Wings of Desire (Der Himmel Uber Berlin)
Director – Wim Wenders, Screenplay – Wim Wenders & Peter Handke, Producers – Wim Wenders & Anatole Dauman, Photography (b&w + colour) – Henri Alekan, Music – Jurgen Knieper, Production Design – Heidi Ludi. Production Company – Road Movies/Argos Films/WDR
Bruno Ganz (Damiel), Solveig Dommartin (Marion), Otto Sander (Cassiel), Peter Falk (Himself)
Angels hover over West Berlin, invisible and intangible as they listen to the thoughts of humans and marvel at the joys of living. One angel Damiel falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist Marion. He decides to sacrifice his incorporeal existence to be able to become human and know her.
German-born Wim Wenders may be the nearest modern cinematic equivalent of a poet. Wenders’ films throughout the 1970s – from Alice in the Cities (1974) to Kings of the Road (1976) and The American Friend (1977) – meditate on the relationship between man and society and frequently delve into a fascination with American popular culture. Wenders calls his films from the 1970s ‘road movies’ but they are less road movies in the traditional cinematic sense – a picaresque series of adventures and oddball encounters – than they are films absorbed by the sense of existential discovery that the road movie embodies. Wenders’ characters are often called rootless – yet, while true, they are not so much rootless as they seem to be in search of a greater truth and solidity that underlies their lives. After a reportedly unhappy venture to the US to make the film noir homage Hammett (1983) for Francis Ford Coppola, Wim Wenders reached his critical peak with the internationally acclaimed Paris, Texas (1984), a film that embodies all of Wenders’ themes with Harry Dean Stanton as a drifter attempting to reconnect with his estranged son.
Wim Wenders reached his greatest artistic heights with Wings of Desire. It is the film that has consistently drawn Wenders the most widespread acclaim and won him that year’s Best Director Award at Cannes. Peculiarly what Wings of Desire is is an old-fashioned whimsical film about angels. The surprise it not so much that Wenders succeeds, merely that he chooses such a subject. Although Wenders’ angels have about as little in common with Claude Rains in Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) and Diane Cilento in The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1956) as they do with the Biblical ones. The angels here are less angelic envoys and auguries than they are flawlessly lovely Yuppies, recording instruments of the human condition, drifting incorporeally through the melancholic world of modern Berlin. Only able to see in black-and-white, they pass with a child’s-eye wholeheartedness from apartment to apartment and one haunting human tableaux to the other, touching heads with humans to listen to what they are thinking and to offer compassion and sympathy.
The whimsical fantasy of Wings of Desire may seem as complete a break from the body of Wenders earlier work as it is possible to get. In truth though, Wings of Desire embodies the essence of Wim Wenders’ poetry. For the angels in the film, you could substitute Wenders the poet and filmmaker. Wings of Desire reveals Wenders as almost an inveterate collector of epiphanous snapshots of the human condition. As the angels say, it is their role “to do no more than observe, collect, testify and preserve.” Wim Wenders seems someone who wants to preserve the aching fragility and beauty of the things he happens upon – Wings of Desire is a film that positively aches with the desire to hold onto the beauty of ordinary things. [There are striking similarities between the angels observing humanity and Wenders’ photo essay on America Written in the West (1987)]. Like Bruno Ganz’s angel, Wenders yearns to break through from the world of observing in black-and-white, that is to say, detachedly watching from behind a camera lens, to celebrating in the rapturous rawness of experience itself, represented by the break through from the visually idealised black-and-white world of the angels into colour and real life. The film reaches a fascinating ending where Bruno Ganz and Solveig Dommartin finally get together in a bar and in the last shot Ganz turns to the screen, saying how the two of them represent archetypes of every man and woman in the world meeting for the first time, and inviting the audience to enjoy a similar experience.
Wings of Desire is an singularly beautiful film. Henri Alekan’s misty compositions and the sinuous, elegant camera moves, circling up over the city and down into glistening bunkers are exceptional. In this twilight cinema of human intimacies, Wenders and Alekan paint images with a haunting visual power – Otto Cassiel’s cutting a cacophony of sound to silence simply by placing his hand against his ear; the shrieking wipe of the camera across the screen at Cassiel’s howl of pain when one human jumps from a building. One of the single loveliest shots in the entire film is one that pans through a library where we subtly become aware that the angels are sitting all around the patrons unobtrusively observing.
In a wonderfully playful move, Wenders casts Peter Falk as himself (come to Berlin to act in a film). Falk opens up his shabby improvisational skills, incorporating them with a huge sensitivity for the material, giving one of his best performances ever. It is a wonderfully sly touch on Wenders’ part to reveal Falk as one of the fallen angels too.
Wim Wenders and the entire cast returned to make an also well worthwhile sequel Faraway, So Close! (1993). Wings of Desire later underwent an English-language remake to become a glossy Hollywood romance with City of Angels (1998).
Wim Wenders’ other ventures into genre material include his trilogy of films, Until the End of the World (1991), The End of Violence (1997) and The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), which all feature near future settings and are centred around humanity’s relationship to technology and place in the modern world. Also of interest is Palermo Shooting (2008) where a photographer encounters Death played by Dennis Hopper.