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Wim Wenders, West Germany/ France, 1987, 127 minutes
Wings of Desire was made in 1987, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the feeling of division is one that permeates the film. Not only is Berlin a city carved in half, but its inhabitants, both human and celestial, are cut off from love and sensation. Shot in black and white and colour, the film has a hypnotic , dream-like quality as it alternates between human and angelic points of view. The basic story is, a bit flimsy and implausible: two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, watch over Berlin. They comfort the lonely, they listen to people’s thoughts, they long to experience the pleasures of being human. Damiel becomes enamoured of Marion, a melancholy trapeze artist, and chooses to become human so he can meet her. In the course of his first day or so, he meets Peter Falk (yes, Columbo, playing himself) another angel who has chosen a human existence. Damiel finally meets Marion in a baroque goth club, surrounded by the intense strains of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ From Her to Eternity.
An art house staple for years, Wings of Desire seems to have fallen out of fashion a little, perhaps because it’s largely a film about places that doesn’t exist anymore: East and West Germany. However, the delicate way that Wenders’ articulates feelings of loss, alienation, and the first twinges of love let the film transcend its historical place.
Review by Sarah Artt
Written for EUFS Programme Spring 2002
Wings of Desire presents the meeting of two worlds. One is the world of 80s Berlin in winter - a place that seems somewhat grim: we see people die in road accidents, and the Berlin Wall is in place. Still, people manage to enjoy themselves. Even while filming a movie about the Nazi past of the city, Peter Falk manages to take time out to sketch what he sees - and what he sees is the people. We also see a circus preparing to close for the winter. Among the performers there is the trapeze artist Marion, who is saddened by the coming holiday and the knowledge that she will have to take up waitressing to support herself until it reopens.
Marion has attracted the attention of some in the other world, that of the angels who watch over Berlin.
We see two of them, Damiel and Cassiel as they go about their business as they have done throughout history, attempting to offer comfort and solace to those in need. Despite being able to move freely through the world and hear the thoughts of those they encounter, the angels are distanced from it - only children can see them, and they cannot directly affect any of what they see. Crucially, they do not feel emotions in the same way that humans do.
Damiel becomes fascinated by Marion. To an angel able to move at will through the world the danger and exhilaration of the trapeze are utterly alien, as is the idea of life changing. Damiel is in love. He resolves to become human so that he too can experience the joys of life.
Wenders achieves something all too rare in modern cinema. He uses the medium to examine a theme without unneeded moralization and without judging. The muffled world of the angels is shown in sharp black and white, and a feeling of timelessness is created. For the first half of the film we experience this muffled angelic world - we see events, but at a distance, voyeuristicaly. As Damiel becomes human all this changes. We experience everything in colour but loose some of our sharpness and ability to see all. Events start rushing by us. Suddenly, everything has purpose and direction. We have been plunged into the frantic, vivid, feeling world of human existance. The film doesn't judge the two worlds - it simply presents them and leaves us to decide between them. As it does so, we experience one of the most original and beautiful films we are likely to see.
EUFS Programme 1998-99
An extraordinarily rich film, Wings of Desire is the perfect introduction to Wim Wenders's cinema. Within its story of an angel falling in love with a human in wall divided Berlin, we can find all the themes the director had explored in his films up to that point.
The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty (1972) highlights three of these: existential choice; the impact of American culture on a post-war Germany compelled to forget its Nazi past, and travel. Obviously inspired by Albert Camus and his novel L'Etranger, the Peter Handke scripted film tells the story of a footballer who kills a man and wanders around the countryside, idling away his time in a succession of bars where he listens to American music on jukeboxes.
The informal trilogy of Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976) continued to explore this territory, as well as introducing themes of language and borders. In Alice in the Cities a German journalist, Phillip, trying to do a story on the USA finds it impossible to put into words what he feels about the country and can only attempt to capture his feelings through photography. Heading home, he meets a fellow national and her young daughter, Alice. Alice's mother then vanishes, leaving Phillip to return the girl to her grandparents - a difficult task when she can't remember their address. In Kings of the Road Robert, a linguist, makes a half-hearted suicide attempt, driving his VW into the River Elbe - a natural border between East and West Germany. He is spotted by Bruno, an itinerant projector repair man (someone EUFS needs to visit!), who offers him a lift. Robert accepts. As they casually drive around the border and Bruno goes about his work we see the plight of German cinema. No-one wants to see German films and all the little cinemas are either closing or forced, for economic reasons, to show porno movies.
The trilogy brought Wenders international attention. His next film, The American Friend (1977) featured American directors Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray in small roles and starred Dennis Hopper. Whilst an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game, it still features much that's characteristically Wenders. German Jonathan Zimmerman is placed in a dilemma when he learns that he is fatally ill and his cowboy-hat wearing "American friend" Ripley offers him a considerable sum of money - with which Zimmerman can provide for his family after his death - to commit a murder.
Following The American Friend Wenders actually relocated to the USA for a time. Working with Francis Coppola's Zoetrope he directed, among others, Hammett (1982) and Paris Texas (1984). While the latter is a fine enough film, it's also just largely an American set version of Alice in the Cities, with Harry Dean Stanton's Travis seeking to re-unite his young son with his mother.
Which brings us back to Wings of Desire. Angels live in Berlin. Incorporeal and invisible to most emotionally deadened adults, they can freely move through the borders that divide us and read the thoughts of whoever they choose. But the angels are limited in their own way. They are forbidden to interfere in human affairs and their (monochrome) immortal nature prevents them from fully comprehending our (colour) existence. (Incidentally language apparently posed a barrier for Wenders with regard to the film's title, in that he couldn't find a German word that expressed 'desire' satisfactorily and so was forced to use the bare-bones descriptive Der Himmel uber Berlin.) One day one of the angels, Damiel, begins to experience something he has never known before - longing, love, desire - for a woman he has been watching over. Guided by the unlikely figure of Peter "Columbo" Falk - an ex-angel himself, and iin Berlin to make a movie set in the Nazi era - Damiel resolves to cross over to our world.
Wings of Desire is a magical film in which everything feels right: It's the way in which Bruno Ganz and Falk are able to combine an aura of timeless wisdom and a child's wonderment; it's the way in which cinematographer Henri Alekan gives both the monochrome and colour sequences their individual special qualities, each illuminating things that the other doesn't; it's the way in which the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds track "From Her to Eternity" is the perfect summation of the (inverse) of the film's story; it's even the way in which the subtitles assume a near magical quality, rendering all languages (seemingly) transparent before us.
There's a famous quote from Jean-Luc Godard, something like "Just an image - not a just image" which, I think, indicates something of the direction Wenders's films have taken in the 1990s. A central concern of both Until the End of the World (1991) and The End of Violence (1997) is the morality of cinema and cinema-like technologies. In Until the End of the World a group of scientists have developed a device that allows dreams and memories to be recorded and played back. Increasingly, however, users withdraw into a world of their own, so that we are forced to conclude there are serious problems with such technology. In The End of Violence a Hollywood film-maker is abducted, becomes involved in a government conspiracy to bring about "the end of violence" in Los Angeles through the use of surveillance technology and is forced to consider the social implications of the action movies he has hitherto been making. Indeed even the Wings of Desire sequel, Faraway so Close (1994) throws in a few asides on just images. Revisiting Damiel and Marion after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see that one of the consequences of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc has been the influx of pornographic material (recall Kings of the Road). I don't think, however, that Wenders has quite managed to bring all his ideas on the subject together yet. Although each of the 1990s films has its moments there's also a lot of confusion and strain evident in them. Nevertheless I do believe that if he keeps mining this vein of ideas Wenders will come up with something even greater than Wings of Desire. As things stand it's the summation of his achievements to date.
Programme note by Keith H. Brown
One of the most exceptional films of the '80s Wim Wender's Wings of Desire will have you spellbound. Filmed, for the most part, in fantastic black and white, the film tells the tale of the people of Berlin and the angels (in trenchcoats) who observe and comfort them. One particular angel (Bruno Ganz) wishes to be mortal again, wishes to take part rather than just observe. He has fallen in love with a trapeze artist, who is of course unaware of his existence. he meets an ex-angel Peter Falk, playing himself, who offers kind words of advice...
The first thing you notice about Wings of Desire is how well photographed it is. The camera gently glides and swoops, creating an incredibly hypnotic (and I don't mean boring) cinematic experience which is obviously in total harmony with the subject of the film. Ganz's performance is one of the most touching in recent years. Radiating benevolence, he is aches for mortality. As viewers ourselves, unable to participate, only allowed to watch, we can immediately find sympathy for his predicament.
Wenders hasn't made a film this good since, and it may be his greatest work. An unforgettable film.
Review by Allan Smithee
Taken from EUFS Programme 1993-94