Wings of Desire (1987)

Dir. Wim Wenders. Starring Bruno Ganz, Peter Falk, Solveig Dommartin

I haven’t been to Berlin in nearly ten years now, and the Berlin that Wenders and company depict here is a vastly different one than I saw. For one thing, the Wall still stands; one scene, as if to emphasize the non-reality of the actors or the in-betweenness of Damiel’s (Ganz) desires, takes place within the Berlin Wall itself. The perpetually rainy quality of the city that I remember – not like the Northwest, but a certain powerful grayness when you look up or down – stands out even in the color sequences. Wenders shows us a city which has been ripped up, which is at least as full of muddy fields as it is inhabited by shabby punks, French circus performers, old men stumbling around for the past. Berlin is not healed, not by a long shot, and each boot in the mud or tread on the asphalt seems as likely to tear up the foundation of the city further as it is to heal or solidify the foundation of the city. Damiel and Marion (Dommartin, whose straight nose, red lips, husky voice, and manelike blonde hair can’t help but recall Hanna Schygulla) are ostensibly the main characters, are at least the ones who the synopses focus on, but the film doesn’t make it that easy. I was every bit as taken with Cassiel (Otto Sander), an angel who doesn’t “take the plunge,” as I was with Damiel, and of course as delighted by Falk as I was by Dommartin.

Like the angels in the sky over Berlin, whose job is to record and preserve the little human moments they witness, our job as moviegoers is to watch without hope of climax and see with wide, sympathetic eyes. One of the many high points of the movie takes place in a sports car inside a dealership. Damiel and Cassiel share notes. In Berlin today the sun rose at such and such a time, and the moon will rise at such and such a time. So many years ago the Olympics came to Berlin, and so many more years ago a Frenchman flew in a lighter-than-air balloon over the city. One man speaks English for the first time in decades, beautifully and fluently, with an American soldier at a checkpoint. A woman closes her umbrella in a downpour and lets herself be drenched by it. Damiel wistfully hopes that one day he will feed a cat, or have a fever, or have his fingers blackened by the newspaper. Example after example of the little things, the annoyances and bothers and exceptions that all of us can recall and none of us remember.

Peter Handke’s is the primary name on the screenplay, and how achingly beautiful it is. There is such longing in the words and moments, and of course Ganz delivers his monologues precisely and charmingly. (I’ve seen him in a couple of movies other than Downfall now, and it is such a shame that he’s going to be remembered for all time as the guy who played Hitler.) Sander is about as imposing, with his great big nose and his bright blue eyes, which remain in black and white the whole time. He is a better visual presence than Ganz, and Ganz talks more while Sander looks on with as much kindness in his eyes as Ganz puts into his words. The two of them make a strong pair, although they are not always together. Damiel spends more of his time at the circus, surrounded by children and looking on at the beautiful trapeze artist; Cassiel is more frequently in the muck, following a Homer as he wonders whatever happened to Potsdamer Platz. Both are equally engrossing. Their knowledge is not merely of the present and the small, but of the primordial heavings of Berlin before humans appeared. They can remember when the Berlin Wall was not fortified, extant, or populated by humans. They remember the rumblings of the water and the animals frolicking. All of this is as easy to recall as the story of the prisoner who dashed his head on the stones but before he did so cried, “Now!”

Damiel sounds not unlike a character from a Disney Renaissance film. Like Quasimodo, he sees a world of possibility and nuance outside of what’s really a trap impressed upon him, and longs to know it himself. Like Ariel, he has some knowledge of another world but lacks the experience to put the beauty of it into words. Cassiel reveals that there is some vow that these angels – if they are angels, really – have taken to commit to these jobs as unfocused archivists. He also rejects Damiel’s search for connection: better to stay distant and far away from the events of the world, close enough to see but unable to touch, than to become human like the ones they watch. They provide two ways of looking at the world, a digestible dialectic for the spirit world. I can’t help but think that Cassiel has the better end of it; even if it’s a little lonely, he has great knowledge of the past and present and an eternity to continue learning more. Yet Damiel becomes human and suddenly his frames are in such glorious dulled ’80s color, and I ached a little for how lovely it was compared to the grayscale life that Cassiel chooses for himself.

Is it possible that Peter Falk won 1987 without any of us catching on? He has key supporting roles in two of the warmest films of the ’80s: Wings of Desire and The Princess Bride, and is necessary to both films’ affectionate tones. That raspy voice, the wild hair, the struggle to find the right hat, his love of a cigarette with coffee: he is amiable. I can’t see you, he says while at a little coffee stand in the mud, waiting to enjoy that cigarette and coffee together, but I know you’re there. I greet you, companero. He stands out at an angle, holding his hand out a little rakishly. Damiel is encouraged by this sign; it’s on his stepping stone to becoming human. Cassiel experiences something similar, and he looks afraid, afraid in the way that people experiencing something new and challenging feel fear. It cannot be too long before he, like Damiel, decides to take the plunge. We come to understand, slowly, that Peter Falk was at one time like Damiel and Cassiel and chose to come to earth, which makes it possible for him to sense the presence of the angels. When Damiel makes the choice himself, he seeks out Falk: Falk congratulates him warmly, lends him some money to get by on. He has to go back to his film, but Damiel tries to stop him. “Wait,” he cries. “I want to know everything.” Only Peter Falk, who is everyone’s grandfather, could possibly have said the next line without an audience turning into Fred Savage’s Rolling Eyes: “You need to figure that out for yourself. That’s the fun of it.”

I’ve never really encountered a movie like Wings of Desire before. Two movies I’ve watched recently remind me of it in ways; Arrival shares its mutable vision of time, while Short Cuts hypothesizes what it might be like to view human action from the perspective of a non-intervening god. But both Arrival and Short Cuts douse us with cold water by the end, intent on showing us the traps us as well as the heights of those perspectives. Wings of Desire gives its characters a choice; exist like a god if you want, but it is equally good to swim in the primordial soup of a less-evolved race for the sensations. It is the kind of movie to watch on a snowy day underneath a quilt with someone while clutching mugs of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, the kind of movie which uses no ploys or tricks or outrages to gain our attention and trust. It’s optimistic. How many of those movies, those truly optimistic and hopeful ones, are there?

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