Starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, City Of Angels shifts Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire from West Berlin to Los Angeles, but is it just another Hollywood remake.
This feature contains mild spoilers for both Wings Of Desire and City Of Angels.
“And I don’t want the world to see me / Cos I don’t think that they’d understand…”
As Kermit the Frog once stated, “I don’t think Americans watch subtitled movies.” While it’s notable that a lot of breakthrough films that aren’t in the English language usually have Hollywood remakes in development before too long (South Korea’s Train To Busan and Denmark’s Another Round are among the projects announced in the last few months), it’s usually interesting to observe how a film changes in translation.
I regret that I can’t remember who coined the term “American-language remake” for this kind of film now, because it’s a good term and it illuminates that it’s not merely about making the same film for English-speaking audiences, but also refitting the cinematic language of a piece.
Granted, the results are rarely better than what came before, but like any remake, so long as they’re not literally taped over the original so that you can never watch that version again, (and they never are) there’s usually something to be got out of analysing how a later version reconfigures its source material.
That’s why we’d argue that one of the more interesting cases for comparison is between Wim Wenders’ 1988 low-budget fantasy film Wings Of Desire (or Heaven Over Berlin, from its original German title) and the loose Hollywood remake, 1998’s City Of Angels.
With its poetic agenda and non-linear narrative, the former won Wenders a Best Director award at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and almost 35 years on, is considered a modern classic of German cinema. The latter isn’t a straight remake, but a more straightforward romance centring around the relationship between Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan’s characters, and on balance, the American-language version has likely had more eyes on it than the original ever will.
There’s understandable sensitivity around remakes like this because of Hollywood’s cultural domination around the world, but whether you love or loathe it, Brad Silberling’s take makes an interesting study of how remakes like these translate more than just the spoken language.
Heaven Over Berlin
“Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end?”
Tonally, the two films are as far apart as the mortals and the angels in Wenders’ film, which takes place before the fall of the Berlin Wall and finds a centuries-old celestial being called Damiel (Bruno Ganz) falling in love with trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). However, mortals cannot see or hear their overseers and the angel bristles at being unable to experience human sensations like touch or colour. After much contemplation and an encounter with Peter Falk, (playing himself) Damiel makes a momentous decision about his status as an unseen observer.
Inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and assorted angel-themed artworks around West Berlin, Wenders conceived the film with the help of poet Peter Handke and co-writer Richard Reitinger. Wings Of Desire didn’t have a conventional script to speak of and was shot on location in Berlin for a very low budget.
Accordingly, the film is a collection of ideas and observational scenes, whether it’s ruminating on angels overhearing humans’ thoughts, or displaying rapturous trapeze sequences and live-music performances. Carrying the film, Ganz is wonderful as the world-weary angel and he’s ably supported by Otto Sander as Cassiel, the more conservative of the two celestial beings.
Additionally, one of the big outcomes of this loose approach to narrative was that Peter Falk’s involvement only came about after principal photography had started. If you haven’t seen the film, we won’t get too specific about the nature of his character here (Falk later described the film as “the craziest thing that I’ve ever been offered”) but there’s a reliably wry and ironic quality to his pivotal role.
Despite the low budget, the film is hugely ambitious in its visuals. In the same style as 1946’s A Matter Of Life And Death, the film contrasts the angelic POV with the vivid mortal realm by using a mix of black-and-white and colour photography. Damiel begins to see the world in colour only through Marion and his brushes with humanity, where the omniscient view of the world is colourless by comparison.
With its location shooting and modest special effects, those visuals still stand up today, not least thanks to the painstaking 4K restoration completed by the Wim Wenders Foundation for the film’s 30th anniversary in 2017. Due to the difference in processing black-and-white and colour film, the quality of the final cut was variable, and the new restoration entailed scanning the raw film negatives from principal photography and frame-accurately reassembling the restored footage.
The results are nothing short of dazzling and the film, while more an experience than a narrative, is a must-see if you haven’t already sought it out. But really, what were the chances of Hollywood repackaging an abstract, part-black-and-white ponder faithfully for a multiplex audience?
“Some things are true whether you believe them or not.”
Among Wings Of Desire’s American fans was producer Dawn Steel, then fresh off a brief but history-making stint as President of Columbia Pictures, where she was the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio. Looking for independent projects, Steel optioned the remake rights for the film from Wenders (reportedly for a greater sum than he was paid for writing and directing the original) in 1989. Incidentally, Wenders made his Cassiel-centric sequel, Faraway, So Close!, in 1993 while the Hollywood version was still in development.
Meanwhile, not wishing to remake the original outright, Steel began looking for writers and directors to bring a new story to life. After Disney and Turner Entertainment turned the project down, she set the film up at Warner Bros, co-producing with her husband Charles Roven through their newly founded Atlas Entertainment.
Plus, although Steel was initially seeking a big-name filmmaker like Sydney Pollack and Peter Weir to direct the film, Brad Silberling – who had then recently been hand-picked by Steven Spielberg to direct 1995’s Casper – fought his corner and persuaded the producers that he was the right man for the job.
Screenwriter Dana Stevens provided the script, aiming to “capture [the original’s] essence” rather than adapt it directly. In this version, Seth is one of many angels who spend their days watching humanity, right up until he falls in love with heart surgeon Dr Maggie Rice while watching her try to save a patient. Without the context of 1980s Berlin, the story is more of a straight romance, and one in which the angel can appear to Maggie if he chooses to. Ultimately, Seth still faces the same big choice as his forerunner in Wenders’ film.
Here, our angel is also played by Nicolas Cage, for whom this role as a sad, voyeuristic, but essentially good entity truly represents the height of Gonzo James Stewart Energy after an eclectic run of films like The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. Meg Ryan plays Maggie, and the cast is rounded out by Andre Braugher, Colm Feore, and Dennis Franz.
Coming along after the 1996 angel-movie double-whammy of Michael and The Preacher’s Wife, the script for City Of Angels was rewritten throughout development and pre-production, with Silberling and Cage drawing angels’ wings on script pages they felt could be improved by a rewrite. Though this approach is a far cry from some of the more winningly improvised moments in Wings Of Desire, it couldn’t be said that the filmmakers were either phoning it in or simply doing a transcript of the first film.
Indeed, there are points in the movie where it could as easily be taking place in the same world as Wings Of Desire, without contradicting or overwriting it. The casting of Braugher as Cassiel is the exception to that, but the star, now best loved as the mightily deadpan Captain Holt on Brooklyn Nine Nine, is well cast as the stoic angel character.
However, the movie does tend over-explain itself in translation. There’s nothing as wry about Falk’s analogue in this version and the explanation of how that character got here and what they’ve been doing shows the film’s obsessive neatness. Also, in this scheme of things, heart surgeon is somehow a more instantly loveable profession than trapeze artist.
As for the that central romance, there’s no chance of thunderstruck love at first manifestation here, because the conversion from non-linear to genre narrative has Seth and Maggie spending time with each other, rather than isolating the angel from his love interest for most of the running time. Ironically, this can all be waved away by the less ambiguous, more Christianised depiction of the angels – the remake just moves in mysterious ways.
Compared to Wings Of Desire, there’s very little that goes unspoken about the premise or conceit in City Of Angels. The narrativized version of that essential idea is always going to hew more closely to formula, and what it loses in nuance, it makes up in untrammelled schmaltz and an extra-melodramatic finale. Oh, and that acceptable-in-the-1990s soundtrack, led by the Goo Goo Dolls’ power-ballad theme song “Iris”.
Back when an original soundtrack could sell a movie, this might have contributed to the film’s success. To give you some idea of where the box office was for most of 1998, Titanic had been number 1 in US cinemas for 15 weeks shortly before City Of Angels arrived in cinemas in April 1998. It would be a good bit of trivia if it had been the film to topple James Cameron’s romantic juggernaut, but it missed out by one week and not being Lost In Space.
Nevertheless, it did top the US box office chart when it opened the weekend after and went on to gross $198 million worldwide. Tragically, Steel never got to see the film’s success as she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1996. She passed away in December 1997, a few months before City Of Angels premiered and the film is duly dedicated to her memory.
Lost in translation?
“There’s so many good things.”
Whatever you think of City Of Angels, Silberling has continued to stand by this take. While on the promotional trail, the director told German paper Der Spiegel that they had essentially been allowed to make the film they wanted to make while the big executives at Warner Bros were concentrating on Batman & Robin, which had arrived in cinemas the summer before this.
It’s doubtful this would have felt so much like a big-budget fan film had it been noted more thoroughly from on high. It may be more formulaic than Wings Of Desire (most films are) but it’s definitely not going for as feel-good an ending as the original. Heck, Wenders’ film ends on a ‘To Be Continued’ card, not to tee up the sequel that eventually happened but as commentary on the contrasting natures of cinema and life – where the film ends is only the beginning for its characters.
For better or worse, City Of Angels drives for more closure than that. From the change of setting alone, it’s not as complex as the film that inspired it, but translating the story is not (only) a matter of sticking angels on top of the Hollywood sign instead of on either side of the Berlin Wall. It’s a very Americanised spin on the film’s appraisal of life as an experience, placing value on different “good things” than the ones Falk highlights, but it’s there in spirit. And frankly, for all of the remake’s flaws, it remains a suitably weird and melancholy interlude in this era of studio filmmaking.
Finally, as Wenders told The New York Times in 1998: “Wings of Desire could never be remade in a conventional sense; it could only be used as a point of departure, and that’s exactly what Dana and Brad did”.
“The two films reflect on each other in interesting ways,” he said. “I was a little anxious when I got the script. But with every page, I felt Dana had done something intelligent and respectful, translating my poem into an American story. It’s still a film about love, but a very, very different one.”
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