07 Nov 19
After a string of international successes, such as the American road movie Paris,Texas, and the observational documentary Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders returned to his native West Germany in the late 1980s to make Wings of Desire. Often considered his greatest film, Wings of Desire also stands as a historical artefact. In making the film Wenders incidentally captured the divided capital city shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. In this way, the film is a fascinating piece of archival footage. Unlike German citizens, however, the film's protagonists are not restricted by the wall; they are angels.
The film's German title, Der Himmel über Berlin, (The Sky Over Berlin) perhaps offers more of an insight into what the film is about. Damiel and Cassiel are two angels who reside in the sky, able to float freely around the city below them. Their task is to observe humanity, taking notes and listening to the thoughts of people going about their day-to-day lives. The first segment floats along with the angels, entering private rooms and public spaces as we hear people's thoughts and observe their actions. Shot in black and white, it is dream-like and utterly captivating.
Although the angels have total freedom of movement, they are restricted from participating in humanity. They cannot be seen, and they do not experience tastes, smells or touch. Damiel, played by the late Bruno Ganz, feels disconnected and begins to crave the human experience when he hears the lonely thoughts of Marion, a trapeze artist in a struggling circus, and falls in love. The way Wenders subsequently portrays how it feels to be human is remarkable, with a switch from black and white to colour as inspired as the one in Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (a clear influence on this film.)
The film is full of great cameos, including Peter Falk, (that's right, Columbo!) who plays himself, wandering the streets of Berlin, hiding a mysterious past that unfolds throughout the film. Wenders also captures the '80s West Berlin music scene at its peak, lurking and listening to the thoughts of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as they perform at an intimate gig. It's best seen loud, and on the big screen!
Ganz's performance here as the gentle, softly-spoken angel, exudes a calming on-screen presence, worlds apart from his raging portrayal of Hitler in 2004's Downfall, his most recognised work. He sadly passed away earlier this year, but Wings of Desire remains a testament of his talent and a wonderful way to remember the actor.
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