Thursday, 21 February 2019

So, farewell Swiss actor Bruno Ganz - thank you for the Hitler meme and the glorious "Wings of Desire"

Until a few weeks ago, I only knew Bruno Ganz from a handful of appearances in American films - e.g. The Boys from Brazil and The Reader - and his memorable portrayal of Hitler in Downfall (and the endless internet memes it spawned)...

...A few weeks' ago, I watched and enjoyed the charming 1941 film, Here Come Mr. Jordan, in which Robert Montgomery plays a boxer who, due to angelic incompetence, dies in a plane crash 50 years ahead of his allotted span. Because the boxer has been cremated, the wrong can't be righted by returning him to his own body, so he has to don the body of a recently deceased banker who had been swindling people by selling worthless securities. The boxer - accompanied by an angel in the form of Claude Rains (Mr. Jordan) - sets about putting things right. It's a delightful slice of Golden Age Hollywood hokum and it left me wanting more of the same.

Unfortunately, I'd already seen many of the more worthwhile old-timey "angel" films - e.g. The Passing of the Third Floor Back, It's a Wonderful Life,  The Bishop's Wife, Heaven Only Knows, A Matter of Life and Death, Carousel and Heaven Can Wait (which almost fits the mould) - as well as  Irwin Allen's The Story of Mankind (1957), undoubtedly one of the worst properly-financed films I've ever seen. As I searched the web for other angelic productions, I kept coming across Wings of Desire, and, guiltily aware that the only Wim Wenders films I'd seen were Paris, Texas (which I loathed) and the documentary Buena Vista Social Club (which I enjoyed), that I hadn't seen Bruno Ganz in any German-language film other than Downfall - and intrigued by the appearance of Peter Falk in the cast list - I decided to give it a go:

Bruno Ganz is one of the unseen angels who watch over the people of Berlin, comforting the lost, the lonely, the dying and the suicidal as best they can. He falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist, and starts to wonder what it would be like to be mortal, human, to feel everything we feel:

Here, Ganz "meets" Peter Falk (playing himself - he's making a film in Berlin), who - we learn in this scene - was an angel who decided to become mortal:

When Ganz finally makes the decision to renounce his angelhood and becomes human, the film forsakes its beautiful, dreamy, subdued black-and-whiteness and bursts into almost shocking, noisy, in-your-face colour, following the template set by Powell and Pressburger in A Matter of Life and Death, where Heaven is black-and-white, while Earth is in glorious technicolour.

I know many people find this sort of fantasy film hard to take, but, as the film was released two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, they can amuse themselves by deciphering allegorical messages about the divide between East and West, capitalism and communism etc.  And - who knows? - they  might even find themselves won round by Wim Wenders' masterly direction, Henri Alekan's stunning cinematography, and Bruno Ganz's truly wonderful performance, which provides us with a powerful, heartening reminder that, while life is fraught with pain, it can also be a source of wonder and delight.

If you ever get a chance to see Wings of Desire, I urge you to grab it.

1 comment:

  1. As ever, I totally agree with you on Ganz. Very good actor.

    Probably the best Hitler screen portrayal? Alec Guinness and Hopkins not bad either. The guy in Quarentino's "Inglorious Basterds" nul points. The Scottish actor - Robert Forsythe - ruined his career when he fronted up at an aristocratic gathering in some very tight "Lederhosen" [see previous post about homosexual Americans in their underwear and ski-boots].

    Our own Hitler impersonator - Cyril "Blakey" Blaine - from "On the Busses" [much missed, by the way, in this household] is perfect.

    Putting aside most of the the farting references in the "Downnfall" You Tube clips my favourite is always the one about Fatso Göring's failure to buy Wolverhampton Wanderers and the bringing of the oddly looking Derek Dougan to Berlin.