There is not a film quite like Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. This is clearly a bold statement, given that there is an entire century of celluloid-making history to contend with, and that Wenders’ himself dedicates this work to “all the old angels, especially Yasujiro, François and Andrei”. These are master film craftsmen, the Japanese Ozu, the French Truffaut and Russian Tarkovsky, whose cinematic influences have left a profound presence in Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin or The Skies over Berlin, as a literal German translation of the film’s original title). The quiet grace of human observations is clearly an Ozu legacy, the humanism and magical realism is Truffaut-esque, and the sweeping cinematography and contemplation of history and human existence have long been deeply ingrained in the works of Tarkovsky. But instead of resulting into a postmodern pastiche, Wenders’ work soars above its own cinematic sphere of influence and emerge as a truly original, elegiac, graceful and beautifully profound work of modern art.
A million light-years away from any Hollywood narrative convention, Wenders’ approach is that of a European art-film sensibility. It is contemplative in mood, evocative in its visuals and evades narrative and plot for spatial musings and meditation on human existence – this is more cinematic poetry rather than your typical mainstream movie classification. The first half roves around a war-ravaged, post-Nazi Berlin, all crumbling walls, decaying urbanities and banalities of life, and amongst these torn human creatures are unseen celestial bodies, angels drifting around the city, listening to every pain, hurt, emotional yearnings of every citizen. Wenders’ ditch the common ideal image of angels in haloes and wings, except at the beginning where we see Bruno Ganz’ Damiel standing atop a church’s spire with wings fading into the light, but instead wearing long overcoats like existential, sombre-looking noir detectives hearing the inner voices of the populace, their deepest thoughts and desire, and even casually touching humans for reassurance. This is familiar to mainstream as City of Angels, the crooningly mawkish Hollywood remake with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan, where angels pretty much wear the same thing. So here, there are two central characters, Damiel and Cassiel, two angels whose immortalities allowed them to observe more-than-enough earthbound human experiences. Desire does not preachify over religiosity and spiritualism, but it portrays a form of magical realism, of deities existing amongst and inbetween physical matters unknown to humankind.
A narrative emerges when Damiel (an emphatic, soulful-eyed Bruno Ganz) forfeits his immortality when he falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist Marion (a beautiful Solvieg Dommartin), whose existential anguish and solace has captivated Damiel. It’s an unabashedly romantic projection, that loneliness is as beautiful as beauty itself and as truthful as life, and Damiel knows this in an enchanting scene where he declares his yearning to experience earthbound pleasures, as simple as warming his hands to a cup of coffee, to be able to physically touch somebody, to love and be desired. Wenders offers here a life-affirming, hopeful palette amid the black-and-white angel’s POV, intriguingly shifting into full colour at the perspective of humans. And when Damiel finally gets to become human, he sees blood in dark red, and is wonderfully rapturous about the sight of it, the implication of human mortality, of transience, pain and uncertainty.
Here is a film that wraps you up and never lets you go. Wings of Desire transcends conventional film form into a haunting, lyrical, elegiac, beautifully profound cinematic poetry about earthbound existence. For a film about angels, Wim Wenders provides a very humanist philosophy here, a deeply touching love-letter to the simple pleasures of human life. An enriching, stunning work of art.