Just last week, I watched the achingly beautiful and meditative Wings of Desire, a 1987 German film by director Wim Wenders for which he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. As the story of an immortal angel who turns down his eternity old mission to silently observe and record the human experience to be a mortal and know what it means to be a man and love, it was an artistically ambitious and visually striking ode to the beauty and transitory nature of life. As soon as I discovered that Wenders released a sequel six years later, I immediately put it on my Netflix queue and moved it to the very top because of how much I loved the original film. That’s why I’m sad to report that while 1993’s Faraway, So Close! is a gorgeous and uplifting film in its own right, it comes nowhere close to capturing the spiritual magic of Wings of Desire. By embracing a more conventional and accessible plot structure, Wenders loses the postmodernist magic of his original film and instead tells a story that is perhaps a little too simplistic and earnest in its idealism.

It’s been six years since Damiel (Bruno Ganz), the protagonist of Wings of Desire, gave up his status as an angel to be a man and to be with the lovely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). They have a young daughter and Marion has found professional success with a circus troupe while Damiel has fully integrated into human life running his own pizza shop. His closest “friend” as an angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander),  has spent the intervening years upholding his post as a recorder of human life and to bring people small comfort in their most distressing moments. He’s even found a replacement for his personal counsel in the female angel Raphaela (Tess‘s Nastassja Kinski). Cassiel finds himself longing for the same kind of human existence that Damiel has and bemoans his inability to reach out and make a true impact in the lives of the people he silently observes every day. When one of the girls that he watches nearly falls to hear death, Cassiel sacrifices his angelhood to save her life though his transition into this mortal coil is far less simple and pleasant than Damiel when a mysterious supernatural agent (Willem Dafoe) does his best to shape the course of Cassiel’s new life, and not for the better.

The most remarkable part of the film was Otto Sander’s performance as Cassiel (and later, his human persona of Karl Engel). Well, the best part is still the black-and-white photography but a considerably larger portion of this film was shot in color than in Wings of Desire so it didn’t have the same total effect this time around. Cassiel’s character arc is about as tragic as you can imagine, and Otto Sanders really sells Cassiel’s transformation from an innocent and naive newborn essentially to a more hardened and cynical person in a pretty heartbreaking way. There are plenty of scenes which find Cassiel raging against the forces of fate that landed him in this situation and why he can’t do the same good as other men, and Sander was fare more effective in this film than he was Wings of Desire (even if the latter was a much better film). Bruno Ganz doesn’t have much screen time in this though he certainly makes the most of what he has yet again. Willem Dafoe is as creepy and unsettling as he always is although I’m still not entirely sure what his character was supposed to be. Maybe the Angel of Death. I really just don’t have a certain answer. Mikhail Gorbachev (yes, the former premier of the Soviet Union) had a small cameo. So, Wim Wenders obviously had some serious pull back in the day for casting.

Despite its artistic ambitions, one of the reasons that Wings of Desire succeeded so completely was in its childlike simplicity. It’s not simplicity in structure or philosophical potency, but a simplicity of plot and narrative. By abandoning any honest notion of plot, Wings of Desire was able to focus solely on placing the audience in the emotional and psychological state of these immortal beings who are forced to watch humanity as distant voyeurs rather than true participants. It examined the beauty in the smaller moments of life by showing us the dullness of eternity and passive observation. Faraway, So Close! attempts to tell an actual plot and in the process, it sacrifices the symbolic power of the image and the engagement of meditative contemplation. Others may appreciate the more plot-driven nature of this film, but ultimately, it overreaches itself and fails to reach any of the emotional and spiritual heights of the original film because it becomes slightly too self-righteous and starry-eyed. While I consider Wings of Desire to be one of the more uplifting films I’ve watched for this blog, I also thought it had  a seriously commendable subversive streak. Faraway, So Close! lacks any of the edge of its predecessor, even though this film shows the occasional flash of a disheartened pessimism.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare this film so much to the original since it’s very clear that Wim Wenders was trying to craft a very different story thematically and visually, but since it’s still a direct sequel, I think the comparison has to be made, and in the end Faraway, So Close! simply doesn’t fit in the same league of daring and adventurous film-making as Wings of Desire. Had Wings of Desire not existed and I was able to look at this film in a context-free vacuum, perhaps its score would be a little higher, but knowing exactly what Wim Wenders is capable of makes me more than a little disappointed in this particular entry in his film library. While I can’t recommend this film with as much enthusiasm as its predecessor, it may still hold plenty of interest for fans of foreign cinema, and if you’re somehow reading this post without having seen Wings of Desire, you should drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. It’s probably the best movie I’ve watched since The Tree of Life a couple months ago.

Final Score: B

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