Ranking: #3/111

Director: Wim Wenders

Genre: Poetic Fantasy

This film by Wim Wenders, who was part of the New German Cinema, exemplifies a sublime cinematic beauty and level of artistic originality. Wings of Desire is a stunning work of film art which can stand alongside the greatest paintings, literature and music of the twentieth century. The degree of technical innovation and dexterity displayed in the film is perfectly matched by its thematic depth and aesthetic power. Even a hundred PhDs analysing aspects of the form and content of this movie couldn’t exhaust its meaning and worth.

In many ways, Wings of Desire represents the culmination of cinema’s evolution, from its birth to 1987 (when the movie was made), while, at the same time, providing enough innovation to spur on the art of film to grow far into the future, especially through showing how to capture the magic and peculiar depth of inner thoughts and innermost yearnings on the Big Screen. In the film’s multi-dimensionality, it melds aspects of both black-and-white and colour cinematography, as well as of silent movies and the “talkies”. Most importantly, Wenders and his team found a way to marry the external and inner worlds in a match made in heaven. (There must have been some guardian angels interacting with the director and production team during the making of this unusual and inspiring film.)

Wings of Desire is a poetic fantasy about the presence of angels in Berlin towards the end of the Cold War when the city was still divided into East and West by its infamous wall. The idea came to Wenders while walking around the city after returning to West Germany following several years abroad in the US. He got to thinking about how the poetry of Rilke seemed to evoke the presence of guardian angels. “Rilke’s poems reverberate with angels,” he once explained.

Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan had to figure out how to represent angels. Firstly, they decided to use a mobile camera to track the angels, whether on dollies or cranes. The beautiful opening sequence was filmed from a helicopter to convey their “transcendental” perspective on the city. Wenders asked Alekan to move the camera lovingly to reflect the compassionate gaze of angels. “A camera can reflect on what you invest into its act of seeing,” the director explained.

The extensive use of interior monologues in the film conveys the inner life of thoughts of residents of the city and some of the characters. Never before in cinema, as far as I’m aware, has there been such an effective balance struck between shots of the exterior world and depictions of the mind’s hidden, invisible inner life. For once, the camera has become omniscient, seeing the outer and inner worlds with equal understanding. The camera enters the interiors of homes in the city and its microphone then enters the privacy of the mind, too.

The idea is that the angels can listen in to what people are thinking. The angels are also shown comforting people who are in distress. The peaceful presence of the angels is subtly rendered. I love these interior voices gently whispering, especially in the memorable scene in the library, whose physical silence comes alive with the murmuring of a thousand thoughts. Bordwell and Thompson describe this scene beautifully: “Dozens of people are reading in a large public library. As the camera tracks along past them, we hear their thoughts as a throbbing murmur of many voices in many languages…The film’s premise is that Berlin is patrolled by invisible angels who can tune in to humans’ thoughts.” (Bordwell, D & Thompson, K, 1997. Film Art – An Introduction, p. 333) The film’s evocative soundscape, which includes some hypnotic narrative voice-overs, was recorded in stereo to give the sounds the kind of three dimensionality that would be commensurate with the presence of angels being tangible, real, embodied. Wenders shows through these interior monologues that the city is filled with lots of lonely people, often leading separate lives.

The other innovation adopted to represent the presence of angels was to use black, white and grey filmstock to indicate their point of view, while colour was used to represent the perspective of human characters. About three quarters of the film was shot on black-and-white negative, with the remaining quarter shot on colour negative. Alekan used a very old silk stocking once worn by his grandmother as an improvised filter for the monochrome sequences to soften the aura.

The on-location shots give a pleasing sense of reality to counter-balance the “other-worldly” angelic dimension of the narrative. The fifth dimension of “heaven” is fully integrated into the four dimensions of the world’s space-time continuum.

The film portrays an impressionistic, luminescent, spiritual portrait of Berlin.

In the first part of the movie, we follow two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, around the city. While they can listen in to thoughts, they cannot actually interact with its human inhabitants.

Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz with a gentleness and a divine sense of innocence, falls in love with a beautiful, but lonely, trapeze artist called Marion. He decides to become mortal to find out what it is like to be human. He gets advice from an ex-angel, played with an incurable charm by Peter Falk, who’s in Berlin to make a film about the country’s Nazi past. Wenders shows the city trying to come to terms with its past, still bearing the scars.

With Berlin being watched by its angels in Wings of Desire, the terrors of Germany, Year Zero are finally redeemed, at least partially.

One of the movie’s themes is a playful discussion of the pros and cons of being human versus being an angel.

Marion, who lives by herself in a caravan, finds out that her group, Circus Alekan (named after the cinematographer!), will soon close down. Symbolically, she takes her wings off. Depressed by the news, she dances alone and drifts through West Berlin. She has lost her “circus dream” and must now be content to exist at a lower level of life as a waitress.

The part of Marion was played by Solveig Dommartin who learnt circus acrobatics in only eight weeks for her role, performing risky manoeuvres without using a stunt double. These sequences are beautifully filmed. The trapeze artist symbolises the human attempts to be airborne, to rise above their circumstances, and Wenders seems to be suggesting that humans are just below the angels in the hierarchy of heaven and earth. The film effortlessly moves between different levels of being.

Wings of Desire contains a longing, too, for the eventual reunification of the city and of Germany, to overcome the trauma of the past. Two years later, the Berlin Wall was finally dismantled! The angels inspired Wenders to evoke a dream of peace for the world.

Like Marion, Damiel will move down a level by shedding his immortality to become human. He can bleed, see colour, taste food and enjoy a cup of hot coffee. Now human, he meets Marion at a bar during a concert by Nick Cave. The two seem destined to meet and to complete each other’s lives.

Since this movie represents something of a summation of cinematic history by incorporating aspects of both silent and talking movies, as well as of both black-and-white and colour movies, it’s only appropriate that Wenders dedicates the film the directors who came before him, especially his “archangels”, Yasujirō Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky, with these words at the closing credits: “Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej”.

This is a glorious film, one of the most poetic ever made, which invites us to see “the world behind the world”. It exemplifies to the full what Marion the trapeze artist says, “Sometimes beauty is the only thing that matters.”