as posing for a wonderful moment as Columbo) and an ongoing tug-of-war with Willem Dafoe's menacing Emit Flesti (whose name means "Time Itself"). He's a demonic seducer who carries a pocket watch with no face on it and determines to put Cassiel's attempted good works asunder. Right. Satan.
Wenders's meditations on good and evil, peace and violence, greed and generosity unfold onscreen in at least five languages (German, English, French, Italian and Russian), and he again switches between dreamy black-and-white and startling color. There are poetic ruminations on earthly life and eternity, and in the last hour he grafts a tongue-in-cheek action thriller onto his film, in which Falk and Cassiel chase the bad guys from warehouse to wharf to airport, even enlisting the aid of the trapeze artists we first saw back in 1988.
This is a dense, demanding, multilayered film--no cute, wisecracking Hollywood angels here--but Wenders also inserts some moments of surreal whim: the earthly Cassiel soaring once again on a pair of bungee cords ("It's like the old days--great!"), an ineffective Doberman named Qaddafi, a three-card monte game in a subway station at which the devil is the shill, some comic business involving a crook in expensive shoes and a tub of cement.
In the end, though, it's nothing less than the Nature of Existence that once again engages Wim Wenders, a German through and through. His accompanying lessons in geopolitics and heavenly intervention remain palatable for the most part because, while his ideas are weighty, his gift for narrative remains as light as a feather. The New Europe may need the powers of an angel or two to get through the next decade, but for now the magical, mystical thinking of Wim Wenders may have to do.
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