Sample lecture: Geoffrey Plow on German film

‘Dreimal nach Berlin’ was a talk given by Dr Geoffrey Plow of University College School on 6 March 2010 to the annual Oliver Prior Society Meeting at Selwyn College.

Dr Geoffrey Plow (University College School)
‘Dreimal nach Berlin’: three images of a city in Der Himmel über Berlin,Sonnenallee and Good Bye, Lenin!
Oliver Prior Society Meeting 2010
Selwyn College, Cambridge

1: Introduction

What I’ve learnt in preparing this paper is that it might be preferable to substitute the word ‘space’ for ‘Berlin’ in the title: the three films I refer to show, more than anything else, the different ways in which individuals make themselves comfortable in, accommodate themselves to, or wish their way out of whatever physical space they get given on the planet. I will explain more later about this process of negotiating space.

The point of comparing the treatment of Berlin in these films is not to establish or document any change over time in the way the geographical site has been interpreted, but to indicate that the attributes of any portrayal of the city of Berlin are always dependent on the thematic concerns of the film in question. Meanings change according to (creative) circumstance. The Berlin we see in any given film can never be regarded as an ‘objective’ vision. The representation is always crucially conditioned by the film-maker’s and/or the characters’ preoccupations. The location, far from being a neutral ‘backdrop’ in front of which the ‘action’ of the film unfolds, is very much intrinsic to the action – almost the equivalent of an extra character.

This is a point made by David Lodge in a chapter entitled ‘The Sense of Place’ in his bookThe Art of Fiction. He says that the cities of classical romance seem ‘interchangeable backcloths for the plot’. Corinth, Syracuse, Ephesus – they all feel the same. Lodge says that no attempt is made there – or in the works of pre-Romantic novelists like Defoe or Fielding – ‘to make the reader “see” the city, or to describe its sensory impact’. It is, he says, only with the onset of the Romantic movement, pondering the effect of milieu on man, that we start to see significance in cityscapes. We are going to see in the three films quite different ways of relating to one’s urban environment: some more radical than others, some more internalised than others; occasionally involving direct engagement with the place, but more often containing an attempt to mythologise or run away. However different the attempts at change and/or accommodation may be, the films in which they take place are inconceivable without the existence of the city of Berlin, catalyst in some way or other for everything that takes place within the minds of the characters and, of course, outside.

2: Sonnenallee

Sonnenallee looks like the least demanding of the three films, as far as plot, mood and interpretation are concerned. However, it is not just an easygoing act of nostalgia.Sonnenallee came out in Germany in 1999 and was directed by Leander Haußmann, with a screenplay by Thomas Brussig (if you come across the collection of stories Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee, this isn’t the book on which the film was based but, for once, a series of texts which the author felt inspired to write having produced the screenplay of the film). Sonnenallee should not be regarded as an exercise in pure, turn-of-the-century ‘Ostalgie’ or a product of what the German periodical Die Zeit called in August 2003 ‘unsere kleine Traumfabrik’. It is the story of a real street, Sonnenallee, which really was split by the Berlin Wall into two unequal parts: the short end in East Berlin (that is the area the film is about) and the longer section in the West.

Compared to other checkpoints, the border crossing at Sonnenallee attracted little attention during the years of division. Queues at this checkpoint were rare, except around the time of the permit agreements concluded in 1963/1964 and Easter 1972, which permitted West Berliners to travel to East Berlin before the Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin went into force. Before the film Sonnenallee, this border crossing was unknown outside Berlin.

Already, questions of definition arise. The historical circumstances described in the film dictate that, for the characters, ‘Berlin’ means, effectively, ‘East Berlin’. Anything else is, as we will see, at most a pipedream, at least a rigorously planned excursion. The film focuses heavily on the rites-of-passage story of a 17-year-old – Micha – and his friends, as they spend their time listening to banned pop music and partying. To choose to show a group of adolescents as they attempt to orientate themselves within the world is to provide a microcosm of the liminal situation experienced by all East Berliners of the time (1974?). East Berliners of this era live in an environment where everyone spends at least some of their time ‘orientating themselves’ – that is, thinking of ways not to be where they are (of course, by and large, they are forced to stay put).

This state of abbreviation, of constriction affects the whole film – just as we shall see, inDer Himmel über Berlin, it is the expanses of space above and within the city which Berlin-dwellers simply cannot use which predominate. In Sonnenallee, the characters seem perpetually to lack space, be they indoors or outdoors. This is coupled with the fact that the décor which surrounds them (the Wall included) seems forever on the verge of falling down.

This is a film which revels in the fact that it is shot on a stage set; this part of East Berlin is evoked to us, quite deliberately, as a fanciful and artificial construction, rather than as an area in which characters seem naturally comfortable or in which – to put it bluntly – they have any space to move around. This gives the film an unusual sitcom flavour at times, as in the scene where Micha’s family (even Micha’s name is grafted on to him uneasily, as his mother strives to convince the neighbours that her son Michael is going to university in Russia) attempt to put up the ‘Multifunktionstisch’ which is designed to turn their crowded flat into a living area that uses space intelligently. There are, predictably, hilarious results: the table collapses round their ears.

Even when characters do get allowed some latitude to negotiate space, they seem not to know how to use it. Micha’s Onkel Heinz is a smuggler – therefore a negotiator of space and the objects in it – but, uncannily, he only succeeds in bringing back from West Berlin products which are in any case available in the East: underpants, lychees, women’s stockings. Even these objects are not universally welcomed. The stockings prove to be too big for their intended recipient, Micha’s mother. As Onkel Heinz explains, this shouldn’t be surprising: her actual size of stocking would never have fit him (here is where we learn that he has effected the smuggling operation by wearing the clothes himself). This is a good example of movement for movement’s sake; we can only draw the conclusion that Heinz goes to the West because he can, not because it does any good.

Furthermore, as Micha’s father says, it is possible to travel around, whatever anybody says about East Germany: ‘Wer kommt hier nicht raus? Wir kommen überall, nach Thüringen, überall, auf dem Mond, wir waren ja erst auf dem Mond’ (Who says we can’t get out of here? We can go everywhere, to Thüringen, everywhere, to the moon, we’ve just been on the moon). This is of course comic – a highly optimistic ‘spin’ on the real state of affairs. The use of ‘wir’ typifies nicely if ironically what the East German state would have wanted its citizens to say and think – i.e., that the first-person plural should be applied when any cosmonaut from the GDR went into space. Micha’s father demonstrates what seems to be a prevailing tendency in the film: that of defining space (and Space), and any movement in it, in as conciliatory and positive a way as possible, with the moon and Thüringen, the actual and the virtual, somehow on the same level.

It is that kind of quirkiness, that maverick approach, which characterises the most ‘quoted’ and anthologised sequence in Sonnenallee, the setpiece performance at the end of the film of the Box Tops song ‘The Letter’ – practically a music video in itself.

Some matters arise here. The first is that the scene – shown once the main action of the film has been completed, with the hero having got his girl (the lovely, unattainable Miriam) and everyone exultant – is not the unambiguous memory-fest it may appear, with former East Germans looking back lovingly in an unequivocal showbiz mode. The whole approach to space and its portrayal is as double-edged as that of Micha’s father – both apparently uplifted and actually bounded.

First of all, the leap enacted in the extract by the two characters Micha and Wuschel away from the balcony of the flat and seemingly into freedom – that’s what Wikipedia thinks at least – is a parody of the leap of death which many East Berliners attempted, at the cost of their own lives (Wikipedia says: ‘The film ends with a crowd of East Berliners advancing on the Berlin Wall entry/exit gate and singing ‘The Letter’ by The Box Tops, led by Michael and Wuschel, who jump down from the balcony they were perched and seemingly move through to the Western side’). The film-maker gestures towards the real circumstances of the Wall, but turns a serious scenario into what we might call a knowing burlesque. The whole scene reminds the British viewer of something out of Austin Powers or The Full Monty. It projects the East German experience for a moment into the realm of sheer performance.

There are many instances in the film where West Berliners point at Micha and his friends over the Wall as if they were animals in a zoo; now the ‘animals’ are viewed by the film-spectator as agents (agents of performance) rather than as objects. They sing a song with quite appropriate lyrics: about getting a ticket for an aeroplane to fulfil the dream of escaping a known environment.

No longer viewed as virtual objects, everyone on the Eastern side of the Wall dances (even the Stasi agent in the raincoat, hat and metallic glasses). It is a kind of ‘prequel’, in cinematic terms, of the type of mass demonstration that would come some fifteen years after the time in which the film was set. Note, nonetheless, that the end of the clip does not see Micha and Wuschel powering their way out into the unbounded West – whatever Wikipedia thinks.

What in fact happens at the end is that the colour of the scene is drained out of the picture. The screen turns monochrome, the set empties of all other characters, the two central figures run towards the viewer and disappear left and right respectively. It is clear from the tumbleweed that spills across the set behind them that we have been in one sense in a version of the Wild West: somewhere that is habitually prone to romanticisation when depicted in retrospect. The camera withdraws towards the Western side of the wall – thus we are discreetly informed what perspective this film has been taking, and it does not seem self-evident to me that the characters are fleeing to freedom. No one does in this film. Instead, they are merely disappearing from the film-viewer’s field of vision, into the oblivion of the forgotten past.

This is only substantiated by the music. Nina Hagen can be heard singing her 1974 hit ‘Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen’, in which the lyrics tell us ‘Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen, mein Michael, nun glaubt uns kein Mensch, wie schön’s hier war’ (You forgot the colour film, dear Michael, now nobody will believe how beautiful it was here). At the time of the song’s release, this was the story of two young people on holiday. Now (in tandem with the black-and-white images) it acts as a sort of corrective to undue glorification of the past.

At the end of the short-story collection that he produced after the film, Thomas Brussig makes a statement about memory that has tended to be written off as trite or something that ought to go without saying. He says that ‘Wer wirklich bewahren will, was geschehen ist, der darf sich nicht den Erinnerungen hingeben’ (Whoever really wants to preserve things that have happened ought not to give themselves over to memories). Memory does much more than preserve: ‘Sie vollbringt beharrlich das Wunder, einen Frieden mit der Vergangenheit zu schließen, in dem sich jeder Groll verflüchtigt und der weiche Schleier der Nostalgie über alles legt, was mal scharf und schneidend empfunden wurde’ (It achieves, with tenacity, the miracle of forging a peace with the past, a peace in which any ill-will evaporates and the soft haze of nostalgia hangs over everything which was once perceived sharply and keenly).

Critics have assumed that ‘der weiche Schleier der Nostalgie’ is Brussig’s term for the medium through which he has been looking back in both film and book at what East Berlin meant. But this isn’t accurate. When we see the screen go black and white at the end of Sonnenallee, when we glimpse the tumbleweed and realise that we are not being offered just a portrayal of the past but also a self-consciously self-aware view of that time, we become aware that the past is being adroitly framed and that the capacity of memory to take us overboard is being quite deliberately undercut and limited.

We learn, from this process of ‘framing’ (which is after all a prime artistic method for maintaining a focus on something miniature and limited in scope) quite how individuals in East Berlin, fictionally evoked of course, came to terms with their space. They are never able to escape it (or, like Onkel Heinz, they fail to make the most of their opportunities to do so), but, within that circumscribed space, they engage in what might be called a crowded picaresque. I referred earlier on to the ‘rites of passage’ element in this film. You might equally see Sonnenallee as the lightest ofBildungsromane, but with the education involved as much about the activity of memory as about life and love, and with the parties educated sitting on both sides of the screen.

3: Good Bye Lenin!

If, in Sonnenallee, there were characters forced to make the best of ‘their’ Berlin, Good Bye Lenin! (which came out in 2003) includes an intriguing case of falsification, of a version of Berlin being constructed to suit circumstances which have arisen. This is a film which is much better known in the UK than Sonnenallee and which has been received by English-speaking critics, not without condescension perhaps, as a rare and welcome example of German humour. But the humour only foregrounds and sharpens the vision of something that is quite earnest: the human tendency to make do and mend, to repair what is there, rather than to face up to the dislocation of having to rip up the template and start again.

The plot of Good Bye Lenin! takes Washington Irving’s 1820 fable Rip van Winkle as its model. In the original, the title figure awakens from twenty years’ sleep to discover that he has ‘missed’ the American Revolution and is no longer a subject of George III. In Good Bye Lenin! Christiane Kerner, single mother of two children and a fiercely committed advocate of the ideals of the East German socialist state, collapses into a coma in October 1989 during one of the demonstrations held throughout the country in the run-up to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the Wall falls while Christiane is in hospital. When she wakes up, doctors tell her son Alex that his mother must not be excited or upset, for fear of worsening her condition. It becomes obvious that the biggest shock she could get would be to learn of what she would see as the betrayal of her long-held political convictions.

When she arrives home, Alex decides to surround her with material signifiers of GDR life, in the hope that the abundance of meaning radiated will convince his mother that she is living in the political state she knew before her illness. What then ensues is the creation of a miniature East Germany laid out, as the blurb to the DVD says, ‘auf 79 Quadratmetern Plattenbau’. As the film progresses, Alex is constrained to paper over inevitable cracks in the pantomime world he has created.

At one point, his mother is surprised to see a billboard for the eminently capitalist Coca-Cola through her sickbed window; so Alex films a bogus news item with a friend, for reproduction on his mother’s television set, to ‘prove’ that the drink is an East German invention and that a patent dispute with the West has been resolved in the GDR’s favour. That incident, plus Alex’s mother’s sudden recollection of where she had hidden all her East German banknotes, form an important sequence in the film where questions of falsification and genuineness – indeed, the difficulty of working out what is ‘real’ in anyone’s life – are addressed.

Alex observes at one point in the sequence that ‘die Wahrheit nur eine zweifelhafte Angelegenheit war, die ich leicht Mutters gewohnter Wahrnehmung angleichen konnte’ (truth was a rather dubious concept, easily adapted to how mother saw the world). Certainly, the details of Alex’s re-creation of the GDR fit that description. The enterprise of collecting gherkins – for example – and stuffing them into old, used East German-style jars (because Alex’s mother’s favourite brand is not on sale in the reunified Germany) is a fairly well-known example in this film of the reorganisation of the world that Alex proposes. It is comic, of course. The combination of idealistic purpose and clumsiness of practical execution reflects well the mood of Alex’s statement around this point in the film where he says that his activities made him feel like a submarine commander trying to plug holes in an ailing vessel.

Obviously, a little world – an alternative Berlin, a separate space – is being created here. All sorts of explanations have to be made to Alex’s mother as to the reasons for the unconventional behaviour of the people negotiating that space. For example, the stream of Western cars she sees from her window surging into East Berlin is put down to the wave of ten or twenty thousand refugees from the West who want to come to the GDR.

This reversal of fact was used with satirical intent by Peter Schneider in his 1982 storyDer Mauerspringer. Schneider reported on a character (Herr Kabe) who had the habit of repeatedly attempting to jump the Berlin Wall from West to East, using a springboard placed on the Western side. However, in Becker’s film, this is no longer the ‘verkehrte Welt’ (the world turned upside down) of satire. Instead, this episode is an example of the recognisable world not being inverted but pushed outwards, so to speak, towards extremes of justification urgently needed by a character in desperate straits.

The creation of a mythical Berlin as a protective device is central to the film, and there is the clear implication too that the after-life of the East German state which Alex has fashioned is designed at root to protect none other than Alex himself (on the principle that such ‘making do and mending’ will help him resist the ultimate shock of having to face up to his mother’s impending death).

But there is, within the sequence I have referred to, also an indication that it is never easy to pin down the boundaries between the real and the imaginary and, furthermore, that daily, practical, ‘real life’ actually depends on our adherence to a number of constructs of the imagination for it to be lived at all – constructs which reveal themselves to be quite fragile. In the episode we have just seen, we move from the obviously staged and false Coca-Cola scam to the sudden and unexpected rationality of Alex’s mother’s realisation that she knows where her money is. However, what happens after that shows us that the significance of that money – its value, in more than one sense – is questionable.

Currency can only be current if everyone involved signs up to the metaphor that acknowledges its worth, making notional value actual. What happens to Alex here is that his attempt to do something real and practical is thwarted by the outside world’s sudden withdrawal from the deal. When he goes to the bank to redeem the old GDR notes, the cashier tells Alex that he has come too late. The notes have, then, become just paper. Alex’s access to real wealth has become a myth; the ‘real’ world seems to have, for a moment at least, as little solid justification as the mythical environment Alex has been busily creating in the flat. Initially, Alex had had to deal with ‘too much reality’, and had taken steps to keep it at bay. Now he no doubt feels that there just isn’t enough reality to go round.

Perhaps the effect of all this is to make us feel all the more sympathy with Alex – to take away some of the overtones of sheer self-delusion which the film could have conveyed without the introduction of insights such as these. Perhaps another element introduced here, however, is the sense of the imaginary on which anything characterised as politically ‘real’ and enduring is often dependent. Take, for example, the ‘national’ exultation at the new reunified state. This is a mood which surrounds Alex, but he can communicate none of it to his mother. Furthermore, it is an atmosphere of celebration about which he feels inwardly uneasy. As he admits, ‘Die DDR, die ich für meine Mutter schuf, wurde immer mehr die DDR, die ich mir vielleicht gewünscht hätte’ (the GDR I was creating for my mother was turning more and more into the GDR I would perhaps have wanted for myself).

In the instant when the city of Berlin celebrates the World Cup victory of 1990 most loudly – we see and hear the celebration just after Alex has cast his useless banknotes to the four winds – it looks momentarily as if Alex has reached some kind of communion with the outside world. It sounds as if the city is answering ‘mit einem gigantischen Schrei’ (with a gigantic yell – as the screenplay describes it) the ‘phänomenalen Affenschrei’ (the phenomenal monkey scream) that Alex has let out. But this isn’t so.

First of all, Alex is not celebrating anything – he has merely been advised by his girlfriend to ‘Luft rauslassen. Ventile aufmachen!’ (let out air, open the valves) following his immense frustration on finding that the old East German banknotes were now worthless. It appears that Alex and the city are ‘united’ (tellingly, the screenplay stresses that ‘Die Freude scheint die ganze Stadt erfasst zu haben’[joy seems to have the whole town in its grip – my italics]). And yet the disproportion and incongruity inherent in the city’s ‘reaction’ to Alex’s yell of frustration points up the cosmic irony involved in any attempt to apply the term ‘unity’ to state politics.

Such irony and incongruity carries over into the sporting realm and the real story of the 1990 World Cup, where the winning team, lauded for representing a recently reunified nation, was in fact drawn from only a part of that nation (if all sporting victories are to be regarded as symbolic, this was at least more symbolic than most, the winning team being made to represent something they manifestly were not). We saw, in the example of Alex’s shout, that the roar of the populus did not indicate some sort of correspondence between the city and the individual; it is just as inappropriate to see the reaction of the German public to West Germany’s 1990 World Cup victory as evidence of any achievement of progress, at that stage at least, in the process of reunification.

Placing Alex in such surroundings, measuring his myth-making up against that of the city that surrounds him, prevents him from being labelled as a freak – indeed, he becomes for the viewer more like an urban Everyman precisely because we are allowed to appreciate that the cover-up, the myth, the clever elision of elements which, on closer examination, do not belong together are all part of the stock-in-trade of what we tend to call ‘reality’: real governments, real media and real people.

4: Der Himmel über Berlin

When we come to the third film, Wim Wenders and Peter Handke’s Der Himmel über Berlin (translated at the box-office as Wings of Desire, but to be rendered literally as ‘The sky – or heaven – above Berlin’), we have some explaining to do. At least, we would need to remind a teenage audience not just of a few historical facts (such as that the film was first shown in 1987, before the fall of the Wall) but also of the likely expectations of the audiences who went to watch it at that time.

There was just no inkling that the Berlin Wall would come down within three years of the film’s original release. Indeed, in his original treatment for the film, Wenders declares that ‘The name of the film will be: “THE SKY OVER BERLIN” because the sky is maybe the only thing that unites these two cities, apart from their past of course. Will there be a common future? “Heaven only knows.”’(Wim Wenders, ‘An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film’) This makes the starting point for Wenders’ thinking quite clear and indicates the mood of yearning and apparently unfulfillable hope associated with the film-making – a mood that is likely to be shared by the 1987 German audience.

Unusually, Wenders has said that he actually prefers the English version of the film’s title. In fact, it seems clear to me that the title Wings of Desire sums up the master metaphors of Wenders’ project very well. The English title contains multiple suggestions: the word ‘desire’ adumbrates all at once aspiration, longing for bodily pleasures, a propensity to dream and a wish to reach out (either to the other, the fellow human being, or in a larger context, to the prospect of a long sought-after political union), while ‘wings’ contains associations of the transcending of petty boundaries, the triumph of the imagination. You could say that the German title describes the site and the pretext (this is a film ‘über Berlin’ in two senses of the German preposition ‘über’: both ‘above’ and ‘about, concerning’), while the English title declares its goals and themes.

Set in West Berlin in the 1980s, the film follows two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, as they roam the city, unseen and unheard by the people, observing and listening to the diverse thoughts of Berliners: a pregnant woman, a painter, a broken man who thinks his girlfriend no longer loves him. Their raison d’être is not that of the stereotypical angel, but, as Cassiel says, ‘Nichts weiter tun als anschauen, sammeln, bezeugen, beglaubigen, wahren! Geist bleiben! Im Abstand bleiben! Im Wort bleiben!’ (To do no more than watch, assemble, testify, verify! Remain pure spirit! Keep our distance! Keep our word!).

Although Damiel and Cassiel are pure observers, invisible to all but children, and incapable of any physical interaction with our world, Damiel begins to fall in love with a circus trapeze artist named Marion, who is talented, lovely, but profoundly lonely. Eventually, Damiel too longs for physicality, and to become human. When he sheds his immortal existence, he experiences life for the first time. He bleeds, sees colours (the film up until then had been shot in a sepia-toned monochrome, except for brief moments when the angels were not present or looking), tastes food and drinks coffee.

That potted account of the film’s concerns starts to indicate ways in which Der Himmel über Berlin employs an entirely different approach to space from that seen in the two other films. In those films, one sort of broadly realist assumption applies: that we can satisfactorily apprehend the world offered to us by the cinema by looking at and reflecting on the actions of those who populate it.

In Der Himmel über Berlin, the space open for investigation by the film-maker is massively increased and even includes the ‘mental space’ – the ‘headroom’ – of the people who appear in the film. The opening of the film, with its soaring, sweeping vision of Berlin from above, issues an immediate challenge, nails the film’s colours to the mast and sets out one of Wenders’ aesthetic tenets in an utterly compelling way: it is made clear that the perspective from which the doings of human beings (and angels) will be viewed will not be pinned down to ground level or restrained by the conservatism of any realist ethic.

Wenders’ disinclination to accept limitations extends to his approach to time and history. Drawing once again on the original treatment for the film, we can observe one of Wenders’ reasons for bringing in the angels at all: their Olympian viewpoint allows them to communicate to us the insight that a sense of place extends beyond an acquaintance with the contemporary, that knowledge of a geographical site involves an understanding of how it had once been.

As Wenders puts it in the original treatment, ‘They see beyond the world that manifests itself to people today. […] Behind the city of today, in its interstices or above it, as though frozen in time, are the ruins, the mounds of rubble, the burned chimney stacks and facades of the devastated city, only dimly visible sometimes but always there in the background. There are other ghosts from the past too, shadowy presences visible to the angels: previously fallen angels and grim demons that had rampaged through the city and the country and put on their worst and bloodiest spectacle. […] When our angels appear, these figures run like rats. But there is hardly any contact or interaction, certainly no violent altercation between them and the angels.’

This is reminiscent of much that has been written recently on psychogeography, with the notion that the city is a palimpsest very much to the fore. But psychogeography is written by mortal human beings and not immortal angels. Psychogeographers have limited life-spans and are reliant on their imagination: to flesh out details of the experiences before their birth which they simply could not have been party to; and to draw conclusions and make inferences, based on what they have read and seen, about the multiplicity of experiences and data, past and future, to which they will necessarily never gain access. No such luck if you are an angel: you get to know everything (with the proviso that the ‘knowing’ involved is akin to a kind of documentary witnessing), and the whole business could drive you mad.

Fortunately, the film does not at this point turn into a forensic analysis of an angel’s nervous breakdown. It takes, instead, a direction that bears witness to Wenders’ lightness of touch. Quite early on, Wenders shows that, for all his initial bravado in showing the city of Berlin from what is an imitation of a super-human vantage point, he is also interested in working at ground level to defamiliarise, define and by that token rehabilitate the specifically human.

There is a celebrated opening scene in a library in Berlin, where the soundtrack allows us to hear the inner voice of each reader, something the angels are habitually party to. But the scene shows that to be, like an angel, witness to everything means that you hear nothing. The inner voices of the readers become an inchoate cacophony; it is actually a hard part of the film to watch. The fate of the angel is viewed in a peculiarly anthropomorphic way, of course, but I suppose that a human film-maker can ultimately do nothing else. Besides, it suits Wenders’ intentions – one of which is to relaunch the sense of aura and transcendence to be found in life, in Berlin.

Near the start of the film, the angels realise that knowledge of the world that arises from the enumeration of discrete facts is a random, incoherent affair. They sit in a car showroom, invisible to the other customers, and become aware that their almost trainspotterish habit of collecting data is incapable of helping them (or any angel) to form a narrative or personal history and ill-suited to the formation of any judgment as to progress. They hanker after forms of satisfaction that seem much more prosaic and dispensable than might befit their exalted status: touching, tasting, speculating, not always being right.

Wenders’ film portrays supernatural beings, even if of a recognisably human kind. They choose to forego their exalted status as superhumans (of undifferentiated transcendence) in order to feel the sensual joys of living. These joys entail certain limitations. In a film which is light years away from Sonnenallee, the angels opt for these limitations – principally on their movements in space – whereas the characters in Haußmann’s film would presumably only have wished for more space.

Wenders has gone on record as saying how much he enjoyed filming in the no man’s land area near the Wall. He was able, in the real world of film-making, to find unexpected tracts of space that otherwise seemed to lie fallow. This had the felicitous effect of allowing him to build a fictional environment with acres more room in it, it would seem, than we ever glimpsed in Sonnenallee. Wenders designs this environment as a means of suggesting to cinemagoers how they in turn might value more highly their own urban space and their own lives. The fact that the environment contains a circus and a trapeze artist is of great significance.

When Damiel falls in love with the trapeze-artist Marion, he is growing closer to a human being who has somehow achieved a state of grace, who is able to move through the air and maintain balance in what seems a miraculous way. She is not herself superhuman and indeed is shown falling. However, her aspiration and the existence of a kind of alternative community in the circus tent that Wenders builds and portrays in no man’s land suggest to us that the realm of art and performance is something privileged. In what is by far the most virtuoso performance of all three film-makers, Wenders seems even to be implying that this creation of dreams is something cinema is uniquely fitted to effect. In 1989, historical circumstance seemed momentarily to back him up.

5: Conclusion

So which places have these three films been portraying? I would suggest that we have been introduced to three ‘Berlins’.

In Sonnenallee, we saw ‘Berlin Hauptstadt der DDR’. The East German state always insisted that what we termed ‘East Berlin’ should be referred to in this way, andSonnenallee emphasises the constriction that came hand in hand with this focused definition.

In Good Bye Lenin!, the Berlin we saw was ‘Berlin als Baustelle’ – Berlin as building site, as so many saw the city in the 1990s.

In Der Himmel über Berlin, Berlin is a ‘Weltstadt’ – by which we need to understand a place that is not just a world-class capital city, as that term suggests, but a capital city that somehow represents the world.

And we have been looking at three ways of approaching space. In Sonnenallee, we learned how to make the most of limited space. In Good Bye Lenin!, we were made to appreciate the consequences of inventing space. And in Der Himmel über Berlin, we were encouraged to explode space. As the most self-consciously ‘cinematic’ of the three films,Der Himmel über Berlin even suggests that the only way you are going to see all these different extra dimensions is through cinema itself.


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