In Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders has created a beautiful visual universe, a unique world that somehow combines the lush black-and-white of such heavenly Hollywood fantasies as Here Comes Mr. Jordan with the more down-to-earth realities of Wenders’ modern Germany. It’s a world both rapturous and unfulfilling, lyrical but also sterile.
Which are exactly the contradictions that Wenders wants. Wings of Desire is Wenders’ most magical film, an unexpected flight into Capraesque fantasy from the director of such angst-ridden modern-day movies as The American Friend and Paris, Texas.
Wenders’ main character here (the screenplay is by Wenders and Peter Handke) is a melancholy angel, played by the superb Bruno Ganz. This angel spends his time watching people, jotting down their behavior in a notebook. He and the other angels, who dress in long overcoats and wear pony tails, pass through Berlin and observe, and are seen only by little children.
These angels are immortal. They move through eternity, but they do not feel anything. One day Ganz commiserates with a pal angel (Otto Sander); “I’d like to feel some weight to me,” he says, and dreams of someday being able to touch and taste things, take off his shoes under a table and stretch out his bare feet. It is possible for these angels to take the plunge into the world of the living, but they would lose their immortality.
Ganz eventually comes to the decision to become human, fueled in part by his infatuation with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin); while watching her perform, he sees her in a brief, vivid flash of color (the cinematography is by Henri Alekan, who four decades ago photographed Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast). Also on the scene is an American actor (Peter Falk), who is shooting a World War II movie in Berlin. Falk, who is called by his own name in the film and even subject to a couple of “Columbo” jokes, establishes an odd bond with the lonely angel.
At two hours and 10 minutes, Wings of Desire is undoubtedly too long for any conventional telling of this story. But Wenders’ films do not bow to any conventional rules, nor should they. This movie drifts along at its own spellbinding pace, its languid narrative an inextricable part of its impact and meaning.
The opening hour is a dreamlike survey of Ganz’ travels through the angel world. One of the most striking aspects of this existence is the angels’ ability to hear the thoughts of humans; thus the soundtrack is filled with the unspoken fears and dreams and desires of people.
The movie becomes giddy when Ganz finally casts his lot with humans. Yet there’s nothing silly about his eventual encounter with the sad trapeze artist, or his conclusion upon sampling earthly reality that “It happened once, and so it will be forever.” One of the great things that this lovely movie communicates is the sense that eternity is going on right now.
First published in the Herald, June 23, 1988
Must’ve run out of space, or I would’ve mentioned Nick Cave. This movie’s a beaut.