Wings Of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin)

Germany (1987) Dir. Wim Wenders

Is immortality overrated? The idea of being an ethereal being with the ability to look over the world and not have to worry about pain, illness, aging, money, sustenance, and of course death sounds great, but at what price? Life is to be lived so how do you live it when you aren’t actually living?

Bifurcated Berlin is presided over by a group of angels able to walk among the living without fear of detection, with the exception of young children, their primary objective to observe, record, and preserve the history of the moment. In West Berlin, two angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), go about their business as usual but Damiel isn’t fulfilled, and wishes to experience life as humans do.

As he goes about his daily excursions, Damiel arrives at a circus where he is besotted with French trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) and reading her inner thoughts, learns she is desperately lonely but her job serves as a distraction from this. However, Marion is told the circus is closing and she’ll not only be out of work but without a home too, prompting Damiel to make a decision about his status as an angel to help her.

One of the classic films in the eyes of film buffs to have escaped my attention until now, Wings Of Desire is not an easy film to sum up or describe regardless of the impression the above plot summary may give. It is not simply a Teutonic arthouse riff on the classic It’s A Wonderful Life nor is it a straightforward romantic drama, although Hollywood remade it as one in 1998 as City Of Angels completely missing the point as usual.

For Wim Wenders, this film is many things, first and foremost a poetic tribute to his home city of West Berlin, with which he wanted to reconnect after spending eight years in the US. Some have said this is also a love letter to cinema which I failed to see, outside of the end credits dedication to his “angels” Ozu, Truffaut, and Tarkovsky, although its technical aspect has a clear influence on later films.

Shot mostly in black and white for symbolic reasons which we’ll discuss later, West Berlin is presented as a dour, moribund city, crumbling under the weight of austerity and hopelessness but not quite defeated. An old man Cassiel follows named Homer (Curt Bois) hopes for peace as he wanders through the boarded up and demolished parts of town that were an essential part of his life.

Cassiel of course cannot communicate with Homer nor do anything to help him – he can only shrug and let the old man have is dream if it keeps him going, finding this wishful thinking quaint and curious. Along with Damiel, all the other angels can be found at the local library hovering about to see who is reading what and why, dotted about the premises in their uniform of a dark trench coat, hair tied back in a pony tail, looming over the readers like a teacher patrolling a classroom.

Meanwhile Damiel is too concerned with Marion and her impending unemployment, following her about as she changes in her trailer or visits a local club to see a rock band perform. It is during these scenes that we get our first burst of colour, representing the human perspective, denoting the viewpoint of the angels as literally black and white. In other words, Wenders offers a unique take on the aphorism about the grass being greener on the other side also to a literal conclusion.

Life in West Berlin is captured on a mostly grass roots level, from young kids playing in suburban wastelands to a young prostitute hoping her next punter will take her away from this life. It should be obnoxiously incongruous that Columbo himself, Peter Falk, is in town making a film about the Nazis, another reference to pre-separation Berlin’s history, but this has wider implications than at first seems.

Reading this must make it sound like this is one confused film, a myriad of ideas flung together in the name of arty cinema, shot in black and white with an evocative voice over reading a poetic narrative in lieu of expository or wasteful dialogue, cementing its pretentious credentials. Wenders is in fact making a statement, although I won’t pretend to have understood all of it, but it becomes clearer in the mostly colour third act.  

The prescience regarding the eventual reunification of Berlin which occurred two years later, is weaved into the subtext of the potential union between Damiel and Marion, yet with hindsight is staggering hopeful of Wenders, so if we can thank him for that, then we should. Politics doesn’t appear here unless you count the Biblical parallels of a bored seraphim wanting more excitement in life, keeping the tone neutral in that respect.

17 years before his incredible portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, Bruno Ganz captivates us as Damiel, often not doing much but being an omnipotent presence, he does so with panache whilst his coming alive in the final act makes us believe this is a man free from his shackles. Peter Falk is playing himself playing himself and surprisingly fits in with this unlikely diegesis courtesy of the clever script.

Despite being made in 1987, this film feels ahead of its time and certainly contrasts with others released in that year. The black and white scenes share the raw melancholy found in modern titles like Roma, whilst the colour sequences predate the suburban despair of This Is England. It is unquestionably Germanic in visual aura and attitude even with a musical appearance from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

Wings Of Desire is a profound film that oddly doesn’t feel profound in that Wenders doesn’t bury the story under layers of pretension and symbolism, only a lyrical narration. Interpret it as you will, this is a celebration of life that captures the imagination.

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