Copyright © 1994 Mars Hill Review 1 Founded in 1994 · Premier Issue: pgs 143-144.
In the same week that the top-grossing movie in America was Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, a little-known film called Faraway, So Close played at our local art house. This most recent release from Wim Wenders opens our eyes to the same unseen world of angels as his previous Wings of Desire. He pictures their world as a black and white, timeless existence where they bear the burden of human misery as well as the overwhelming message of their Creator. It is from this colorless, nonpalpable existence that the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) leaves to experience human life and love in the former movie. His friend Cassiel (Otto Sander) makes the leap in Faraway, So Close and learns a lesson in redemption.
The movie begins with a tunnel view of the city of Berlin. Symbolic of the tunnel vision we all have of this life, this view circles a city filled with people consumed by their thoughts. Cassiel loved to "tune in" on these thoughts and private conversations. But as he complains to his colleague Raphaela (Natassja Kinski), the world where people once looked and listened for angels has long ago passed on. Although they can easily travel through time and space, they seem to have crossed an epoch where their role as messenger has become superfluous. Their message falls on dull ears and their ability to affect the human world is blocked. But still they minister even though they have only a vague concept of what a toll time and pain really take on humans. One can see the mystery and wonder on Cassiel's face as he travels from room to room in an apartment building, sharing intimate moments with humans but not fully understanding them. Like laughing at a joke told in a foreign language, the connection is made but without comprehension.
Pulled by his desire to know more of the human heart and to be able to intervene in meaningful ways, Cassiel "takes the leap" on a sudden, horrific whim to save a young girl's life. His transformation into human form is comical as he takes his first awkward steps and tastes food and drink for the first time. But making meaningful intervention does not come easy to this former angel. Even relations with his old friend Damiel are strained. Cassiel finds the real world rather cruel and pointless, once the novelty wears off. Self-absorbed addictions and aimless wandering are his only outlet. Even the voice of the ever-present Raphaela is silent. Instead he is guided by the demonic character of Willem Dafoe who leads him into despair and drunkenness and eventually has a hand in his destruction. Lou Reed's lyrics ask Cassiel's existential question: "Why can't I be good?"
What Cassiel lacks is a mission. He finds it in the reunion of a family torn by their Nazi past and the current crimes of the brother Tony Baker (Horst Buchholz), an American gangster involved in pornography and arms dealing. Based on knowledge gained during his angelic activity, Cassiel begins to work on a plan that will bring redemption to Baker and reunite him with his estranged sister and niece. With this plan Cassiel once again soars to the heights, this time aided by the acrobatic equipment owned by Damiel's extended family. Freed from the bondage he sold himself into when he first became human, Cassiel shows everyone how he can fly, both on a trapeze and within the confines of the relationship. The metaphor of relationship is seen between the acrobats as they alternately depend on and suspend one another. Life is a tenuous circus trick where we can both soar and fall.
Cassiel's plan involves Peter Falk, playing himself as a visitor to Berlin. Falk's character was once an angel too, and he still finds himself talking to his invisible companions. Aided by the confusion caused over the identity of this traveling "Columbo," Cassiel and his acrobatic friends are able to pilfer a room full of weapons from the unsuspecting Baker. No sooner do they get away with it, but they are hijacked by an opposing gang of thugs. Cassiel's last chance for intervention comes with another well-timed leap; this time using the bungee cords that represent his freedom. They become his snare, however, as he is an easy target. He dies, slowly vibrating between heaven and earth. His removal from the cords is reminiscent of Jesus being let down from the cross. Once again united with Raphaela, Cassiel sees the good that can be done through one human being to another. The movie ends as it began, closing out the peripheral, focusing on the distant and reminding us that the angels so close are also very far away.
This film expands the imagination into the world of the unseen. It does so in a believable way by never really letting go of the reality we know and live in. However, the realm of angels is not far. They are ever present and ever longing for us to listen, and in listening, hear what they always hear: the pains of their human charges and the message of a loving Sovereign.