Wings of Desire is director Wim Wenders’ groundbreaking meditation on Berlin – its past, present and future (indeed the original film title is Der Himmel über Berlin – The Heaven’s Over Berlin). Bruno Ganz plays Damiel, one of the invisible immortal angels who listen to the thoughts of the city’s inhabitants and comfort those in distress. Darniel watches many people including Marion, a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist with whom he slowly begins to fall in love with. To fulfill his desire he must become human and experience life.
At first, Berlin may not seem a very likely candidate for a “city of angels.” But Wim Wenders made his adopted German hometown the star of this homage to optimism and the concept of guardian angels. The actors work in locations that co-star in the film. Berlin’s vast public library, the Staatsbibliothek, in particular, stands out as a gathering place for the angels, a cathedral filled with books and the thoughts of readers. Naturally, the Berlin Wall—that no one making the film ever expected to fall in their lifetimes—also stars in the film. Both the real Wall’s west side and a fake set of the no-man’s-land on the east side (filming in East Berlin was impossible at the time) also star in Wings of Desire.
Not that the human actors aren’t equal to the scenery. The two angels played by Bruno Ganz (Damiel) and Otto Sander (Cassiel) are not only very believable but appealing. We also see how being an angel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Their longing for the simple human joys of taste, smell, love, and color (the film’s contrast of black and white versus color reflects the latter) becomes painfully clear. Former angel Peter Falk as himself (plus his world-famous Columbo persona) is a vital subtle comic touch.
Post-punk is a heavy and defiant feature of the soundtrack which includes Crime & The City Solution, Laurie Anderson and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (who appear onstage in the film). Considering that Wenders and his fellow filmmakers practically made the whole thing up as they went along, it is a remarkable collaboration (including words by the Austrian poet Peter Handke and music by the German composer Jürgen Knieper) with magical results. Even if you usually avoid “art house” films, realize that Wings of Desire is a film that had a huge impact around the world and may have a huge impact on you.