Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987)

Michael S. Smith

Wings of Desire is the most optimistic of films, finding freedom and potential in the quotidian privileges most of us take for granted.

Wings of Desire (der Himmel über Berlin)

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Road Movies Filmproduktion
First date: 1987
US DVD Release Date: 2003-07-01

"Sunrise at 7:22, sunset at 4:28." So the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) tells fellow angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) as they sit in a convertible roadster at a Berlin auto dealer. He continues, "Twenty years ago today, a Soviet jet fighter crashed in Spandau Lake. Fifty years ago, there were the Olympic Games. Two hundred years ago, Blanchard flew over the city in a balloon." Cassiel then asks Damiel, "and what do you have to tell?" Damiel can only offer something far more mundane: "A passer-by, in the rain, folded her umbrella and was drenched."

As this exchange suggests, Cassiel and Damiel are not stereotypical angels. They talk only about earthly matters and never refer to God. They don't wear wings. They have long hair, which they tie neatly back in ponytails. They wear black trench coats and assemble in a library (the cavernous Staatsbibliothek). They neither guard humans nor intervene on their behalf. Forget the Archangel Michael with his sword; the raison d'être of these celestial beings is, as Cassiel says, to "assemble, testify, preserve." The two meander from one end of Berlin to the other, along rooftops, in trains, on streets, eavesdropping (as they do in the film's prolonged opening sequence) on the thoughts of diverse Berliners: a man carrying a baby, a pregnant woman, a painter, a man who thinks his girlfriend no longer loves him.

Originally, Wim Wenders did not envision Wings of Desire as a film about angels. After eight years in the United States, where he made four films (including Paris, Texas [1984]), he decided to return to his native Germany to make a film about Berlin. In the highly episodic but minimally exegetic audio commentary on the DVD, Wenders recounts his personal quest, how he walked the streets hoping that the city would "suggest" a story. The skies offered something; they were the one element common to the diverse parts of the city ("Der Himmel über Berlin," literally translated, means "The heavens over Berlin"). Then, with Rainer Marie Rilke's poetry in his head, and finding numerous images of angels throughout the city's landscape, Wenders brought something out of the skies, forging a meditation on Berlin's history.

This haphazard process of developing the story carried over into filming. Wenders employed the skills of Peter Handke, who wrote much of the dialogue and the poetic voice-overs, and the celebrated cinematographer Henri Alekan, known most famously for his work in Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1947). But Wenders had no "real" script. Rather, he directed the film extemporaneously, stringing together one image or incident after another. He imagined and then enlisted Peter Falk to play the unwritten part of a former angel and put Falk's real-life idiosyncrasies -- his indecisiveness about which hat to wear, his impulsive desire to draw -- into the film.

In narrative terms, this impromptu approach works; Wings of Desire is less of a story, more of a visual poem. Like the angels, it accumulates Berlin's past, present and future in fragments: images of water and land and at another point, documentary footage of the Nazi past. Back in the present, Cassiel follows an old man (Curt Bois) named Homer who charts one of Berlin's struggles. The name is ironic; while the same as the famous Greek poet of war, this Homer dreams of an "epic of peace." He looks for the Potsdamer Platz in an open field, but all he finds is the graffiti-covered Wall. Berlin, near the close of the Cold War, is a resolutely divided city, struggling with its place in space and time.

The city's inhabitants feel this acute division and lack of a center. Damiel's wanderings lead him to a small circus, where he meets Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist. Talented and lovely, Marion is also angst-ridden and profoundly lonely. She confines herself to her trailer after performances, dances alone to the live music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and drifts through the city, trying to fulfill her "desire for love, desire to love." Yet she fails to connect with anyone.

Apparently, angels have similar existential problems. Being eternal, Damiel has neither a beginning nor an end, and therefore lacks definition. He wants the simple pleasures of a finite existence: to feed a cat, enjoy a meal, tell a lie, or even, as Cassiel tells him with a smirk, "enthuse for evil." Damiel proclaims, "It's great to live by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, only what's spiritual in people's mind. But sometimes I'm fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, I'd like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth. I'd like, at each step, each gust of wind, to be able to say 'now'."

Damiel is the heavenly equivalent of Marion's circus performer: he's a wanderer with no roots; he needs a "history of myself." Most of all, he needs corporeal form. Wings of Desire is, partly, about physical being, about weight: the buildings, rivers, trains, passers-by, and roads provide a formidable sense of physicality. To underscore this, Wenders' camera is constantly moving, from the sky to the earth, emphasizing gravity, and from side to side, providing a semblance of physical space and motion. Wenders is in love with the panning shot, but unfortunately he uses it far too much. In a film that takes a leisurely amount of time to tell its own story, the ceaselessly moving images become cumbersome.

Nevertheless, Damiel longs for physicality, and when he finally sheds his immortal existence, he bleeds, feels cold, runs into walls, and sees in color (most of the film is black and white because, as Wenders explains on the DVD, angels see the "essence of things"). When he finally meets Marion at a bar, she greets him with familiarity, espousing a poetic monologue about loneliness, necessity, and "man and woman" that resembles a parable about creation.

Most of all, their encounter underscores the film's discreet notions about human freedom, which can be achieved, partly, by a reconciliation of opposites. In contrast to earlier musings about every individual being a state and everything having a border, the film finds freedom in Damiel and Marion's deconstruction of the barriers that kept them apart: his incorporeal nature, her resistance to social interaction. Wings of Desire suggests that Cold War Germany needs to deconstruct it barriers as well. In the midst of urban decay, a burdensome history, and a divisive present, Wings of Desire is the most optimistic of films, finding freedom and potential in the quotidian privileges most of us take for granted.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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