I should probably start by saying that I’ve always had a strong personal connection to and love for films that explore human nature and existence. What it means to live, isolation, and the inter-connectivity of human beings and the strains between the physical and spiritual world are questions that have had the biggest impacts on me. This is probably why when I look back at my favorite films they are those directed by auteurs like Bergman and Kieslowski, who tackled these themes with such intimacy and beauty. I say this to remind you that I know what I like…so when I say “Wings of Desire”, after two viewings in one day, is probably my new favorite film, I do it without hyperbole. But be warned, like most intellectually challenging films, and those that connected with me on an emotional level more than anything, this review consists a whole lot of rambling and not so coherent thought.
I’d first like to just state that I truly believe that this is one of the most poetic and beautiful stories ever put to film. It is the tale of Damiel and Cassiel, two of many angels who have wandered earth since its beginning, bearing witness to its growth and the development of man. They are not the angels of the Christian faith, but rather those from poetry, more metaphorical and spiritual beings observing and acting as guardians. They can’t directly alter our fate but can often guide or comfort us in times of great pain. For example when Damiel finds a victim of a motorcycle accident lying on the curb, covered in blood, fearing his death as regrets start to surface, he comes to his side. To calm him Damiel places his hands upon the mans head and begins to recite beautiful memories and images. Suddenly the victim begins to do the same, his fear now replaced with a sort of tranquility, as if Damiel has helped him face death by making his life pass before him.
A great deal of the film follows Damiel and Cassiel through their usual routine of listening to the tortured thoughts of humans, helping those they can, and sharing with each other specific human thoughts or actions worth remembering. On this particular afternoon Damiel expresses to Cassiel his wanting to relinquish his immortality to become human. He explains that he has been on the outside looking in for too long. Now he yearns to live, to touch, to be hurt and most importantly to love. He wants to experience the importance of true existence when time and the acknowledgment of your morality creates a passion and joy for even the simplest things, like a hot drink on a cold day or rubbing your hands together to warm them up.
This desire to take on a human form is intensified when he begins to fall for a trapeze artist named Marion. He first encounters her in a local circus, gliding through the air on her swing dressed as an angel. Damiel’s fascination with her grows when the circus is shut down, and Marion falls into a sort of despair. She is alone, away from home, her dreams of being a great trapeze artist slipping. In this time Damiel visits her often, hoping that his presence helps her, while being spellbound by her beauty and how she handles her emotions.
Meanwhile, Cassiel begins to follow an elderly gentlemen named Homer, a professor and a poet, who has been unable to write, he has lost all motivation for his muse and storyteller are gone. The thing these characters share is afeeling of isolation and disconnection that mirrors the world around them. Marion loses her audience when the circus closes. She is now left alone, wanting to be loved. Homer explains how his listeners, once huddle together in groups with ears open are now scattered readers. This feeling of isolation and disconnect is made all the more poignant as it is set in West Berlin while a wall literally divided Germany. The two, along with most of the people we see our angels listening to, have thoughts filled with worry and sadness. They are missing something, we all are, but what? This is where Damiel and Marion’s eventual unity becomes very important. Offsetting them all is Peter Falk, playing himself, shooting a new film in the city. He displays a sort of passion in life that intrigues both Damiel and Cassiel. Falk cares about the simple things, even the most minor details and seemingly insignificant human moments. Here is a man that values every second of life, which gives Damiel all the more reason to want to share that experience.
On a technical level one of the films greatest achievements is how most of the film is devoid of color. It is meant to be the world seen through the eyes of the angels. Everything to them seems so plain, and all detail and color is lost. It is a bold choice, but one that not only works but when there is a transition to color when in a human perspective, the beauty, ecstasy and warmth of life is much more apparent. This imagery and cinematography, particularly the lighting, is all absolutely beautiful. This comes as no surprise given that it was done by Henri Alekan who did “The Beauty and the Beast” (1946) which is one of the most visually breathtaking black and white films ever made.
Perhaps my favorite things about the film is Bruno Ganz’s wonderful performance as Damiel. He has the face and presence of a man who has been around for a long time and doesn’t feel very much because he has seen and heard it all; yet he still expresses a sense of longing for life and love boiling under the surface. When he eventually takes a human form the joy he exudes is an absolute delight to watch. Right up there is another stand out performance by Peter Falk who sadly passed away last year. He plays himself, with that face and voice like no other, and is easily the most “human” character in the film.
Now under the surface of the beautiful imagery, the wonderful performances and poetic story there are many themes Wenders wishes to explore. What seems to come up most is how disconnected and divided we humans are, even though we live in a world filled with so much life and beauty. We are at times just too blind to see it. We aren’t angels yet we often look at the world as if it is in black and white. This divide seems to be present even amongst the world of angels as Damiel and Cassiel are both quite different; again these differences coming from ones ability to appreciate even the smallest of things. While Damiel is fascinated by life and drawn towards pleasure, Cassiel on the other hand seems drawn towards suffering. Cassiel spends numerous times thinking back to the war, seeing images and memories of the destruction. He seems almost haunted by these things which is why the idea of morality may not appeal to him. There is no joy in the life he sees, even though his own journal of human events contain moments of joy amongst the bad. He is conflicted, a feeling brilliantly displayed in one scene set during a Nick Cave concert. He is following Damiel who is searching for Marion. Cassiel stands behind the stage, eyes closed, as lights cast three moving shadows of him on the wall, like his fragmented soul is standing right before our eyes. What has he, a master of the spiritua world, not been able to find that Damiel has? The answer is an appreciation of the sensual, which for Damiel is represented by Marion.
But even she seems at times lost, asking questions such as “why am I me and why not you?” What is the cause of our individuality, why must we shut ourselves out to others? Why can’t we be one? What separates us? This is where Damiel’s relationship with Marion becomes not just a sentimental romance subplot, but an example of how unity and love are possible. If Damiel represents the spiritual, then Marion is the sensual, material world. The blending of the two, their love for one another, is what opens the door for more worldly love and a growing appreciation for life; and most importantly the binding of us all. It’s that connection to our spiritual, not just material, side that brings us true joy.
Of course this is only how I viewed the story. After my second viewing I spent a lot of time contemplating what it all meant, while also reading reviews and analysis from others. I always love reading how others personally view films such as this. Many came to similar conclusions as I did, and even those that viewed it differently seemed to share the same appreciation for it all as me. That isn’t to say some might not find it all overwhelming, especially when the pacing is slow and deliberate, though I personally never once found it dull.
So in the end, I think what I took away from the film is that the passion for and the celebration of life is what separates us from angels and connects us all. Our morality is perhaps the greatest gift we could have ever received. A gift we all share, and once we realize this and let sensuality and spirituality flow together than love and peace can conquer. It is this profound and beautiful notion that “Wings of Desire” delivers, set amongst a metaphysical and poetic tale of romance intertwined with political and philosophical questions and observations about human nature, connections, and existence that give it an emotional and intellectual state that few other films since perhaps those by Bergman and Bunuel have ever achieved. What is perhaps more astonishing is how it achieves this all without an ounce of pretentiousness. There are no manipulated or exaggerated claims by Wenders in an attempt to drive these themes home. He simply observes, in an often humorous and lighthearted manor, these universal fears, desires, questions and emotions; and it drew me in from beginning to end as I was mesmerized by everything on screen. It is because of all this that I say “Wings of Desire” is probably my new favorite film, and should be seen by anyone with a love for life and cinema.