Spoilers may follow.
Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire is about angels that live among us as watchful sentinels, neither interfering in nor orchestrating events that chart human life. But it also about time and space, and how mankind has survived millenniums with angels by its side, and how these angels, who have witnessed the birth of the world, continue to be fascinated, even infatuated by you and me. The lead angel, Damiel, sits in a convertible BMW in a showroom and for a brief moment closes his eyes to take in his surroundings — the smell of synthetic air, the sounds of the room and of the street outside. He smiles. For a being that has seen it all, nothing ever gets old.
Throughout the film he, and his fellow angel Cassiel, stroll around the streets of Berlin observing comings and goings, standing over as students study in the library, lending comfort to victims of a terrible car accident, watching helplessly as a troubled young man jumps off the roof of a building. The angels can hear thoughts and influence the aura that surrounds us, but they cannot penetrate that cosmic barrier to feel what we feel. Some humans can sense their presence, and children can see them and hold conversations, but most remain oblivious.
What are the angels for then? They are guardians, not of our hopes and dreams, but of the world. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) stand along the stone bank of the river and recall how they were there when the primeval river began to flow, how they witnessed the Napoleonic wars and the eventual destruction of buildings that once stood before World War II. They record what they see in little notebooks and report their findings to each other. Every report delivers something new, fresh, unprecedented. This is Wim Wenders’ way of expressing the never-ending change and innovation mankind seems to wreak upon itself. Even after centuries of human history, new discoveries can be made.
Consider this: Damiel has been watching over the world for millions of years. He has lived through the lifetimes of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, of Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, and Victoria. He has experienced many great, powerful women in his time. Why, then, does he choose now, 1987, to fall in love with a trapeze artist of a travelling circus? Why does he want her so much that he’s willing to sacrifice his immortality? The answer is obvious: Few perfect emotional connections can be made in a lifetime. When one comes along, whenever it is, it must be seized. The aerialist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), is unaware of Damiel. Damiel cannot touch or speak to Marion. Yet they share a kindred spirit, one that is ignited almost instantly when their paths finally cross in real time, in the real world.
Damiel is also a pot of boiling tension. He stands apart from his fellow angels because he has seen enough, now he wants to participate. “I want to create a history for myself”, he tells Cassiel, who smirks humorously. He has watched on for too long, fantasising about the touch of skin, what it means to come home from work and feed his cat, a kiss, smoking, the taste of coffee, the cold. Things humans take for granted. He is an anomaly, because his comrades are content to remain passive observers forever.
The first hour and fifteen minutes of Wings Of Desire play like a cruise bound to an elegiac state of reverie, where time seems to pass glacially and nothing much in terms of a structured plot seems to happen. The cinematography by Henri Alekan is appropriate in the way it remains detached from what it sees. The camera flies and glides, it twirls and drifts, sometimes in manoeuvres so delicately intricate it boggled my mind trying to figure out the planning that went into them.
One of the primary locations of the film’s first two acts is the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, a grand Modern cavern of books and literature and history. This library appears to be the preferred hangout of the angels, probably because they are inspired by knowledge, and they can appreciate an awesome setting when they see one. Observe the scenes that take place here. Observe Alekan’s gentle camerawork as it hovers over railings and seems to float down stairwells, as if Damiel himself is commanding it. Observe how the lens captures the enormity of the interior space and transforms it into an artistic backdrop. Even when the library is closed and the cleaners emerge to vacuum its carpets, it retains its grandeur.
This is one of the great film spaces, because both real and ethereal beings can traverse it in peace, and the camera is able to move around as freely as it would in an open field. It allows for complex blocking, and the quiet of a library is perfect for eliciting stillness and comfort; when the angels sit by readers and students, it’s reassuring to know that they are there. There is true peace.
It also becomes reassuring for Peter Falk, who plays himself in the movie as an actor set to shoot a film about Nazis in Berlin. We constantly monitor his thoughts as the angels hear them — he regards the face of a woman and a man he’s about to sketch in his notepad, he ponders life (as every other human character does), he complains about the production like a stereotypical prima donna.
At the coffee stand one day he says into thin air: “I know you’re there. I can’t see you, but I can feel you. I wish you were here”. Damiel is taken aback. Who is this man? Can he really sense me, or is he insane? Falk extends his hand and Damiel shakes it. Later, when Damiel makes his move and becomes human, he reconnects with Falk, who tells him about his past in New York City. If Falk is integral to the story, it is only to highlight the differences between Damiel and Cassiel. Both angels are serene and pleasant, but Damiel shakes Falk’s hand and embraces the lessons on human life. When Falk extends the same courtesy to Cassiel later in the film, there is no handshake. Damiel is curious. Cassiel is reluctant, sadly content.
Wings Of Desire was remade by Hollywood as City Of Angels in 1998, starring Nicolas Cage as the angel and Meg Ryan as the girl (no longer a trapeze artist, she was a surgeon). That film, as with most Hollywood remakes, abandoned all subtext and existential queries in favour of pristine production values and mainstream storytelling. It became a straight-laced romance film, less about the questions of life than about the fate of two star-crossed lovers.
Wings Of Desire asks a lot of questions and doesn’t think to answer them. How can such questions be answered anyway? Why am I me and not you? Why am I here and not there? Where does time end and space begin? Hollywood would no doubt find a way to resolve such difficult thoughts, but I think to do so would be to undermine the intentions of the filmmaker. Wings Of Desire lulls you first. It lets you observe the streets of Berlin. It lets you feel comfort knowing angels are around. It brings you peace. And then it prods your mind relentlessly, like a crossword puzzle with an impossible clue.