Wings of Desire July 30, 2016
Because 1987’s Wings of Desire is more elegiac and spectacular than the majority of films to come out of the cinematic zeitgeist on a regular basis, I’m pressed to call it a movie. Its astounding bedazzlement announces it as having more in common with the oeuvres of classical painters than it does with modern filmmakers. It’s not magnificent on the Franklin Center-sized scale of a DeMille picture: It's magnificent in small, subtle ways. How beautifully it captures the happenstances and miseries that come with the territory of being human; how delicately it asks big questions — and makes bold assertions — without undermining the cerebral capacity of its viewers. It’s fine art, all right. But because he’s more Salvador Dali than he is Jackson Pollock, Wim Wenders’s writing and direction is universal and arresting rather than untouchable and ostentatious, thus establishing Wings of Desire as a piece as appealing to the senses as it is to the emotions.
Funny, considering how extraordinarily aspirational it is. As it takes on the daunting task of trying to maneuver through the complexities of human nature without losing its intimate poignancy, there’s a sense, initially that is, that it might be asking too much, that it might be pondering too much, for a movie meant to stir our souls and hit close to home. But Wings of Desire, through its screenplay written by Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger, is able to be both philosophical and tremendously personal — for all its fantasy and for all its external mystique, it is deftly romantic and piquantly affecting.
It’s an unthinkable, and yet eccentrically fitting, move to integrate reverie in a film almost frighteningly truthful in what it has to say about one’s existence. Wings of Desire’s protagonists are not rainy-day men of heroes but instead angels, perpetual onlookers able to read the thoughts of any of Earth’s inhabitants at any given moment without being able to do much more than stare, empathize. They are Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander), whom live in separate worlds of black and white and whom are little more than invisible boulevardiers. Immortal and incapable of doing anything besides affectionately watching their worldly peers unrequitedly, they’ve accepted their destinies as watchers, never able to touch, taste, or, really, exist.
But the damnation of eternal observation starts to become a problem for Damiel when he comes across Marion (Solveig Dommartin), an acutely lonely trapeze artist. In love with her mind as well as her heart, Damiel wants nothing more than to save her from her despair, which is currently at an all time high due to her latest gig’s shutting down. Cassiel, in the meantime, wanders around the West Berlin the film is set in, going through the motions of his perpetuity until tragedy unexpectedly crosses his path.
Wings of Desire, dreamy and resplendent, maintains a roaming quality that perhaps excuses the fact that nothing much happens. Like a day in the life of a ne’er-do-well, there’s a certain sort of fascination to be found within the confines of an ordinary life. Damiel and Cassiel are as old as time itself, but the notion that they can still find beauty in a world that oftentimes treads into ugliness is the buffer that exclaims that Wings of Desire is a film of hope, not of dejection.
Though it is the type of movie that’s thoroughly aware of the sometimes unbearable anonymity that comes with being alive. As it wonders why you’re you and why you’re not me, and why you’re there but not here, it also douses itself in a dreary colorlessness that addresses the blandness that plagues the existence of its angels. Only moments taken directly from the point of view of humans are dressed in fragrant color.
But always around the corner is a breakthrough, and Wings of Desire takes place in a time of transition, in which Damiel is ready to give up his unchosen vocation as a voyeur for love, in which Cassiel is forced to question whether he can emotionally handle being a detached observer for the rest of time, and in which Peter Falk, playing himself (and revealed to have been an angel in the past, too), frets over his decision to become one with the world leave behind the otherworldly.
Most moving, however, is the eventually reciprocated love between Damiel and Marion, which works as the film’s point of salvation. For so much of Wings of Desire is Marion on the cusp of losing her cool, of falling victim to her loneliness induced depression. Damiel arrives in time to show her that gratifying her doubts wastes her vitality. When he ultimately makes the choice to give up his immortality in favor of his desire, the film almost seems to ache in its romanticism, though it’s tender without being cloying about it.
As Damiel, Ganz is sensitive and altruistic, his face remarkably expressive; Sander, likewise, is meditative and curious. Most unforgettable about Wings of Desire, though, is Dommartin, who made her debut with the film. In preparation for her role as a trapeze artist, Dommartin committed herself to embodying her character so much so that, after just eight weeks of training, she was able to perform the required death-defying stunts so perfectly that no double was necessary for supplementation. But in addition to her glorious physicality, Dommartin’s characterization is also luminous, understated and mysterious enough to draw comparisons to such art house wunderkinds as Jeanne Moreau and Anna Karina.
Musical acts Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also make appearances at seminal points in Wings of Desire, which are as beneficial to the film’s allure as its actors.
But the film is more a showcase for Wenders, highlighting his auteurist skill set with accessibility only sometimes seen in a vast, sometimes self-pleasing, filmography. The sights and the sounds of the movie are haunting, its emotional palette and vulnerability even more so. This isn’t a film that leaves you days after departing the theater, serving as nothing more than a source of momentary diversion. Wings of Desire is a masterpiece that rattles you and maybe even alters your being: you feel more alive after having seeing it. A