Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are angels who walk the streets of West Berlin unseen, listening to the thoughts of the city’s residents. When Damiel encounters lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), he starts to fall for her and question his existence as an angel.
Wim Wenders’ haunting 1987 award-winner is a strange combination of metaphorical fantasy and gritty urban realism set in pre-unification Berlin. It starts as it means to go on, with a voiceover, meditating on the place of the individual in society. This is the voice of angel Damiel, but as the film unfolds we hear dozens and dozens of voices, all concerned with both the personal – problems, feelings, ideas – and wider concerns – the state of society, the passing of time, and so on. Wenders captures Damiel and Cassiel’s journey through the city with some breathtaking monochrome photography, as the camera glides from person to person, through walls and across buildings. The standout sequence during the first half-hour occurs in a huge library, where dozens of angels congregate to share the thoughts of those reading and studying, the massed voices combining with Jürgen Knieper’s undulating score to create a hypnotic, deeply moving sequence.
The film – and the attention of the angels – soon comes to focus on three individuals. There is Homer, an old man consumed by memories of wartime Berlin, actor Peter Falk (playing himself) who is in town to star in a detective film – also set during the war – and most importantly Marion, the trapeze artist whose time at the circus has come to an end and who faces an uncertain future. It is her need to be loved – and feel alive – that draws Damiel to her, as her thoughts express the exact same sense of dislocation that he too is experiencing. As Damiel continues to spend time alongside her, the angel comes to realise that an eternity spent invisibly walking the earth and observing the human race isn’t enough – he needs to be part of it. The sections involving Peter Falk are lighter, and include the hilarious revelation that he was once an angel too – he cannot see Damiel and Cassiel, but feels their presence around him. Falk is warm and funny, and there’s also a cameo from goth rocker Nick Cave, playing himself on stage and wishing his gig was soon over.
Like Dorothy stepping into Oz, Damiel’s inevitable journey into mortality is signalled by a switch from black and white to colour. It’s not a total shock – there are fleeting colour shots earlier in the film, all from the perspective of humans rather than angels – but it’s a great way of showing how the world around Damiel has changed. Bruno Ganz’s performance, as he sees colour, tastes coffee and touches another person for the first time, is superb and if his inevitable encounter with Marion is understated, that’s the point – he’s now just mortal like you and me. Perhaps Wings of Desire does get bogged down in its extensive voiceovers and more metaphysical concerns, but beneath the ambitious concept and technical trickery lies a simple film just as moving as Wender’s masterpiece Paris, Texas. Wenders also directed an inferior sequel, Faraway, So Close, in 1993.
German director and writer and one of modern cinema's most important European filmmakers. Wenders films tend to blend social commentary with genre material - thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy. It was his acclaimed "road movies" of the mid-seventies - Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and the epic Kings of the Road that first brought him international attention. 1977's The American Friend was a post-modern thriller starring Bruno Ganz, and although the making of Hammett was a difficult experience, he won his greatest acclaim for the moving drama Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepherd.
1987's Wings of Desire was another triumph, and if he's yet to equal those classics, subsequent work has at least been a series of fascinating failures. Until the End of the World was an ambitious sci-fi piece, Faraway, So Close sequalised Wings of Desire, while The End of Violence, Million Dollar Hotel and Land of Plenty were dark, offbeat dramas. Wenders' film Don't Come Knocking was written by and starring Sam Shepherd, while Submergence was a globetrotting romance based on a bestselling novel. His best recent work have in fact been documentaries, including the The Soul of a Man for Martin Scorsese's Blues series and the Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club.