Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) is a German film by Wim Wenders. In Berlin, angels watch over the city and its people. They can hear the people’s thoughts, which gives us many scenes listening in on individuals’ silent worries. They seem to be able to comfort, but not intervene. After falling in love with a trapeze artist, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) decides to become mortal to experience life and love with her.
That being said, for a while, there is no plot to speak of. The film moves slowly, patiently, just as the angels do. This could be boring or aggravating to some viewers. If the idea of people watching alone bores you enough to turn to your phone for comfort, this film may not be for you. The film is much more concerned with being and doing.
These angels have an intriguing presence. Physically, they look very ordinary, their wings aren’t shown often. Usually, they move about the public without notice, but now and then a child will briefly interact with them. Only one adult, actor Peter Falk, can sense them and even calls them out, “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here.”
These angels seem to be immortal spirits, simply witnessing the world. They can recall the very beginnings of the world, before rivers had even formed and the dawn of man. We get no story of heaven or God with these angels. The way the world looks and works, there may not be God, but these angels are a nice comfort.
The majority of the movie is filmed in a grey tone sepia. Later, when Damiel lives, there is color. One of my favorite moments is his excitement over color, even if it’s his own blood. He stops a man and pointing to the graffiti on the Berlin wall by them, asks which colors are which. I can’t help but imagine that he picked that ridiculous plaid jacket because of it’s many colors.
What brings Damiel to choose mortality is so simple and beautiful. Since the beginning of time, he has been a witness to the world, but never a participant. He has seen, but not felt. There are joys that he has watched millions of people experience over all of time, but he has only sat on the sidelines. With this new life, and this girl, even for only a while, he can finally be a person in the world. Mold it, feel it, shape it and be shaped by it. He can finally have a “now.” And even the simplest things, like a meal, are amazing moments to savor. “To smoke, and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.”
Throughout the film, there is also a theme of isolation. There are moments where Damiel and Cassiel (Otto Sander) discuss the people they see. They hint that every person is somehow alone, their own state, or puts up individual borders. And here we are, in Berlin just a few years before the fall of the wall. The theme isn’t played up much, but the ideas of loneliness and walls between people has lingered in my mind for days since watching the film.
Wings of Desire is a surprisingly wonderful film. Some may find it hard to approach, being in German, mostly black and white and very slow plot. But it is beautiful, thought provoking, brilliant, haunting and touching. Wenders won the best director award at Cannes for this film, and it is in the Criterion Collection. The film was remade (and Americanized, no doubt) in 1998s City of Angels, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. I’ve heard it’s good, but I doubt it has as much impact and beauty. I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and check out Wings of Desire.
“When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. ”