Winner of the best director award in the Cannes film festival, the 1987 German film “WINGS OF DESIRE” (original title: Der Himmel über Berlin = Heaven Over Berlin) inspired the Hollywood film directed by Brad Silberling called “City of Angels” which became a box-office success. This film was inspired by the poetry written by Rainer Maria Rilke and was followed by a sequel called “Faraway, So Close”. This German film goes into the belief that the grass is greener on the other side and that something so different can be so enticing. Like everything else, the original is always better (about 99.9% of the time) and Criterion finally brings this beautiful film into a fully restored edition.
Berlin, just before the end of the Cold War, Damiel (Bruno Ganz, Downfall) and Cassiel (Otto Sander, Das Boot) are two angels who travel high and above to observe, testify and preserve; they also listen to the thoughts of people in the streets of Berlin. The two are angels ever since the dawn of time; and although they are angels, they cannot interact, unseen to all except to innocent children. During one of their travels, Cassiel becomes intrigued by an old man named Homer (Curt Bois) who dreams of epic peace and Damiel slowly begins to fall in love for a female trapeze performer named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) who is very talented but also very lonely. Eventually, Damiel longs for physicality and to take on human form. He forsakes his immortality and begins to bleed, taste and see the world in color. Damiel is about to embark on a new experience…
Director Wim Wenders co-wrote the film’s script with Peter Handke (who also wrote the film’s recurring poem “Song of Childhood). Much of the film’s dialogue feels, sounds and exudes pure poetry throughout and the film’s narrations and the dialogue is so beautiful.
“…When a child was child, I didn’t know it was a child, everything was soulful and all souls were one.”
The film is also mostly shot in black and white; in effect this represents the angels’ viewpoint that the physical world is without color and nothing could attract more attention than the other. It was a clever touch to see through the eyes of someone who is supposed to be impartial or as Cassiel had stated to “testify” when the time had come. I think the black and white also represents the fact that the angels have no cause for emotion and care. Immortality and eternity also seems very attractive but it does come with a price. (please keep in mind that the angels in the film are ones portrayed by the director, seen through the eyes of a human and not to be mistaken as fact).
The film’s opening act was full of visual poetry as the two angels observe and listen to everyday walks of human life; they are fascinated and at the same time genuinely concerned about us mere mortals. Through their eyes, humanity is represented through our hopes and dreams, our fears and worries and above all the need to be loved and to love. The direction manages to represent both the beauty and the ugliness of humanity; Director Wenders made the right call in shooting the film in Berlin during the days when the wall was still up, and the city while depressing, exposes the strengths and the fragilities of the human spirit. It was no surprise that Damiel would be fascinated with what he saw.
What I got from the film is the message that life is precious and that every waking hour is important. The angels in this film have no emotion, and I think that when Cassiel and Damiel touches a human who is depressed or thinking of suicide, they are trying to understand the emotions that swell within the heart. I guess humans have a way to bring out the most extreme emotions by reflecting on their hardships and their own lives. Being human has its merits and someone different sees the beauty of things we usually take fore granted. Humans can feel, and for an intangible angel, it seems very curious. Peter Falk also stars as himself, and Wenders gives his character an enigmatic feel as later revealed in the film’s final act.
The love story between Damiel and Marion may seem to be the film’s focal point, but the direction remembers to show the beauty that is Berlin. As I’ve said, this film is more than a love story, it brings humanity itself into exposition. The depressing populace and the circus scenes served Wenders’ intentions quite well. The beautiful dialogue, (Marion’s speech was just full of poetic meaning that it would just turn any woman into putty) the visual style all complement each other. One small fault the film may have is the fact that the movie is not for everyone, it has a sleepy feel and may be too cryptic and poetic for its own good. Mainstream audiences would become bored while those who appreciate stunning cinema would praise Wenders’ work.
“Wings of Desire” is the type of film that may require multiple viewings and I think each viewing may change one‘s opinion of the film. There is an abundant use of symbolisms in the film and one would have fun trying to decipher each one. The film is indeed special, and transcends any elementary classification one may become tempted to staple it with.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Stars]
Note: If you own the MGM release of the film, this Criterion release is very much worth the double dip. This new DVD release looks and sounds better than the previous release.