When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions: 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? Isn't life under the sun just a dream? Isn't what I see, hear, and smell only the illusion of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who I am, didn't exist before I cam to be and that someday the one who I am will no longer be the one I am?
"Wings of Desire" is director Wim Wenders' hauntingly beautiful celebration of the simple pleasures of life, and the inherent beauty in everyday occurrences. As seen through the eyes of the angels that stand watch over its streets, the divided city of Berlin is a pastiche of emotions and experience, a bittersweet testament to the blessed nature of the human condition. Inspired by the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, this deliberately meditative film is counted as a favorite among many critics. In addition to spawning a sequel in 1993 ("Faraway, So Close!"), "Wings of Desire" was also remade in 1998 as "City of Angels".
Our tour guides on this abstract journey through Berlin are two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). They drift through the city unseen, resigned to recording the nuances of human activity that they observe yet cannot experience for themselves. They are witness to the snippets of passing thoughts broadcast by people they come across, including a young prostitute fretting over being able to make enough money to escape the city, an old man reminiscing on the Holocaust, and a young man contemplating suicide. In some cases, they are able to provide a sense of hope and instil confidence, but in others, they are only able to watch, unable to affect the tragic progression of human events.
But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, I'd like to feel there's some weight to me, to end my eternity and bind me to earth. At each step, each gust of wind, I'd like to be able to say "Now... now and now", and no longer say "since always" and "forever". To sit in the empty seat at the card table and be greeted, if only by a word. Whenever we did participate, it was only pretend. Wrestling with one of them we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretense only. We pretended to catch a fish... we pretended to be seated at the tables... and to drink and eat, and we were served roast lamb and wine, in the tents out there in the desert, in pretense. Not that I want to begat a child or plant a tree right away, but it would be quite something to come home after a long day like Philip Marlowe and feed the cat, to have a fever, to have blackened fingers from the newspaper, to be excited not only by the mind, but, at last, by a meal, the curve of a neck, by an ear. To lie... through the teeth! To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally, to suspect, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say 'ah' and 'oh' and 'hey' instead of 'yes' and 'amen'.
Damiel, having spent eternity removed from events around him, is no longer content with merely being a passive observer that catalogs human experience second-hand. Enchanted by an emotionally-vulnerable trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) at a travelling circus, Damiel longs to experience the simple pleasures he has only seen-- returning home after a long day at work, feeling his own weight while shuffling down a sidewalk, and getting his fingers dirty from reading a newspaper. Fortunately, he is guided by the wisdom of actor Peter Falk (playing himself), who is in Berlin to shoot a movie. For reasons that are revealed, Peter has the unique ability to sense Damiel's presence and carry a conversation with him. With the help of Peter and Cassiel, Damiel decides to give up his interminable state of grace to be human, so that he can pursue the woman he loves.
Isn't that Columbo?
I don't think so... not without that moth-eaten coat. He wouldn't be running in the mud.
Many of the differences between this film and its 1998 remake, "City of Angels", the Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan starrer, are readily apparent, but are not significant departures. Instead of pre-reunification Berlin, the setting in the new film is moved to the city of the angels, Los Angeles. The love interest is no longer a trapeze artist, but is a heart surgeon instead. And instead of Peter Falk, we get Dennis Franz as a construction worker with too much joie de vivre. The most significant difference between the two films is the emphasis of the narrative. While "City of Angels" was a more conservatively structured three-act romance driven by the standard plot mechanics, "Wings of Desire" is a more meditative and meandering film that emphasizes form over function.
Do you remember one morning, out of the savanna, its forehead smeared with grass, the biped appeared, our long-awaited image... and its first word was short. Was it 'ach' or 'ah' or 'oh', or was it merely a groan? At last we were able to laugh for the first time. And through this man's shout and the calls of successor, we learned to speak.
The minimalist plot is typical of European cinema, servicing the need to create an 'atmosphere' over the telling of a story. And while "Wings of Desire" can be frustrating to watch at times, with Wenders' trademark directorial indulgences, this shortcoming is easily overlooked with the breathtaking world that he presents on the screen. Wenders differentiates between the human and heavenly perspectives by draining the color from Damiel's and Cassiel's points-of-view, showing their limited 'shades of grey' perspective of the world around them. Using empyreal-esque cinematographic techniques that convey the omnipresent nature of Berlin's unseen guardians, the audience is carried via a stream of consciousness into the lives of the city's inhabitants. This is not a film that aims to tell a complete story in its two hour running time; it is a film about moments.
Ganz is well-cast as Damiel, and though he may not convey the cherubic innocence that Nicolas Cage had in "City of Angels", Ganz brings a wizened and mature quality to this Pinnochio role. Sander is also welcome as Damiel's cohort, but instead of the angel with all the answers that Andre Braugher played, Sander's Cassiel is a lot like Damiel in many ways, appreciating the desire to become human, yet lacking the courage to follow through. Dommartin acquits herself quite well as the troubled trapeze artist despite a few stumbles, including a hastily improvised scene in which she meets Peter for the first time.
To smoke, and have coffee... and if you do it together, it's fantastic. To draw, and when your hands are cold you rub them together...
"Wings of Desire" is probably one of Wim Wenders' most ambitious and memorable films. Despite accusations of being esoteric and pointless, it is a visual essay that has more in common with films like "Baraka" than with your typical three-act linear narrative. Resonating with haunting images, yet celebrating the wondrous moments found in the everyday, "Wings of Desire" is a remarkable piece of cinema that must be experienced.