In all the publicity material for all the season’s films, this is surely the most peculiar and deadpan star’s bio: ” ‘Faraway, So Close’ marks Mikhail Gorbachev’s feature film debut.” The former Soviet president has a tiny cameo in Wim Wenders’s latest film. And he has a guardian angel looking over his shoulder while he sits at his desk meditating that “a secure world can’t be built on blood; only on harmony.”
The angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander), is the true star of “Faraway, So Close,” a lyrical and profoundly goofy continuation of Mr. Wenders’s 1987 cult hit “Wings of Desire.” But in spirit Mr. Gorbachev presides over the film like the guardian angel of glasnost, for Mr. Wenders has taken the major characters from “Wings of Desire” and set them down in a unified, and strangely multi-lingual, Germany.
Damiel (Bruno Ganz), the angel who became human near the end of the earlier film, is now a pizza maker who sings “Funiculi, Funicula” while riding his delivery bike. He is married to Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the French trapeze artist who inspired him to become a man in the first place. Damiel can sense the presence of his old colleague, Cassiel, though angels are visible only to one another and to the movie camera.
As in the earlier film, angels hover around reading humans’ minds. Sometimes they wear wings. Always, they wear greatcoats and ponytails, which make the male angels resemble 1980’s art dealers. When Cassiel catches a little girl who has fallen off a balcony, he violates the angels’ rule of nonintervention and becomes human. You can tell, because his ponytail floats to the ground and he suddenly appears in color rather than black and white. (Most of the film is in deliciously rich black and white, with color reserved for those scenes in which no angels are eavesdropping.)
Mr. Wenders, the king of road movies, is at his best when he sets his angels free as if they were in a road movie of the air. Cassiel and a beautiful angel called Raphaela (Nastassja Kinski, underused here) discover that Berlin is rife with Americans. Among them are Peter Falk and Lou Reed, whose cameos provide some bright, tongue-in-cheek moments, though the scenes also suggest that Mr. Wenders’s idea of German unification has more to do with geography and slogans than with politics.
Mr. Falk, who also played himself in “Wings of Desire,” wants to see East Berlin now that the wall is down, but has trouble getting a cab driver who knows his way around. Mr. Reed noodles with his guitar and sings, “In Berlin after the wall/It’s very nice, it’s paradise.” Mr. Wenders’s politics never sound more profound than those lyrics. But the soundtrack, with songs by Mr. Reed, U2 and Nick Cave, is one of the film’s savvy strong points. “Why can’t I be good, why can’t I act like a man,” the human Cassiel sings to himself, echoing a Lou Reed concert he has sneaked into.
Mr. Sander is a valuable, steadying presence. He carries his ponderous lines lightly, and his somber face offers ballast to the most fanciful scenes. But the human Cassiel gets into trouble when he tries some angelic good deeds, and Mr. Wenders gets into trouble at about the same time. He constructs an unintelligible suspense plot that involves a German-American gangster, gunrunners and circus acrobats.
Another major misstep is the prominent character played by Willem Dafoe. He seems like a fallen angel, able to move between the human and the spirit world, and buys Cassiel a drink that instantly turns him into a drunk begging on the street. He is intended to represent mortal time: his pocket watch ticks like a time bomb and his name, Emit Flesti, is simply “Time Itself” spelled backwards. But the character is as meaningful as gibberish. When he says things like, “Time is the absence of money,” the only proper audience response is “Huh?” At such moments it is wise to remember that while “Faraway, So Close” sounds like a poetic title, it is just a fancy way of saying “so near and yet so far.” There are nasty cliches lurking at the heart of Mr. Wenders’s lyricism.
But there is also great daring, wit and style. Like Mr. Wenders’s previous film, last year’s “Until the End of the World,” this one begins as a swirl of dazzling ambition and at midpoint turns into a mess. Even so, and even at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it is one of the more intriguing messes on screen.
Caryn James, NY Times, December 22, 1993