WIm Wenders’ extravagantly yearning, intense literary love fantasy, conceived together with Peter Handke, is being reissued and currently seems more like an elegiac “city symphony” about Berlin than anything else. How extraordinary to think that just two years after this film came out, the Wall and the East-West division of the city – which had sown as poetically solid and immutable as a river bank – have disappeared. With its astounding crane and helicopter shots, Wender’s film hovers and hovers over the city, pointedly overcoming the hated Wall and staging the longing of Berliners to somehow overcome the seriousness of history and overcome this ugly barrier.
Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander play Damiel and Cassiel, two angels in the sky above Berlin who enjoy watching and studying all the people in the teeming city below. You can hear what these people are thinking and feeling. They roam freely through the still half-destroyed Berlin and their trains of thought are interspersed with archive footage of the destroyed capital from 1945. Children can see the angels, but not the adults – except for one adult, Hollywood film actor Peter Falk, who came to Berlin to shoot a film apparently set in World War II and somehow senses the angels ahead. Falk’s presence is a reminder of Wenders’ unique love for America and the merging of American cultural presences in Europe: appropriate enough given that Berlin itself was the epicenter of pre-war Germany Americanismhis fierce love for all things American.
Damiel has fallen in love with a circus trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) and marvels at the strangely exotic artistry of her performance. He longs to give up his immortality and god status in order to meet Marion and make her fall in love with him – although it is a mark of his still divine confidence that he never doubts that this will happen. Damiel longs to submit to time itself and the sensual embrace of growing, aging and dying. Cassiel sympathizes without wishing to join him, and joins in with reflections on the joys of humanity and mortality, how exciting it must be to “get excited about evil for once—be a savage!”
The angels roam and ponder, especially in the lovingly photographed Berlin State Library, and probably no other library was filmed so passionately. They meet Homer himself (Curt Bois), who wants to put the city on paper. There is an extraordinary sequence in which they wander about Potsdamer Platz trying to remember how it used to be: in 1987 this was still a wasteland, a wasteland and an almost rural gloomy nothingness.
Wenders had something of Frank Capra or Powell and Pressburger with that story of benevolent angels, but also something of Marcel Carné or even TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Maybe Wings of Desire is getting a bit old, but it’s a cinema of ideas, almost an essay film and absolutely unique.