Wings Of Desire Critical Analysis Essay

Wings of Desire (1987)
Credit: © Wim Wenders Stiftung 2014

Few modern films have made the transition to classic status as quickly as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). His tale of a guardian angel in a still-Wall-divided Berlin who falls in love with – and to earth for – a melancholy trapeze artist is a canny merging of cerebral formal experimentalism and unabashed popular romanticism. It swept up highbrow critics alongside a much larger mainstream audience than was typical for ‘challenging’ foreign-language cinema of the day. Leading US film magazine Premiere’s 1980s wrap-up poll voted it second only to Raging Bull (1980) as film of the decade.

Still a quintessential ‘arthouse’ film, its bold use of style (black-and-white, existential voiceover, languorous pacing) – and content (overt symbolism and culture blending, from Rilke-inspired poetry to Nick Cave’s post-punk anthems) fostered an appreciation, even a devotion that endures to this day.

No doubt the snaking Berlin Wall that split east and west, and which would be breached just two-and-a-half years later, epitomised the divisions that Wenders and co-writer Peter Handke explore: temporal and eternal; past and present; and seen and unseen, through the watching, invisible angels, chiefly Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), who debate the former’s desire to “enter the history of the world”, having been outside looking in for so long.

Ultimately, Wings of Desire is a visionary film about vision: the act of watching, with all its fascinations and limitations. Here, then, are some of the visual strategies at play.

Angel eyes

Wenders brought legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan – responsible for the haunting gothic chiaroscuro in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête – out of retirement to shoot Wings of Desire (and named the film’s circus in his honour). Alekan famously used a silk stocking as a filter for his textured, sepia-tinged black-and-white imagery, depicting the angels’ muted vision of the world. Ironically, his rich, creamy monochrome might appear too gorgeously tactile for the angels’ non-sensory world, but its silent-cinema feel helps instantly convey their timeless existence.

Bearing witness

Given its central characters, Wings of Desire is an exceptionally watchful film, both clinical and voyeuristic. Wenders’ unseen angels are basically unable to engage human beings directly. And yet, the very act of quietly watching over them, able to hear their innermost thoughts and desires, and occasionally even offer some kind of palliative aid, is one of the film’s most touching aspects.

Wenders’ stately drifting camera suggests their detached, exterior position (and later, when Damiel steps into time, is brilliantly contrasted with a more dynamic, street-level tracking). Yet the angels’ invisible intimacy and empathy with beings they can never fully understand, somehow makes these divine observers all-too human. In fact, it echoes the essence of the moviegoing experience itself: spectators unable to affect what they see on screen, and yet so often, unable or unwilling to remain emotionally disconnected.

Symphony of a city

Don’t forget that the film’s original title is Der Himmel über Berlin – The Sky or Heavens over Berlin – and that the project began as an investigation into Germany’s then-divided city. Indeed, its angels were only brought in as an inspired afterthought. Perhaps acknowledging the tradition of early ‘city symphony’ silent films like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or even Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927), Wings of Desire is also in part a wonderful time capsule of wintry, pre-unification Berlin. Its roving aerial camerawork and ground-level tracking wide shots highlight the city’s desolate no-man’s-land expanses bound by the ever-present Wall.

Yet the film also diligently looks back at earlier, even more turbulent times, with its archive – and, strikingly, colour – footage of the capital in its ruinous postwar state. For the angels, this may be a passage of time gone in the blink of an eye; but to late-20th-century audiences, German or otherwise, Wenders suggests that the spectre of recent history isn’t so easy to cast off.

The American friend 

Of all the directors – Herzog, Fassbinder and co – from the late-1960s and 70s New German Cinema renaissance, none showed their love of American cinema and Americana as explicitly as Wenders. Returning to his native country after filming Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984) in the States, the appearance of Colombo star (or John Cassavetes favourite, depending on your frame of reference) Peter Falk ‘as himself’ isn’t just another Wenders Hollywood homage, but a further layer to the theme of moviemaking.

Falk is ostensibly in town to shoot a Second World War-set thriller, but his avuncular presence also brings a welcome, grounded warmth to the angst-ridden, ethereal ambience. And the revelation of his true origins delivered late in the film isn’t just a wonderful (and perfectly judged) surprise, it connects beautifully to Wenders’ themes and his central character Damiel’s dilemma.

The colour of love

As the film’s English title makes plain, desire is the driving force behind both the film and its angel protagonist Damiel’s fervent longing to leave behind immortality and become human. As this wish percolates and he meets Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the wistful circus performer with whom he falls head over wings in love, Alekan’s exquisite monochrome gradually gives way to vibrant colour.

Extract from Wings of Desire, courtesy of Axiom Films

Extract from Wings of Desire, courtesy of Axiom Films

Extract from Wings of Desire, courtesy of Axiom Films

Extract from Wings of Desire, courtesy of Axiom Films

Extract from Wings of Desire, courtesy of Axiom Films

The angels in “Wings of Desire” are not merely guardian angels, placed on Earth to look after human beings. They are witnesses, and they have been watching for a long time--since the beginning. Standing on a concrete river bank in Berlin, they recall that it took a long time before the primeval river found its bed. They remember the melting of the glaciers. They are a reflection of the solitude of God, who created everything and then had no one to witness what he had done; the role of the angels is to see.

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In Wim Wenders’ film, they move invisibly through the divided city of Berlin, watching, listening, comparing notes. Often they stand on high places--the shoulder of a heroic statue, the tops of buildings--but sometimes they descend to comfort an accident victim, or to put a hand on the shoulder of a young man considering suicide. They cannot directly change events (the young man does kill himself), but perhaps they can suggest the possibility of hope, the intuition that we are not completely alone.

The film evokes a mood of reverie, elegy and meditation. It doesn’t rush headlong into plot, but has the patience of its angels. It suggests what it would be like to see everything but not participate in it. We follow two angels: Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). They listen to the thoughts of an old Holocaust victim, and of parents worried about their son, and of the passengers on trams and the people in the streets; it’s like turning the dial and hearing snatches of many radio programs. They make notes about the hooker who hopes to earn enough money to go south, and the circus aerialist who fears that she will fall, because it is the night of the full moon.

You’re seduced into the spell of this movie, made in 1987 by Wenders, who collaborated on the screenplay with the German playwright Peter Handke. It moves slowly, but you don’t grow impatient, because there is no plot to speak of, and so you don’t fret that it should move to its next predictable stage. It is about being, not doing. And then it falls into the world of doing, when the angel Damiel decides that he must become human.

He falls in love with the trapeze artist. He goes night after night to the shabby little circus where she performs above the center ring. He is touched by her doubts and vulnerability. He talks with Cassiel, the other angel, about how it would feel to feel: to be able to feed a cat, or get ink from a newspaper on your fingers. He senses a certain sympathy from one of the humans he watches, an American movie actor (Peter Falk, playing himself). “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here,” Falk tells him. How can Falk sense him? Sometimes children can see angels, but adults are supposed to have lost the facility.

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The answers to these questions are all made explicitly clear, in the new Hollywood movie “City of Angels,” which is a remake of “Wings of Desire” and spells out what the original film only implies. After seeing the new film, which stars Nicolas Cage as the angel and Meg Ryan as the woman (now a heart surgeon rather than an aerialist), I went back to “Wings of Desire” again. It reminded me of the different notes that movies can strike.

“City of Angels” is a skillful romantic comedy and I enjoyed it, but it all stayed there on the screen, content to be what it was. “Wings of Desire” doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.

It is a beautiful film, photographed by the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who made the characters float weightlessly in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” (the circus in the movie is named after him). When he shows the point of view of the angels, he shoots in a kind of blue-tinted monochrome. When he sees through human eyes, he shoots in color. His camera seems liberated from gravity; it floats over the city, or glides down the aisle of an airplane. It does not intrude; it observes. When the angel follows the trapeze artist into a rock club, it doesn’t fall into faster cutting rhythms; it remains detached. The critic Bryant Frazer observes that Cassiel, the other angel, “leans against the wall and closes his eyes, and the stage lights cast three different shadows off his body, alternating and shifting position and color as though we’re watching Cassiel’s very essence fragmenting before our eyes.”

Bruno Ganz has a good face for an angel. It is an ordinary, pleasant, open face, not improbably handsome. Like a creature who has been observing since the dawn of time, he doesn’t react a lot. He has seen it all. Now he wants to feel. “I’m taking the plunge,” his angel tells the other one. He will descend into time, disease, pain and death, because at the same time he can touch, smell and be a part of things. All that he desires is summed up in the early dawn at an outdoor coffee stand when Peter Falk tells him: “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 ... “

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The children in the streets call Falk “Columbo,” and indeed Columbo, in his dirty raincoat, enters people’s lives and stands around and observes and eventually asks questions. And the angels, who wear long black topcoats, do the same things, although their questions are not easily heard.

Wenders is an ambitious director who experiments with the ways in which a movie can be made. I didn’t think his 1992 film “Until the End of the World” was a success, but I admired his audacity in following two lovers in a story improvised over five months in 20 cities in seven countries on four continents. His “Kings of the Road” (1974) was a three-hour odyssey in which two men wander the border between East and West Germany in a VW bus, sharing confessions and insights, learning that they cannot live with women and cannot live without them. It’s like an intellectual, metaphysical version of Promise Keepers. His “Paris, Texas” (1978) was a modern remake of “The Searchers,” in which a loner, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tries to track down a lost girl in a landscape that seems to forbid human connections.

Like many directors who make films of greater length, Wenders is not a perfectionist. He will include what a perfectionist would leave out, because of intangible reasons that are more important to him than flawlessness. Consider, for example, the first time the trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) encounters Peter Falk at that coffee stand. Her performance is almost giddy; she seems like an actress pleased to meet a star she’s seen on TV, and the scene’s reality is broken by her vocal tone and body language. They both seem to be doing an ill-prepared improvisation. That may make it a “bad” scene in terms of the movie’s narrow purposes, but does it have a life of its own? Yes, for the same reasons it’s flawed. Movies are moments of time, and that is a moment I am happy to have.

“Wings of Desire” is one of those films movie critics are accused of liking because it’s esoteric and difficult. “Nothing happens but it takes two hours and there’s a lot of complex symbolism,” complains a Web-based critic named Peter van der Linden. In the fullness of time, perhaps he will return to it and see that astonishing things happen and that symbolism can only work by being apparent. For me, the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions. Some of them are asked in the film: “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?”

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