Original VS Remake Vol.3 – ‘Wings of Desire/City of Angels’
And now it’s time to go look at a foreign film that got thoroughly wrung through the Hollywood machine. Der Himmel über Berlin – known as Wings of Desire in the USA (obviously not a direct translation) was remade as the Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage starring fantasy romance film City of Angels. Did it get lost in translation? Let’s find out!
Wim Wender’s is known for his artistic and thought-provoking films, and 1987’s Wings of Desire is no exception. Set in West Berlin during the time of the Wall the movie follows a pair of angels named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). They, and all other angels, are invisible to all except to young children and cannot interact with the world, seeing it as gray-scale. They listen to the thoughts of the Berlin people and provide comfort to them in times of need.
During the film we, through the angels, hear the thoughts of, among others, an ageing poet, a man contemplating suicide and Peter Falk (playing himself) filming a movie about the history of Berlin. Damiel falls in love with a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose fleeting attitude to life is in stark contrast to his timeless existence. Having grown weary with his role he craves a genuine interaction. He gives up his endless life to become human and seeks out Marion.
Whilst delighting in simple pleasures such as seeing colour, eating and drinking coffee, while dressed as the 7th generation Doctor Who, and discovers that Peter Falk is also a fallen angel who offers him some advice. He eventually meets Marion in a bar where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are playing a concert and she feels the connection Damiel felt with her before becoming human. Now united the film ends with “To be Continued”.
The movie is often described as a ‘mood piece’, focusing on creating the sense of longing and then joy experienced by Damiel, and the feeling of despair felt by Cassiel when a man he is comforting leaps off a building. The story is functional but comes secondary to the emotional response to the film. There’s a strong sense of realism in the performances as Ganz and Sander were already old friends. Wender’s justifiably picked up the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.
We’ll also take the time to note the strength of the casting and performances from the leads. The actors playing the angels feel very trustworthy and comforting. This is essential to the film because these guys spend all their time watching us. If they come across as even a tiny bit creepy then the film would not be nearly as successful. This is going to become relevant when we get to City of Angels.
What They Kept the Same
About a decade after Wender’s film made people feel emotions, American director Brad Silberling decided a remake would be a solid follow-up to his debut film Casper. So City of Angels arrived in 1998 with Nicholas Cage and Andre ‘Captain Raymond Holt’ Braugher as the angels, Meg Ryan as the love interest and Dennis Franz as the fallen angel enjoying life.
The basic concept remains the same. We follow two angels who hang around a given city and keeping an eye of the population. One of the angels is named Cassiel, and they favour long dark coats and scarfs. They can listen in our thoughts and provide a sense of comfort to people they encounter, and they have a particular love of hanging around libraries. One of the angels falls in love with a human and wishes to experience the world as humans do, so he chooses to ‘fall’ with the grudging support of Cassiel to be with his true love. He does find the human experience to be exciting and fun and finds the girl, and the two fall in love.
What They Changed
Ok…let’s deal with this in two sections. First the basic, surface changes and then the major tone and thematic changes that piss all over the Wenders original. Do you get the impression we didn’t enjoy yet?
The first really notable change is that the entire film is in colour. In the original the scenes from the angel’s point of view were in gray-scale to visually demonstrate the limitations of the angel’s worldly experience and interaction while the human based scenes are in full colour. When Damiel ‘falls’ the world becomes colour and the audience learns that this wasn’t simply and artistic choice but a literal interpretation of their world, and Damiel is initially stunned by the sight of colour and has to learn what they are called. Weirdly enough Seth (Nicolas Cage’s role) also is stunned by the sight of colour upon becoming human, but it doesn’t make any sense to the viewer because there’s been nothing to suggest that he couldn’t see colours in the first place.
There are way more angels hanging around the place in Los Angeles compared to Berlin. In the original we’d often see the angels moving out of the way of the population, but as 90% of the extras in City of Angels (oh yeah, they changed the title) are angels. There aren’t really other people to be in the way. We often saw Damiel (Wings) sitting on a statue of an angel in Berlin, and the remake takes this idea further by plonking Seth and Cassiel on top of all kinds of random things for no real reason. And usually with shitty green screen.
In the place of Marion the circus performer we have Maggie, played by Meg Ryan, who is a heart surgeon going through a personal crisis after one patient dies. Yes, one. For reasons that are never explained she can see and interact with Seth and is aware that he’s an angel before meeting him as a human. She also has the standard issue Meg Ryan dowdy boyfriend to contrast how super the new love interest is, but he’s dumped off-screen. Damiel and Marion only share two scenes together before the movie ends, but Seth and Maggie hang about for a couple of days and bump uglies. Shortly after Nic’s ‘O’ face she dies as a result of not watching the road and Seth has to consider whether or not it was all worth it.
Peter Falk as the fallen angel is replaced with the fictional character Nathan, one of Maggie’s patients. This character is genuinely fun, and takes a firmer line of the pros and cons of becoming human while embracing hedonism. The concept of ‘falling’ is taken much more literally this time around. In Wings it’s a shift of presence, done very subtly with a pan and change in colour. Nic Cage has to climb to the top of a tall building along with background chanting and orchestral music before jumping off with a sweeping, gimmicky camera shot.
Now to look at the bigger issues, starting with Seth the angel. In Wings the angels observe and comfort, and while Seth does fulfil these roles he also appears to specialise as the angel of death, turning up whenever people are dying and walking with them to the afterlife. Rather than being completely outside of the human world, the nature of the City angels is inconsistent. They talk about being unable to be seen (except by children) yet Maggie totally sees and touches him for no explainable reason beyond “she’s special” in the same way Bella and Edward functioned. This itself is inconsistent, as she can sometimes see him and sometimes can’t and there’s nothing to suggest why. During a scene at a party another woman sees him and talks to him and this never gets mentioned again. Children can still see him and pull at his face for some reason.
As we said before, the casting of this role is essential. As much as Bruno Ganz is serene and comforting, Nicolas Cage is earnest and creepy.
The movie begins not with the angel standing above the city watching the people, but Nicolas Cage sitting the corner of a child’s room and looking ‘comforting’ while she dies.
Then we get to his relationship with Maggie, and by relationship I mean the goddamn creepy stalking that takes place. Damiel sits near Marion and is curious about her world view, striving to understand her. Seth sits directly in front of Maggie and stares at her while she cries. Then he sits in her bathroom and it is strongly implied that he watches he masturbate. Not long after this he tries SNIFFING HER HAIR, which makes zero sense because HE DOESN’T HAVE A SENSE OF SMELL. Later he preys on the dissatisfaction she has with her boyfriend because she didn’t know he was watching them during a private moment. He actually demands to know if she loves him. Everything about their relationship is next level creepy and casting Nicolas Cage does not help. The guy can act in the right role, but this is very, very far from the right role.
Overall the angels are severely lacking in angelic qualities. The angels in Wings would quietly acknowledge each other in passing with perhaps a nod. In City they all grin at each other like they’re in on a rude joke. They occasionally shown walking in sync with each other, which is weird and pointless. Finally, when Seth and Cassiel are discussing the pros of becoming human, they excitedly discuss how great it will be to tell lies. They’re supposed to be perfect, benevolent creatures and he’s keen to start bullshitting people just because he can.
Finally we have the themes of the city and the human race. Berlin is a central part of Wings, delving into the mood of the people and the dark recent history that hangs over them. City could be set everywhere, preferring tourist style shots to the up close and personal. Whenever the angels stop to listen to the thoughts of the people it’s inevitably about the tribulations and trails of living life. Poetry and philosophy isn’t for everyone, but it’s intriguing and has something to say. Everyone’s thoughts in City are just pissy, complaints about traffic or some shit. It’s like having someone’s really grumpy Facebook feed being read aloud.
Plus there’s the smash hit single ‘Iris’ from one-hit-wonder band Goo Goo Dolls. I hate this song. It’s twee, it’s sappy and it won’t get out of your head with anything short of a power drill. It was played on TV and radio non-stop when the movie was released and I still hate it. It doesn’t help that the band has an awful name like Goo Goo Doos. This could not be further removed from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, one of the absolute best musical acts to ever record. You can tell a lot about the two bands from their publicity photos. They replaced this…
What’s wrong with that dudes legs?
This aspect of the films is certainly more of a personal opinion, but given how crummy City of Angels is as a whole it really is the final nail in the coffin.
Which One Should You Watch?
Yeah, I’m a cinema snob. That doesn’t mean I’m always going to side with the more arty foreign language original every time, as this series is going to show before long. But in this case there’s no competition. Wings of Desire is a visually beautiful, emotionally engaging and thought provoking movie with powerful performances and an awesome soundtrack. The remake is a shitty romcon. Instead of the peak moment of the main character’s relationship being the moment they meet and feel a powerful connection, the US version determines that fucking is the be-all end-all of human existence, with the awkward sight of Cage and Ryan humping and gasping to try and sell the idea. Then they kill her just so to get a cheap shock out of the experience. One film tells us to enjoy life’s pleasures while the other is shallow, empty and pointless.
Absolutely see the original. It’s stunning. Don’t see the remake.
Disagree? Vote in the poll below and sound off in the comments. Then join us next week for a sci-fi film that you’ll no doubt remember seeing. Or did you?