A look back at “Wings Of Desire”
Wings Of Desire
Directed by Wim Wenders
Every so often, a filmmaker will turn to a smaller project while he’s impatiently waiting to get a bigger one financed, and often that small independent film will turn out to be an unexpected success. Such is the case with Wim Wenders’ unforgettable 1987 feature Wings Of Desire. At the time, Wenders was trying to get his feature Until the End of the World off the ground, but was having trouble securing funding, so to keep his creative juices flowing he decided to draw upon many sources, including Jean Cocteau’s writings, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, and Walter Ruttmann’s classic 1927 silent documentary, Berlin: Symphony Of A City. He envisioned Wings to be a series of ideas involving angels, and intended to make what was to be a love letter of sorts to Berlin, before anybody knew that the “Wall” would come down. Without an actual script, Wenders collaborated loosely with the playwright, Peter Handke, who basically handed him some dialogue for about 10 key sequences and off they went shooting a film with no middle, beginning nor end. The actors reported to work every day having no idea what they were doing because Wenders, as he often does, was making everything up on the fly.
Der Himmel Uber Berlin (which translates directly to Heaven Over Berlin) seems a more appropriate title than the English translation Wings of Desire. Wings is a spiritual tribute to life, love, and despair and the choices mortals have in dealing with each, as well as a tribute to Berlin itself. It is a visual poem that celebrates the now, the value of living fully in the present, observing the smaller joys of life and the things we take for granted. It forces us to contemplate both the blessings and the sufferings in the world and fully accept all its beauty and ugliness. It’s also about the walls that exist in our world in every sense – those that separate us physically, spiritually, culturally, and politically. In using angels, the characters are able to transcend all barriers, best seen in perhaps the most memorable moment when our guardians walk directly through the Berlin Wall.
Wings of Desire opens on a bleakly presented Berlin, still crumbling into disrepair after its destruction by the bombing of 1945 and decades of neglect. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) play two angels who have spent an eternity watching over the affairs of humans. Their job is to observe, collect, preserve, and testify. The angels focus their attentions on three individuals – an octogenarian poet (Curt Bois), an American actor (Peter Falk, playing a version of himself), and a French trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). But, while helping these mortals, Ganz struggles with his desires to be able to feel, not just emotionally but physically as well. He longs to savor the simple pleasures of human life. “Instead of hovering, I’d like to feel some weight to me,” says Damiel to his colleague. His desire finally reaches its climax when he falls in love with Marion, a beautiful trapeze artist, and the angel decides that he is ready to take a leap of faith and shed his wings.
Wings of Desire is a deliberately atmospheric and very patient film, taking its time getting around and allowing us to understand the characters and ponder their dilemmas. It’s a film that builds on ideas rather than actions, a film that is closer to poetry or music than linear storytelling, and a highly personal piece of filmmaking.
To bring his angels to life, Wenders managed to convince the great cinematographer Henri Alekan out of retirement. The cinematographer, who worked on Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast,
brings a legendary look to the angels’ colourless world. The black-and-white images are not simply black and white but light and shadow. In Wenders’ world, it seems only children, in their innocence, can sense the presence of angels and on occasion see them, and only humans can see the colours of the world. The contrast is luminous and grand, and the mobile and highly fluid camera direction helps the mood by gliding effortlessly through the city. Like a feather falling from the sky, the camera gently glides and swoops, creating an incredibly hypnotic cinematic experience in total harmony with the subject of the film. We fly with the angels, seeing Berlin through their colour-blind eyes while Jurgen Knieper’s sparse and haunting musical score accompanies the scenes.
Wings Of Desire is a fascinating and mesmerizing character study and moral lesson that never preaches. At its most basic level it’s a story of the longing for love and the desire to fill a certain amount of loneliness. Wings is a rare cinematic achievement – a poetic, literary script turned into pure cinematic expression. Few films pack such a deep emotional resonance.