Tuesday, April 3, 2012

100 Movies - No. 94: Wings of Desire

94. Wings of Desire (1987)
Fantasy, Drama, Romance, 128 minutes, German, English, French and Turkish language
Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk and Otto Sander

The bulk of the film is in German, although some dialogue is in English. There are also occasional moments in French and Turkish.

Although this review contains spoilers, there's not really much to spoil. Each viewer will get something different from the film. The events are merely a loose framework used to provoke thought.

Wings of Desire is not an easy film to watch. It requires a lot of patience and you'll get very little from it if you aren't prepared to think. It's one of those stories that shows you events or allows you to hear thoughts, and then you make of it what you will. There isn't a conventional plot at all. If you watched The Tree of Life and had problems with its abstract narrative, Wings of Desire will test you even more. It's almost like a poem.

The story involves two immortal angels, Cassiel (Sander) and Damiel (Ganz), who have existed for millennia. The setting is Berlin, but the angels knew the city before humans ever existed. They remember how the river found its bed and how life as we know it began. They are serious and rarely show any emotion. Perhaps they have seen everything and it no longer affects them, or is their dispassionate outlook part of their very nature?

Their job is to observe humans and we see through their eyes in black and white. They can hear the thoughts of everyone they pass. Occasionally, when someone is sad or contemplating a desperate act, the angels intervene by touching the shoulder of the person in trouble. This gives that person a sense of hope and well being, but there's no guarantee the person will act on it. Children are able to see angels. Perhaps their innocence and lack of cynicism allows them to see what adults cannot?

Thoughts are usually presented as whispers, so the majority of the film feels very peaceful and relaxing. From the angels' point of view, it can be noisy when a large number of people are concentrated in a small space. We see some of these encounters on the street and in a public library. It's not clear why the angels are watching. Yes, they sometimes intervene and provide comfort, but they are mainly observing human behavior. They sometimes record unusual behavior in a notebook and talk about it among themselves.

As I mentioned, the film doesn't offer much guidance and won't tell you what conclusions to draw from the behavior of the angels. It will mean something different to everybody.

There are two other elements woven into the mix:

The first shows Marion (Dommartin), who is a female trapeze artist. She is temporarily working at a local circus and we discover from her thoughts that she's unhappy and lonely. She desperately wants to be loved. When she's alone, she listens to Nick Cave's music and dreams of one day finding someone.

The other thread involves Peter Falk, playing himself. His inclusion was a stroke of genius. Falk thinks in unusual ways and can sense the presence of angels. He talks to Damiel at one point and says that he wishes Damiel could experience things as he does. The pleasure of drinking coffee, smoking, or rubbing his hands together when he's cold. He's not afraid to talk to angels even though other people look at him as if he is crazy. The reason that he can do this is startling, but I won't reveal it here.

After about 90 minutes of showing us the angels in action, the film takes a sudden turn. Damiel has been observing Marion and has fallen in love with her. He wants to take the plunge and become a mortal human being in the hope that she will return his feelings. He wants to feel, touch, smell, taste and experience what it is like to really be alive.

Nick Cave has another part to play in the conclusion and we hear his thoughts while he is performing. His final song is From Her to Eternity, which is extremely appropriate in the context of the story.

The film switches from black and white to color when we see events from the viewpoint of humans rather than angels. It's particularly effective when Damiel is able to experience life fully for the first time.

For the majority of the film, the camera shows us what the angels see. This has the effect of making us observers too, and we can imagine what it would be like to witness so much joy and suffering, while only occasionally intervening. What is Wim Wenders asking us to see? Is it an invitation to contemplate the meaning of our existence?

If you like Wings of Desire:

Wim Wenders directed another story set in the same world called Faraway, So Close, also starring Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as Damiel and Cassiel. I haven't seen it yet, but will do so as soon as I track down a copy.

If you enjoy contemplating the meaning of existence and how everything works, take a look at The Double Life of Veronique, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.

If you want to explore other films by Wim Wenders, I would recommend Paris, Texas, starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinksi.

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  1. Great review, Steven! I've been meaning to watch this for a long time. Seems I would enjoy it.

  2. It's the kind of film you need to be in the right mood to watch. Something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Give it a try sometime.