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The Poetic Language of Cinema

Author: Hafiz Kheir
Part Four

From Poetic to Lyrical Films

In the last two parts we looked into the main features of the cinematic language, from the angle of techniques such camera framing and editing and textual features, such as narrativity. In this part we aim to explore what we described as different levels of poetic language in work. Using some examples from two films we aim to further our definition of the poetic, in opposition to what we will call lyrical, language in cinema. The aim of these two case studies is to later compare the two features in question.

We will be looking into two films that we consider being examples of these two types. The first is a film by Wim Wenders (visit his site) and the second is a Maya Daren's film.

The Sky Over Berlin

The film is set in the city of Berlin four decades after the Second World War. Two angels roam the skies over a city that is divided into two parts as a result of the war. Through the angels' metaphysical abilities we are introduced to the most hidden secrets of the city's inhabitants. From the start, the film is introduced through what seems like a child's consciousness, or that of a soul longing to return to child innocence. The voice of the narrator recites fragmented, poetic passages about personal desire and wishes . Through the whole film we encounter images of the remains of the war and feel the presence of the burden of history over the city’s shoulders.
The angels act both as silent narrators and active players; through their abilities to transcend time and space (and narrative rules) the film introduces other characters, spaces and details in the city. From the skies over Berlin we look into the hidden lives of the city’s people. The city itself seems to be haunted by a life that exists beyond everyday reality. From there we look into people's lives, listen to their thoughts and inner dialogues, observe their struggle with living and being.

Marion, a trapeze artist, meets one of the angels, Damiel. Their different desires and longings become a centre of the film and bring them together. She, an earthy being, wants to fly and transcend the limits of her physical existence; and he, a divine spiritual, longs for gravity and craves the physical dimensions of being. Their love overcomes the limitation of gravity.
The Sky Over Berlin has being described as an example of poetic expression in films. It was also hailed as a triumph for a new language for cinema, which can actually bring about a different kind of expressionism to the medium.

Walter Benjamin
In his study on the treatment of space in The Sky Over Berlin Jesinghausen brings ,Walter Benjamin's investigation on the auratic work of art to the domain of cinema, something Benjamin himself was reluctant to attribute to the seventh art. Jesinghausen, however, describes Wim Wenders film as an 'auratic experience'. “[Wenders] succeeds in creating an auratic film in the best possible sense [and] transforms physical urban spaces successfully through cinematic alchemy into metaphysical space, thus creating the filmic auratic experience."
The idea of the auratic work of art hints clearly to a poetic nature that Jesinghausen thought to be a distinct feature of The Sky Over Berlin. Aura as a concept is thought to have common features with the project of transcendental aesthetics developed by German romantics. "Romanticising reality," which forms the centre of the project, would entail "investing the commonplace with a lofty significance, the ordinary with a mysterious aspect, the familiar with the prestige of the unfamiliar, the finite with the semblance of infinity." Indeed, these features, which can be cited in Wenders' film, explain why the film was always described as a poetic piece.
Wim Wenders
We assume that our dissatisfaction with these views is evident in the way we report about them! However, we have our argument that will explain where we disagree.
Following from the outlines we set earlier on elements of a cinematic language, we will first describe broadly what is happening in this particular film by answering the question: 
What are the main elements that constitute the filmic text?

The film is driven by the presents of specific characters that go through a journey of a narrative nature. Though they do not change very much, the two angels seem to acquire new knowledge as they go along in their observational activities. The process of gaining knowledge is clearly linked to actual events that happen to them. (Damiel goes from a. being a spiritual being to b. becoming a mortal, human being).

The presence of a narrative structure, although slow-paced and often interrupted, is the main driving force that pushes forward the filmic text from a beginning to an end.
Other elements, or textual features, like camera movements and transitions are clearly affected by the presence of the narrative. All these elements are working as narrative agents as they contribute to the task of telling the story. (More of this further down.)
But The Sky Over Berlin still has many poetic features which can be observed in many ways:

  • it uses poetic texts through the voices we hear; 
  • it creates metaphysical worlds and transcends spaces and times in a way that is not possible for an ordinary language of narrative cinema. 
  • It, furthermore, frees the use of narrative devices, such as plot and development of events, by slowing them down to the extent that they almost lose their functions as narrative devices. Some narrative changes are expressed (or enhanced) by the use of unfamiliar narrative transitions that they almost acquire poetic motifs. An example of this is the major change from black-and-white to colour to signify Damiel's decent from the angelic dimensions to the human existence form.
These features, however, do not constitute a poetic language in a film by themselves. As we argued earlier in this study, a poetic film should also use poetic grammar to create meaning; a poetic grammar that is unique to the medium it is using. By this we mean the liberated use of all filmic devices and techniques, such as camera movements and editing, to establish a mode of signification that transcends narrativity; a mode in which links between an image and another is not governed by storytelling techniques, character motivations or plot necessities.
In such a liberated language the only role is the freedom of poetry and the unbounded vision of the poet.
When we investigate the presence of a poetic language in cinema therefore, we should be looking into a piece of cinematic "signification" that has an independent authority as a poem. The process of simply "immigrating" and transferring certain features of poetic writing to the screen is hardly so. What Wim Wenders manages to achieve though is to use poetic articulations of the narrator and those of his characters to overcome some of the obstacles of
The presence of the two angels allows the film a certain degree of poetic freedom 
to explore spaces and times outside the boundaries of the real.  
Yet it must be stressed that the free movement of the camera in some of the scenes, when it penetrates through doors and walls, are in fact ordinary POV shots (of the angels), motivated and explained by narrative and storytelling logic. If the camera flies through an open space, roams and navigates in this film, the director feels he needs to explain such movements through narrative logic. This is where the film always comes back to the conventional language of contemporary cinema.
The Sky Over Berlin is a narrative lyrical film; though narrated by a poet, the film lends itself decisively to the domain of prose and to the realms of storytelling. H.K.
End of part four.


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