Every good work of dramatic storytelling has an internal rhythm that we, as readers/watchers/listeners, subconsciously pick up on as we go further into it. It often means we’re able to sense where a story is going before we should, based on hints the storyteller didn’t even know s/he was giving us. Sometimes it can be obvious, like the ten individual ten-minute takes that comprise Hitchcock’s film Rope. Other times it’s far more subtle, like the way the ending of Peter Hoeg’s novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow seems first jarring, and then in restrospect, inevitable.
I was reminded of this when I rewatched one of my favorite films, Wim Wenders 1987 story of angels in love, Wings of Desire. Yes, it was remade into a trite and obvious American film, City of Angels, but we’re talking about the original now, a film of startling brilliance and delicate touch (and, I must also add, a totally different ending).
Succinctly, the plot involves the angel Damiel falling in love with Marion, a trapeze artist in a two-bit circus stuck in West Berlin during the Cold War era. As an angel he’s followed her without her knowing it, learned her secret desires and sadness, and at last gives up his heavenly existence for the chance to meet her face to face.
This meeting happens in a Berlin nightclub, where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provide a throbbing soundtrack. Marion and Damiel finally meet in the bar, and the scene is set for him to make a speech professing his love for her, which in turn will make her fall for him. It’s what we think the whole movie has been building toward.
But instead, she makes the speech to him. With no idea of his history, of who he really is or how long he’s watched and adored her.
This is part of what she says:
Now it’s serious. At last it’s becoming serious. So I’ve grown older. Was I the only one who wasn’t serious? Is it our times that are not serious? I was never lonely neither when I was alone, nor with others. But I would have liked to be alone at last. Loneliness means I’m finally whole. Now I can say it as tonight, I’m at last alone. I must put an end to coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if there’s destiny but there’s a decision. Decide! We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. Now or never. You need me. You will need me. There’s no greater story than ours, that of man and woman. It will be a story of giants… invisible… transposable… a story of new ancestors. Look. My eyes. They are the picture of necessity, of the future of everyone in the place. Last night I dreamt of a stranger… of my man. Only with him could I be alone, open up to him, wholly open, wholly for him. Welcome him wholly into me. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know… it’s you.
(You can see the scene on YouTube here.)
Sure the movie is stylized; it implies that Peter Falk, the actual actor and not a character, was once an angel as well. It’s loaded with poetic voice-overs, shifts from black-and-white to color, and has a sense of magic in the most mundane places in the world. But this is the moment when it all comes together and creates not just the romantic relationship between the protagonists, but the world view that they inhabit. Just as he secretly watched her, she somehow knows all about him.
David Gerrold, in one of his books describing his work on Star Trek, gave this simple advice for avoiding cliche (I’m paraphrasing): When you find yourself about to write something obvious, do the opposite. It’s good advice, and it’s what Wenders and his co-writer Peter Handke did. I assume this speech was written by Handke, the poet who contributed most of the monologues. But whoever wrote it, it was the brilliance of giving it to the opposite character from the one you’d expect that makes it resonate. Like the kindness of the angels in the film, the romance shows up where you least expect it.
So in a sense, Wings of Desire ends up exactly where we think it will. But it gets there via a totally unexpected path. It stays true to its rhythm, but at the same time surprises us by turning cliche on its head. And as such, it’s an object lesson for all storytellers working in any form.