Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) – 1987
Director – Wim Wenders
Starring – Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk
Tackling the spiritual subject of the lives of Angels and their influence on the lives of human beings, Wings of Desire follows Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) as he becomes fascinated with and eventually falls in love with a young trapeze artist (Marion Played by Solveig Dommartin) performing in West Berlin (pre-fall of the Berlin Wall). The film aspires to much more than simplistic confirmation of faith or belief. Instead, Wim Wenders struggles with the ideas of how his angel characters experience the world while avoiding the cliché of making them infallible beings of infinite grace and experience.
Firstly, if the story seems familiar, you might be thinking of the far inferior re-make, City of Angels, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. If you haven’t seen the re-make, congratulations, if you have, at least it can only go up hill by watching this film after the fact. The story follows an angel named Damiel who, along with his fellow angel Cassiel, roams the city following humans through all stages of their daily and life-changing experiences. As the story progresses, Damiel expresses his desire to experience the things that people do everyday (food, love, human contact, tactile sensations, pain, smells, etc…), and his ultimate desire to leave his angelic status behind and become human.
The look of the film mirrors the pacing and the story in-so-much-as it is very lyrical and flowing. The world of the angels is very stark, and contrasty, filmed entirely in a silky black and white. Every crag and wrinkle of the people that they follow are visible, just as it would appear to an omnipresent, all-seeing angel. The human world, however, is filmed in lush, saturated color. Every joy, and mood, and taste, and experience of the human condition is on display visually, contrasted with the stark black and white world of absolutes. The passion and experience that these visuals convey, represent the question that Damiel is wrestling with throughout the entire movie. Is a life of passion, and emotion more satisfying than a life of eternal order, and knowledge, when each is separated from the other. Is there a halfway point between the two worlds, and if so, do the benefits of one out-weigh the other.
I have to say that I didn’t really notice the music in this film, with the exception of the very obvious concert scene featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and that isn’t necessarily bad, it just is. Overall the film seemed very quiet and relied heavily on the weight of silence and the power of dialogue. This means that you don’t get the standard emotional swell of music when you are supposed to feel happy, or sad, or angry. Since you still feel these emotions, it is clear that despite the absence of these musical cues, the movie is strong enough to get across its points without them.
One other element that may seem familiar is the lead actor, Bruno Ganz. If he seems familiar, it might be because he is a famous face in modern German cinema, most famously for playing Hitler in the film Downfall. His power as an actor is obvious when you watch him on-screen. For a film that is so visually striking as this one, when you find yourself trying to choose whether to look at the beautiful scenery or keeping your eye on the main actor, you know that you’re watching a dynamic performer. The actor (or actress if you prefer) who plays Marion, Solveig Dommartin, imbues the role with a luminosity that makes you believe an angel might choose a mortal life. Her wistful carefree nature provides the romance of the story, while ironically it is Ganz who provides the audience with necessary grounding and realism.
Wings of Desire is a slow-paced film, one that relishes the opportunity to show the characters, situations, and the world that it’s about, but it is very worth the time and energy spent watching it. Wim Wender’s visual poem to the city of Berlin is a definite influence on indie movement in the films of the early nineties, and on into the 2000s and beyond.