Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Wings of Desire is a mysterious, humanistic fairy tale set in a sad city brutally divided
by an ideological wall. It weaves a meditative spell of goodwill and harmony through a beautiful
alliance of cinematic components - breathtaking cinematography, plaintive music and unusually
sensitive direction. This is the film that enhanced Wim Wenders' international reputation after
the successful Paris, Texas, and, in terms of popularity,
put him in the league of great European filmmakers. A
slow-paced, enchanting tale, 'Heaven over Berlin' connected with ordinary audiences as
few subtitled foreign films do.
A host of Angels keeps silent watch on the citizens of Berlin, finding people in
distress and trying to soothe their souls through their invisible touch. Apart from humanity but not
aloof from it, there's a tendency for some angels to want to become human. One melancholy angel,
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) takes the plunge into mortality and attempts to connect with a beautiful
trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Watched by a comrade, Cassiel (Otto Sander), Damiel
experiences what it means to be alive, to feel the cold. He gets tips on how to be human from
Peter Falk (Peter Falk), an actor who once was an angel himself.
In 1988, at least 5 people I respected, and who didn't recommend films lightly, told me I had
to see Wings of Desire. It turned out to be one of the best evenings I'd ever spent
in a theater reading
subtitles. It is the kind of picture that any reasonably thoughtful person is immediately going
to warm up to. It's a surefire date picture as well.
Wim Wenders film has a contemplative tone that's difficult to describe. The angels that wander the
Berlin thoroughfares and loiter in its public places are sometimes glimpsed with wings, but mostly
wear only overcoats. They watch over the living with sympathetic eyes, calmly monitoring the thoughts
of humans who don't realize they are there. The angels come close when they're needed, putting
their undetected hands on the distraught and those who suffer.
We hear these thoughts as the angels hear them, inner voices looking for answers. It's fascinating
and uplifting when Damiel's presence seems to bring hope to a discouraged man on a train. These
phantoms appear to be God's Lonely Men (and women), constantly hovering about us, the unseen
spirituality in our lives. A victim of a traffic accident, dying and perhaps perceiving the afterlife
in his agony, is comforted by Damiel. In keeping with the fairy tale roots, innocent children can see
the angels, and accept them for what they are.
The film has a very realistic surface to offset the fancy of its central conceit. As perceived
by the angels, Berlin is a bleak black & white world. A very real library interior is a favorite
angel hangout, implying that people become more spiritually receptive when reading. Damiel and
Cassiel spend a lot of time with Homer, an old man they find in the library. They follow him
thorugh the vacant lots of the city as he describes the pre-war, pre-bombing Berlin. Homer is the
living memory of a past that will soon die with him and he's given special care. The angels are
fascinated by humans, and study them as if wishing to find their secret - to the angels, humans
are special and
precious, possessed of a power they envy, to actually be alive. 1
This keeps up for almost an hour, but is so refreshingly pleasant, only the dull-minded will
become bored (hint - the film needs to be seen with as few distractions as possible!). The angels
cross over into East Berlin by simply walking through the wall and strolling about the no-man's
land laced with land mines and watched by machine guns. The political power of these images in
1988 was tremendous. The wall seems so arbitrary and unnecessary on the film's human level. Wenders
and writer Handke use the division of Berlin as a metaphor for the alienation and loneliness of
the citizens of Berlin. 2
Wings of Desire finds its story when Damiel becomes obsessed with Marion, the beautiful
trapeze artist. He watches her rehearse and enjoys the little kids' afternoon in the modest little
circus tent. 3
He then follows her to her dressing-wagon, and while observing her, has 'intimations
of mortality' represented by short cuts to color - the way we living people perceive the world. This
experience makes up his mind, and he decides to forego his immortality in favor of the short years
of one mortal lifetime, as a living person.
So here we have the situation of a formerly serene spirit plunked down like a yokel in the world
he only thought he knew, running around asking the colors of things and sticking his nose in
a cup to smell the coffee. After an hour of learning to appreciate
the spiritual, Wings of Desire turns around and shows us we could do little better than to
rejoice in the miracles of everyday reality. Damiel soon discovers what being cold
is like, and how frustrating it is to have his mobility hindered by things like chain-link fences.
You want to clap for Bruno Ganz as he discovers, one after another, the marvels of human living.
This brings Peter Falk into the story. We follow him about as he arrives to shoot a movie in Berlin,
and listen to his thoughts as he sketches extras or observes preparations in a bunker being used
as a set. He finally connects with Damiel, and tries to guide him a bit in his first experiences
being human. But when it comes down to it, the best thing Falk has to tell Damiel is that the fun
will be discovering life for himself. For Damiel, this means tracking down the missing Marion. The
circus has left town, and he can only hope he'll find her in the street, or in a concert.
Wenders receives excellent creative help from the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who
shot the fantasy landmark
Beauty and the Beast, and from
mournful music, dominated by violins and cellos. Rock music figures heavily later on, but the
real tone is established by the string music. It's like melancholy emotions made audible. Wenders
would move on to use similar music and a dozen disparate pop songs brilliantly in the science
fiction masterpiece that Wings of Desire made possible,
Until the End of the World.
MGM's special edition of Wings of Desire is a beauty. The previous laserdisc was a collector's
item (Savant tracked it down in 1994 and paid the seller's hefty asking price for a copy) but it
can't hold a candle visually to this DVD. The show is enhanced for widescreen televisions, presenting
the compositions at their full width. Even better, video allows the black & white majority of the
film to be in real b&w - theatrical prints were on color stock, and always looked a little bluish.
A comprehensive commentary and a docu feature both Wim Wenders and an amused Peter Falk. Clearly
proud of his role playing himself, Falk's comments and observations are free of celebrity-speak. He
even points up a grating error in his own self-written narration: he talks about his grandmother, but
if he originated as an angel, he shouldn't have one!
Wenders' accent makes him a bit more accessible in the docu then on the commentary where we can't see
him. He explains how the film came about (other projects were too expensive) and how his little
group slowly figured out how their angels should look and act. It will fascinate fans of the film.
There's an L.A. Confidential-style interactive map of locations in Berlin that isn't as
rewarding as it wants to be, but the ad archive and trailers are good, as are a selection of
deleted scenes. They go on for almost a half hour, and include a lot of Otto Sander mugging, and
the entire raw takes of an ending where Cassiel becomes human as well. The footage ends with a
Dr. Strangelove-like pie fight, that is so counter to the spirit of the film, it had to be
an end-of-shoot gag deal, not a serious effort. Wenders also is front and center in some kind of
short promotional film in German.
The audio is in the original German and English with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
As the film has some brief and unexploitative nudity, I was pleased to see the MPAA showing some
sense by rating the film PG-13 instead of R.
The handsomely illustrated DVD package has copy that makes the mistake of calling Damiel, Cassiel and
co. angels of divine origin. We're shown a universe of mortals and angels, but no evidence of God
or any particular church - Earthly churches play no role at all - the angels never go to a temple or
a chapel to find troubled souls. Wings of Desire thusly avoids the pitfall of most other
Films Blanc, of imposing a
limited moral structure on its cosmic fairy tale.
This is a wonderful picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wings of Desire rates:
Supplements: commentary, docu Angels Among Us, deleted scenes, ads, 'interactive map'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2003
1. There's a beautiful
parallel to Wings of Desire in classic Science Fiction writing, Arthur C. Clarke's
There a super-race of gigantic aliens come to Earth not to conquer, but to study us, for we
appear to have something they only wish they had: consciousnesses that can proceed to a new
level of existence, i.e., immortal souls.
2. When the film was made in 1986-87, nobody could have guessed that
the Berlin Wall would be history in just two years' time. Wings of Desire is a key film
about what the division really meant. Wenders' followup feature Faraway, So Close is a joyous
elaboration on this story, but, set in a reunited but undecided Germany, it has political complications
that unbalance the first film's simple setup. Its new fallen angel, for instance, develops an
3. If one hasn't already completely charmed by the film, the circus scene
will do the trick. Here is a tent-ful of little kids, none of whom seem to have been spoiled by video
games or reality TV, reacting with sheer delight to the tame antics of the spirited performers.
There's nothing even 'special' about the circus performance except the wonder of the audience-performer
relationship - the actors are giving the kids their attention and love, and the kids accept it
without reservation. The kids finally get to jump up and join in the fun, batting balloons and playing
with the clowns and the cat lady ... the scene is a moment of humble rapture. We take our kids to
circuses and things to try and get these kinds of reactions, but by age 4 they're so jaded by
television, it's almost a lost cause.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.