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Wings of Desire/Der Himmel über Berlin

Toneelgroep Amsterdam (now ITA) in coproduction with American Repertory Theatre (ART)

October 8, 2006 - January 28, 2007

2 hours

The Netherlands and Boston (USA)

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel ueber Berlin) is an adaptation of Wim Wenders monumental film. Mafaalani iniciated for the theatreadaptation an uniek international collaboration with American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) and Toneelgroep Amsterdam. The cast of this perfromance is half Dutch and half American. The production toured the Netherlands and Belgium before arriving at the A.R.T. Boston in december 2006.

‘Toneelversie Hemel boven Berlijn is zacht en dromerig.’ NRC

‘Hemel boven Berlijn bewijst zijn bestaansrecht als unieke voorstelling (…) een montage-voorstelling in de beste traditie van dat genre.’ GPD

‘Een pleidooi voor slowfood voor de ziel (…) Van Huêt maakt een prachtige act van Damiels menswording.’ Parool

‘Hemel boven Berlijn is een poëtische voorstelling die het leven viert omwille van de liefde.’ Telegraaf

‘Hemel boven Berlijn is als voorstelling een poëtisch en nostalgisch cadeau, een kijkervaring.’ Groene Amsterdammer

‘Eén grote samensmelting van muziek, zang, acrobatiek en spel. Het ziet er allemaal schitterend uit.’ 8weekly


"Toneelversie Hemel boven Berlijn is zacht en dromerig."

September 1, 2007

New York Times


December 5, 2006

Groene Amsterdammer

"Hemel boven Berlijn is als voorstelling een poëtisch en nostalgisch cadeau, een kijkervaring."

December 5, 2007


Mam Smith | Fedja van Huêt | Fred Goessens | Frieda Pittoors | Hadewych Minis | Bernard White | Jesse Lenat | Noraly Beyer | Stephen Payne


Ola Mafaalani


Peter Handke | Richard Reitinger | Wim Wenders

Translation, adaptation

Ko van den Bosch | Gideon Lester


Dirkje Houtman

Set design

André Joosten


Andy Moor


Regine Standfuss


Jan Versweyveld | Jasper Zwartjes


Ans Drenth | Johannes de Klerk | Walter Altena | Willy van den IJssel

New York Times, 19 november 2006
Angels who came to earth now come to the stage
By Donna Kornhaber and David Kornhaber

When the German film director Wim Wenders heard from his publishing agent that an international group of theater artists wanted to adapt his 1987 classic, “Wings of Desire,” for the stage, he didn’t object but he didn’t participate. “I know the worst thing you can do as the original author is to get involved,” he said.
And so the challenge was left to the American Repertory Theater, based here, and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the largest repertory company in the Netherlands.“There are many films that you can adapt to the stage,” said André Joosten, the set and lighting designer for the production, “and there is one film that you cannot adapt. And that film is ‘Wings of Desire.’” Known for its sweeping aerial shots of Berlin and innovative camera work, the film has achieved wide acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. It tells the story of an angel in war-ravaged Berlin who renounces eternal life to pursue a relationship with a lonely trapeze artist with whom he has fallen in love. It won Mr. Wenders the best director award at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and was named one of the 100 best films of all time by Time magazine in 2005. (It was remade in 1998 as “City of Angels,” a much less memorable version with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan that takes place in Los Angeles.)
The idea for the new production came from Ola Mafaalani, who is among the leading young directors of the Dutch theatrical avant-garde. For years Ms. Mafaalani, who was born in Syria and studied in Germany before settling in the Netherlands, had been adding angels to her revisionist productions of Shakespeare. (A 2001 production of “Macbeth” featured an angel who escorted victims off the stage, and in a 2002 production of “Romeo and Juliet” Ms. Mafaalani added to the cast amute angel who inadvertently assists in the deaths of the lovers.)
When Robert Woodruff, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, approached Ms. Mafaalani about developing her first American production, she suggested an adaptation of “Wings of Desire.” She had seen the film as a student and regarded it as the origin of her fascination with angels. “It had a very profound effect on her,” said Gideon Lester, the associate artistic director of the American Repertory Theater. “If she was ever going to stop using angels, she had to exorcise them by going back to the source.” Ms. Mafaalani was adamant that the piece be developed in association with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, widely considered the foremost theater company in the Netherlands, where she has been a permanent guest director since 2001. “I felt that it was very important to have two realities on the stage,” she explained by telephone. “Two languages, two different histories. This is what the play is about.”
Ivo van Hove, the artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, knew the co-production would present logistic difficulties, from housing actors to transporting sets. But he had faith in this up-and-coming director. “I knew her work back when she was making mainly small productions,” he said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam. “It was always clear to me that her theatrical vision would fit perfectly in the bigger theaters.”
Mr. Wenders, who co-wrote the script of the film, had faith too. “Looking at the credits of the people behind that theater production, I saw no reason to deny their demand,” he said about giving his permission.
After a year and a half of work the play had its premiere at Toneelgroep Amsterdam on Oct. 8; it will transfer to the American Repertory Theater for a three-week run beginning Saturday.
The formidable task of adapting the script went to Mr. Lester and the Dutch play wright Ko van den Bosch, who is also Ms. Mafaalani’s husband. “We had one version where we translated every single camera shot,” Mr. Lester recalled. “So we ended up with this enormous bilingual bible of a text that was about 400 pages long.” It soon became clear that the key to the adaptation would be to “wrestle it away from the source,” Mr. Woodruff said.
Mr. Lester added: “If Wenders’s film is about film, then this production is about theater. And that’s the biggest adaptation that’s taken place.”
From a design standpoint, that meant simplicity. “The theater is very bare,” Mr. Joosten said. “You can see the whole stage house as it is.” A canteen where the characters get refreshments and giant pillars of sand that resemble hourglasses would be the only set pieces. To capture the look of Mr. Wenders’s black-and-white film stock Mr. Joosten decided on powerful halogen lamps that “eliminate all colors,” he said. There still remained the question of how to translate the action of the film onto the stage. On screen the angels coexist with humans who cannot see them: they “observe us and they write details — for example, a passer-by who in the rain folded her umbrella and let herself be drenched,” Ms. Mafaalani said. To make these interactions believable, she said, she relied on an intense regimen of improvisation to find the right balance of the human and divine.
“We didn’t really know until three days before opening night how it was going to live on the stage,” Mr. Lester said. “Ola doesn’t really rehearse. She has the actors move through a series of structured and unstructured investigations. And she throws enormous changes at them every day.”
The American actress Mam Smith, an experienced aerialist who plays Marion, the trapeze artist, said: “I’ve never done improvisation on such a massive scale. It was a deconstruction as well as an adaptation.”
Ms. Smith is one of four Americans in the nine-member cast performing in Amsterdam. The Cambridge cast will be slightly different. Bernard White, who played the angel Cassiel in the Amsterdam production, is replacing the Dutch actor Fedja van Huet as the lead angel, Damiel. The thinking is that an American actor in the lead role will better connect with American audiences.
“One of the early things Ola said was that the angels should be more human than humans,” Mr. White said. Ms. Mafaalani expanded on that: “They want to be downstairs. They want to feel. They want to know what love is. They want to have baby teeth.” The heart of the theatrical transformation involved demystifying the angels. “Wenders uses cinematography to show us the world from an angel’s perspective,” Mr. Lester said. “It’s very different to have a 6-foot-2, 200-pound actor on the stage and have another cast member say, ‘I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.’ You’re asking the audience to buy into an impossible fiction. When you can get that right, it’s really satisfying.” Ms. Mafaalani’s angels do not have wings. To find a visual vocabulary for this secular notion, Regine Standfuss, the costume designer, turned to the men’s collection of the designer Gianni Versace. “What do angels look like?” she said. “They look like people in black suits.”
Ms. Mafaalani said: “There is no God in this play. It’s not religious, but it is very spiritual.” So far audiences have been receptive. “We received eight curtain calls last night,” Mr. Woodruff said about a performance in Amsterdam at the end of October. And the reviews have been favorable. A critic for De Groene Amsterdammer, a newsmagazine, wrote that the play “is a poetic and sentimental gift,” while the reviewer for the news service Geassocieerde Pers Diensten wrote that “ ‘Wings of Desire’ proves its legitimacy as a unique theater production.” Ms. Mafaalani, whose work has yet to appear in the United States, is confident Americans will be receptive: “In these times all over the world people are happy to see angels.”

Damiel and Cassiel are angels, assigned for eternity to observe and catalogue human behavior. Damiel has begun to yearn for more than his remote, spiritual existence; he yearns for human contact, for physical sensation, and for love. He encounters Marion, a lonely trapeze artist, and begins to fall in love with her. As the angels go about their daily business – helping those in distress, listening to the thoughts of the elderly and the dying, recording the diversity of human experience – Damiel grows increasingly restless. Eventually he decides to trade in his wings and his eternal life for human mortality, and to join Marion in the world. Based on Wim Wenders’ unforgettable film, Wings of Desire is about the borders, visible and invisible, that divide us – borders between East and West, between angels and people, between two human beings.





Foolishly, an Angel Falls in Love and Rushes In … and Up

New York Times
Published: December 5, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Dec. 3 — There must be a Barneys in heaven.

Mam Smith as the trapeze artist and Bernard White as Damiel in a scene from the American Repertory Theater production of “Wings of Desire.”

That idle thought tugged at my mind on occasion during the alternately stimulating but unsatisfying 100 minutes of “Wings of Desire,” a new stage adaptation of the Wim Wenders movie here, a co-production of the American Repertory Theater and the leading Dutch theater company the Toneelgroep Amsterdam. (That company is run by Ivo van Hove, known to New Yorkers for his radical reinterpretations of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Hedda Gabler” for New York Theater Workshop.)

Cassiel and Damiel, the sad-eyed angels eavesdropping on the sorrowing soul of humanity, perform their ministering duties dressed in the sleekest pair of suits you’ll see outside Barneys or Bergdorf’s. These black, beautifully cut peak-lapel numbers repeatedly drew my eye during the cooler passages of this adventurous but diffuse production.

The suits were by no means the only handsome images onstage. In translating to three dimensions Mr. Wenders’s much-admired meditation on the transient but treasured wonders of life, the director, Ola Mafaalani, conjures a few stark, evocative images.

Columns of slowly falling sand, illuminated by golden spotlights, symbolize the steady drift of time through the lives of all the human characters. The angel Damiel (Bernard White) aches to join the flow of life, to know the taste of an apple and the touch of a woman’s skin, but these streams of flowing sand, which collect in pitiful-looking, uneven piles on the stage, wordlessly and movingly express the heavy weight of time’s inexorable passing.

Ms. Mafaalani and her collaborators wisely do not choose to match the somber visual poetry of the movie with elaborate feats of stagecraft. (They would fail in any case; there is no way of recreating onstage the moody caress of Mr. Wenders’s camera as it roams through and above the streets of Berlin, seeming to leave a trail of celluloid compassion in its wake.)

The presence of the trapeze artist, Marion (Mam Smith), among the characters is naturally a theatrical asset. Ms. Smith’s airborne dancing is enchanting, and the production’s conclusion, with Damiel joining Marion in the air for a kinetic celestial embrace, closes the production on a dazzling note.

For the most part, however, the set design, by André Joosten, is rigorously minimalist. There are no sets to speak of besides a humble food cart, which is put to witty use: the smell of sizzling onions would be enough to seduce an angel with any taste to give up the wings and take up a fork.

The adaptation by Gideon Lester (associate artistic director of the American Repertory Theater) and Dirkje Houtman is faithful to the collagelike screenplay (by Mr. Wenders, the playwright Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger), trimming and rearranging its densely patterned, elliptical and sometimes pretentious dialogue. But onstage the elements never cohere into a moving whole.

The stage version substitutes a sense of simultaneity for the more linear pull of the movie. The experiences of the characters are layered on one another, evoking the dizzying flux of city life, although Berlin is left behind in this version, which substitutes local references as needed. (The production had its premiere in October in Amsterdam and later toured the Netherlands.) It’s a canny choice in a way. Why not take advantage of the theater’s multiplicity? In movies the director’s autocratic eye tells you exactly where to look and what to absorb. At the theater you’re free to focus on what you choose. So Ms. Mafaalani allows the stories in the movie to overlap, the characters to wander the stage freely.

A little boy, Andris Freimanis, doesn’t have any dialogue proper, but he skateboards around the stage or punches away at a Game Boy in the food cart or in the audience, seemingly at his own discretion. Homer, played by Frieda Pittoors, moves to the lip of the stage to deliver her musings on the art of storytelling, then recedes to the fringes to observe the action. Stephen Payne plays the Peter Falk role: himself, in other words, and an ex-angel. A battle-scarred, salty type, he regularly breaks the fourth wall in his wry monologues: “Hey, buddy, do Bostonians make pasta?”

When Cassiel moves into the human sphere, the stage breaks out into a heady rock jamboree, with stagehands joining the party to sweep the sand around and Cassiel flinging the plastic chairs across the stage, presumably in an access of joy at his new physical being. Live music — mostly grinding electric rock — is provided by Jesse Lenat and Hadewych Minis, who remain onstage throughout, here and there taking a small role in the action.

This atomization eventually begins to be more distracting than engaging. (This is the only stage production I’ve seen in which the interruptions of audience cellphones seemed to be less an offense than another random element in the mix.) The crucial sequences from the movie are recreated, but too many of them lose their impact in the stage version, which comes to feel slack and shapeless. The use of extras made sense in the movie-within-the-movie, but it seems forced and confusing here.

Most significantly the movie made poetic use of voice-over dialogue that revealed the inner thoughts of the characters. As the camera trailed across a row of passengers in a subway car, their anguished or idle or bitter thoughts were heard on the soundtrack, a poignant commentary on the roiling inner life we all hide behind a placid public facade. Absent the intimacy of film, the device is ineffective and sometimes confusing.

While you can admire the ingenuity that Ms. Mafaalani and her associates have brought to what was clearly a challenging project, “Wings of Desire” onstage adds up to a lot less than the sum of its many parts. The gentle tug of Mr. Wenders’s camera was the binding ingredient necessary to turn this spiritual collage into a legible portrait of humanity struggling through life, surprised on occasion by a moment of hope or happiness that some might like to think of as the brush of an angel’s wing.

Angels play a crucial role in Ola Mafaalani’s theatre. They wander the stage in the periphery of the action, while love is often defeated by violence and human helplessness. The angels are observers, demonstrating compassion and sometimes imitating the violent habits of human beings. The number of lives lost in Mafaalani’s productions is high, but the dead never disappear by exiting the stage. They stay in view, hanging out at a bar or, as in her Romeo and Juliet (Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2004), finding a new place behind a white paper wall that was slowly besmeared with black paint, and becoming visible when a raging Romeo tore down the paper. There, at the back of the stage, the dead can “live on,” observing us, the living, but no longer accompanying us. With brute force they are thrown out of time, and now they populate the world behind the world. In the context of our tormented existence, this eternity takes on an almost positive turn. But the worlds of the dead and the living stay separate; two different stories, told apart from each other. In Wings of Desire we see the start of a new movement in Mafaalani’s work. For the first time angels are performing the lead roles, and the two distinct worlds find each other. In this new theatrical order, events, memories, dreams, and personal histories are cherished and function as the pillars of stories that we’re losing in these hectic times of hype and confusion. The angels Damiel and Cassiel are immortal and have existed from the beginning of time. They observe, imitate, and console people; they have a sharp eye for details and record major historical events, from the origins of man till the most recent wars. They know history and its stories great and small, as does Homer, the immortal poet who wanders the stage and teaches the audiences that people need stories to survive. But Damiel doesn’t want to observe any longer; he yearns to experience reality, to feel a weight on his shoulders that will make him “earthbound,” as he puts it. He longs to gain a history, to conquer a story of his own. To stand in time. To live now. The instant he falls in love, this desire grows stronger. The girl, Marion, is a trapeze artist, who challenges gravity with her aerobatics, even at the risk of breaking her neck. For her, but also for the ultimate sensation of life, Damiel will exchange eternity for mortality. In this fusion between an angel and a human being, a new story will be born, perhaps the start of a brand new history that encloses a seed of hope. In the worlds of Marion in her final declaration of love to Damiel: “There is no greater story than ours, of man and woman. It will be a story of giants, invisible, infectious, a story of new ancestors.” Dirkje Houtman.


ANGELS ON STAGE Gideon Lester introduces Wings of Desire Wings of Desire is an international collaboration between the A.R.T. and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ foremost theatre company. The production opened in Amsterdam in early October, and tours the Netherlands and Belgium before arriving at the A.R.T.  Gideon Lester, the A.R.T.’s Associate Artistic Director, translated the German screenplay of Wings of Desire (Himmel uber Berlin) into English and was a dramaturg on the production.  ARTicles caught up with him shortly after he returned from Amsterdam and the Dutch premiere.

Q:  Wings of Desire is arguably one of the greatest films of the late twentieth century. Why adapt it for the stage?
Gideon Lester:  The idea came from Ola Mafaalani, the production’s Syrian-born director, who I think is one of Europe’s most exciting young theatre makers.  Robert Woodruff had seen her work and invited her to direct a project at the A.R.T., and Ola’s first suggestion was an adaptation of Wings of Desire.  For several years she has been incorporating angels into her productions; her Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Macbeth all featured angels who bore silent witness to the unfolding narratives, powerless to affect their tragic outcome. One day Ola’s dramaturg gave her the screenplay of Wings of Desire and Ola realized that her use of angels had been inspired by the film, which she had seen when it was released in 1987 but which she had more or less forgotten.  We were very excited by the idea, though there were obviously huge challenges to be faced in the adaptation process.

Q:  What kind of challenges?
G.L.:  First, there are profound differences between the construction of stage plays and screenplays.  Filmmakers have many narrative and compositional devises at their disposal that are unavailable in the theatre; jump cuts, close ups, subjective camera shots, montage, and so on.  One of the principal subjects of Wings of Desire is film itself – it’s an example of what you might call self-conscious cinema.  Peter Falk is in Berlin to make a historical movie, and the screenplay reflects on the way that film reconstructs and reconstitutes history.  There is also something self-consciously cinematic in the way the camera appears to watch the world from an angel’s perspective – for example, the film shifts from black-and-white while Damiel is an angel to color when he becomes human.  It wasn’t at all obvious at first how those ideas could be translated to the stage, or even if they should be.  Second, Wings of Desire is a product of a very particular place and time – Berlin during the 1980s, while the city was divided by the Wall.  We now live in a radically different world, whose identity was to a considerable extent shaped by the demolition of that Wall.  Even if it were possible, it wouldn’t have made much sense to recreate that environment on stage, because the context is so different.  If you want to see Berlin in the 80s, watch the movie – it does it much better than the theatre can.  So we knew from the onset that, if Wings of Desire were to succeed in the theatre, it would need to take on a new artistic existence.  The adaptation process would need to be very thorough; this was never going to be about attempting to reproduce the film on stage.

Q:  How did you proceed with the adaptation?
G.L.:  The process took well over a year, and we’re probably not finished yet; the version performed at the A.R.T. will be somewhat different from the show in Amsterdam, even though most of the cast will be the same.  We began by compiling a literal translation into Dutch and English of the German screenplay, camera angles and all.  That original document was about three hundred pages long, and our current script is just over forty pages, which shows you how far we’ve come!  The adaptation has taken many turns; for a long while we thought that the production might be set in New York City.  There’s a dreadful coincidence in the fact that the wound of 9/11 was inflicted exactly at the birthplace of modern America, on the site of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan.  We imagined that the angels might have watched its development from a tiny, hardscrabble trading settlement to one of the greatest twenty-first century metropolises; the Dutch/American nature of the co-production made the historical nexus seem very attractive for a while.  But we eventually abandoned it, along with several other bad ideas!  The final version is remarkably simple, and stays very faithful to the language of the screenplay.  In theatre you often travel a very long road to return to your starting place. Q:  If not in Berlin, where is the production set? G.L.:  On the stage – or rather, in the theatre, where the audience and the actors sit together and look at each other.  Ola’s work is never about illusion or pretence; what you see is what you get.  She doesn’t like her actors to pretend to be other people – she introduces them to the audience as themselves.  The set doesn’t represent anything, it’s exactly what it looks like – a snack bar where life unfolds in real time, where the men and women on stage eat, drink coffee, smoke, and so on.  A glorious trapeze artist performs over their heads, two musicians are playing to one side, from time to time a well-known newsreader reads bulletins of today’s actual news, but all those people, all those elements, are no more and no less than what they seem to be.  Everyone and everything is real and tangible, which I think makes the production beautifully straightforward and alive.  It’s a great counterpart to Wenders’ film, which is so much about the mundane details of daily life in Berlin – the real Berlin where the movie was shot, not a mockup on a Hollywood sound stage.  There’s no make-believe involved in either the film or the theatre, except for the one, central make-believe that the action is being observed by angels.  And since everything around them is so real, the angels are thrown into a kind of high relief, which makes their presence very moving.  I think at heart we’d all like to believe that our lives are being watched, and perhaps thereby given some meaning, by silent, compassionate observers.

Q:  You mentioned that the production will be somewhat different at the A.R.T. than it was in Europe.  Can you give an example?
G.L.:  The most obvious difference will be in the language.  The Dutch are almost all perfectly fluent in English, which meant that in Amsterdam the actors could effortlessly switch between the two languages, confident that the audience would understand them in both.  Obviously that’s not the case in Boston, so we’ll use Dutch only very sparingly, mainly for its musical quality.  But the international quality is very important to the production, and we’ll have to find ways to enhance it in the A.R.T. version.

Q:  Why is it important?
G.L.:  Both the film and the production are about boundaries and divisions, and the great effort one person has to make to achieve real contact with another.  In the film those boundaries were exemplified by the Berlin Wall; when Damiel becomes human, he does so by passing through the Wall itself.  The international aspect of the stage version creates a different kind of division, or you could say a bridge, between Europe and the States.  When I watched the opening night performance in Amsterdam, I realized that Ola is also exploring the division between the stage and the audience – indeed the production creates a kind of bridge there too, although I don’t want to give too much away.

Q:  You translated the screenplay into English.  Can you talk about the language of the film?
G.L.:  It contains two very different modes of language.  Much of the dialogue in the film was improvised, and many scenes – particularly those involving Peter Falk – have a very conversational quality.  But Wenders also collaborated with the great Austrian poet and playwright Peter Handke, who wrote the inner thoughts of Marion, the trapeze artist, as well as several of the angels’ scenes, the monologues of Homer, the mysterious ancient poet, and Damiel’s poem “When the child was a child” that recurs throughout the film as a kind of chorus.  Handke’s language is elliptical and poetic, and is almost impossible to render directly in English.  He’s one of the greatest writers of the contemporary stage, but we almost never see his work performed in the States because the language is so difficult.  One of the collateral pleasures of Wings of Desire is that we’re presenting Handke at the A.R.T. for the first time.


Gideon Lester with Ola Mafaalani

at opening night in Amsterdam


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