Whenever art-house film as a concept is spoofed, it tends to be in black-and-white with funny-looking camera angles, rain, misery and incomprehensible dialogue. Pretentious, is the word we’re looking for. A lot of people might even have a specific movie in mind – the slow-moving, German drama Wings of Desire. Not something you’d put on the TV and try to comprehend while making out with your partner – this movie requires patience and concentration. But Wim Wenders’s most famous film is rewarding if you’ll only let it seduce you.
Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander), are visiting West Berlin. As they walk around the city and occasionally watch the people from the spire of a gothic church, the angels have conflicting emotions. They notice how people constantly worry about the future and desire something else; in the few cases where the thoughts are too depressing the angels change their minds by gently laying a hand on their shoulder. But the human condition is not all misery. The angels are invisible to all but children who regard them with joy and curiosity.
Many of the individuals the angels are listening to are bright and emotional. Lately, Damiel has been thinking about leaving his existence and become a human being; he’s tired of never feeling anything, never touching anything. Unlike Cassiel, Damiel is longing to laugh, cry, bleed, fall in love and experience the cold winter of Berlin…
Inspired by Rilke
When coming up with the idea for this film, Wenders was inspired by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote about solitude and anxiety and would include both angels and figures from Greek mythology in his work. All that is reflected in the film, including the fact that one of the characters is called Homer (Curt Bois). He’s an old man who longs for an “epic of peace”, a stroke of irony since the Greek poet wrote epics of war. In the movie, Homer goes looking for Potsdamer Platz, but it is no longer where it used to be. The famed public square was entirely demolished during World War II; the signs of that horrific era and its consequences are all over the city, from the monstrous Berlin Wall to the bombed-out tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Still, in spite of all the suffering, Wenders emphasizes the beauty of life and lets Damiel explore his new existence even to some comic effect; that jacket he buys must be regarded as an irreparable 1980s fashion crime.
Ganz is good, but Peter Falk is actually the most memorable character in the film; he plays himself visiting West Berlin to shoot a movie about Nazis, but he’s harboring an intriguing secret. Whether or not Solveig Dommartin and her circus trapeze artist is as haunting to us as she is to Damiel is a matter of individual taste, though.
Poetic and sometimes even fascinating, the best part of the film really is the disjointed first hour, a series of scenes where the angels mix with all kinds of humans. Beautifully shot in black-and-white (allegedly through a filter made from a stocking that belonged to cinematographer Henri Alekan’s grandmother), with a camera that swiftly and elegantly seems to move all over the city. When Damiel becomes human, the movie switches to color… but curiously enough, that only makes me desire the life of angels.
Wings of Desire 1987-West Germany-France. 130 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Wim Wenders, Anatole Dauman. Directed by Wim Wenders. Screenplay: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke. Cinematography: Henri Alekan. Cast: Bruno Ganz (Damiel), Solveig Dommartin (Marion), Otto Sander (Cassiel), Curt Bois, Peter Falk, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Trivia: Original title: Der Himmel über Berlin. Remade in the U.S. as City of Angels (1998). Followed by Faraway, So Close! (1993).
Cannes: Best Director. European Film Awards: Best Director, Actor (Bois).
Last word: “I had written some material for Peter [Falk] because we had already recorded a voice-over with him before he had left Berlin. But it had been done when we were still shooting and I didn’t really have a clear idea yet where the whole idea with the voices would take us. When we started editing, the elements we had recorded with Peter turned out to be rather useless. So I wrote a couple of pages of material for him, ideas for the voice-over, and Peter tried some of it when he was in the studio and always sort of took off on the basis of the material I had given him and started to ramble on and improvise around the material. And most of what’s in the film is now material that Peter improvised. Most of it. Some lines, I think about 20% or 30%, are lines I had actually written for him and all the rest is stuff that he came up with, probably by just closing his eyes and continuing on his own, just associating ideas.” (Wenders, P.O.V.)