Criterion Sunday 490: Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987)

I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.

Roman Holiday (1953)

It’s a classic trope, the fantasy of royalty cutting loose and partying with the plebs, like normal people. I’m not even sure if this was the original iteration, but you can’t possibly help but watch it 60 years on and think of A Royal Night Out (2015) or The Princess Diaries (2001) or the hundred other films of that ilk which share the theme, including Notting Hill (1999) which updates the formula from royalty to celebrity. Still, this one has Audrey Hepburn being utterly delightful as Princess Ann from some unspecified Ruritanian country (she’s convincly regal too, although she did have an aristocratic background, after all), and Gregory Peck being all solid and leading-man-like as American reporter Joe. They have an easy rapport as they spend the day together, which begins when he finds her the night before, curled up in the street sleeping, having snuck out of her comfy palatial digs, then makes the royal connection from a photo in the paper. I feel like most people probably already know this film far better than I, but suffice to say there’s a simple enjoyment to the everyday activities they cram in, going sightseeing, going out dancing, getting a haircut, and flirting. It’s a comfortable classic, and works well with the easy charisma of its stars and the photogenic quality of the setting.

Roman Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director William Wyler; Writers Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton [and Dalton Trumbo, uncredited]; Cinematographers Henri Alekan and Franz Planer; Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 6: La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946)

I want to start with the problems I have with this film, Cocteau’s adaptation of the famous fairy tale, because at times I find it a little slow and ponderous. We start out with the banter and knockabout everyday world of Belle (Josette Day), in which she (though hardly servile) is tormented by her vain and grasping sisters, and pursued by a pompous suitor (Jean Marais), but though nicely staged, it’s all rather uninvolving. There’s also something more than just a little camp about the mock-historical setting and the melodramatic acting, which needn’t really be a problem (and indeed Day’s occasional display of self-conscious poses are rather fitting the film’s theatrical staging), though it can make some of the dialogue seem a little risible. And yet, when the film eventually enters the magical, mythical world of the Beast (also played by Jean Marais, under a whole lot of furry makeup), there are sequences which are among the most breathtaking and inventive in all of cinema. There are the animated fittings and statuary, the use of smoke effects, Belle’s gliding movements down the hallway, the expressive set design and the gorgeous monochrome cinematography of Henri Alekan, all of which adds up to create a genuinely uncanny world of magic that permeates the whole enterprise. The character of Belle never really seems more than a cipher, for Cocteau’s interest is far more with Marais and his Beast, but for sheer beauty, the film remains essential.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau (based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont); Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, September 1997 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 21 December 2014).