Cinema as a medium is able to inspire a wide variety of emotional responses in the viewer, whether it be making us laugh or cry, to make us reflect on our own lives or to consider the lives of others, to meditate on the nature of the world or to whisk us away to a world other than ours. Wings of Desire is a uniquely moving film which somehow seems to encapsulate all of these, a sublimely beautiful, sometimes sad, but ultimately uplifting meditation on the human, and super-human, condition.
Much of the screenplay was written in collaboration with the German playwright Peter Handke, and the film opens with a short piece of his poetry, which describes the state of childhood – full of fun, play, innocence, the child having no knowledge of being “a child”. We then have an aerial shot of central Berlin, followed by a brief image of the protagonist Damiel stood atop a tall building with superimposed angel wings atop his back. Only children appear to be able to notice him. Then a few more shots of some other people, including one played by Peter Falk as a passenger in an aircraft, all the time the soundtrack of the relentless chatter of what we assume are their thoughts.
From this early sequence onwards, the internal logic of the film is quickly established; Damiel, and later his friend Cassiel, are angels in late 1980s West Berlin, able to travel wherever they like and eavesdrop on the mundane, everyday thoughts of the population. They are invisible to all but children, who seem to greet their presence with an amused curiousity. Their presence seems to be able to have an effect on the people they encounter – those that are worrying about something appear to be in some way comforted by the presence of the angels, temporarily soothing their fears. The central library seems to be the place where most of the angels congregate, listening in to the discoveries and learnings of those reading – there is no small irony in the film illustrating that the loudest place for peoples thoughts is the library.
The fact we can hear people’s internal thoughts is a neat device, almost a subversive to the cinema medium; actors go to great lengths to attempt to convey us such information physically or facially, yet here we are presented with a pure distillation of their thoughts, fears and anxieties, without the need for ‘acting’ it out. Yet most of the information we receive is mundane – everyday musings, personal worries which have no relevance to the film’s narrative. But this gives the film its universality; all of us have our own personal worries that are not part of some big picture, but they are nonetheless important to us. The film treats everyone as being just as important as the characters we are focusing on here.
When we first encounter Cassiel, a fellow angel, he and Damiel are comparing notes about what they have witnessed on that day – simple acts, some tragic, some hopeful, others seemingly meaningless. It seems that the angels’ purpose is to observe and record everyday happenings, in a sense to preserve ‘reality’ for the divine. Damiel here confides that he wishes that he were a mortal, to live in terms of ‘now’ as opposed to the ‘eternity’ or ‘forever’ of the angelic existence, as well as to experience simple things like having his fingers blackened by the newspaper. When he chances upon a circus troupe, he falls in love with a beautiful but lonely trapeze artist, Marion, dressed when we first see her in an angel-like costume. She is mortal, but attempts to albeit temporarily transcend this state through her ‘flying’ act, of course in polar opposition to Damiel who aspires to the opposite.
Damiel is played by Bruno Ganz, the Swiss who is generally regarded as the greatest German-speaking actor of his generation, possibly most famous for his recent portrayal of Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s excellent Downfall (2004). He has one of the most warm, inviting faces in all of cinema, providing us with an inquisitive, endearing protagonist, but also a melancholy one, yearning to be able to experience life, warts and all. The chemistry between he and fellow angel Cassiel, played by Ganz’s real-life friend Otto Sander, is wonderfully jovial, giving the impression that they really had known each other for eternity.
The film is mostly shot in monochrome, not exactly black-and-white but more of a sepia tone, by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who had previously worked with such luminaries as Jean Cocteau and René Clément, and his visual style in the film is one of the keys to its power; in particular, some of the interior shots are technical marvels – an early sequence starts with a view from out of a window, dollying back quickly to reveal the interior of the room and its inhabitants, a pan to a medium close-up of a woman is handled with such mastery that it seems almost balletically graceful. By way of contrast, the scenes from human perspective are shot in full colour, at times an overly-hued colour, reminiscent of the use of Technicolour famously employed by Michael Powell, whose A Matter of Life and Death is a key touchstone here. Alekan’s camera glides smoothly, effortlessly as it it were flying. There is also the matter of the extraordinary score, most of the time resembling a choir of angels – sometimes barely audible, sometimes deafening, but an almost constant presence.
Although the film would appear to have a religious theme, this is not a Christian film, and does not seek to either promote or criticize belief. So what, ultimately, is the central theme of Wings of Desire? In the early scene with Damiel and Cassiel sitting in a car, one of the things Damiel wishes he were able to do would be ‘at last to guess, instead of always knowing’. Coming from a position of all-knowing, the one thing the angel wants to be able to do is not to know, to have the possibility of being wrong. Humans may be fallible and unable to know everything, but the mystery of not knowing, and trying to find out what you can, is what makes life worth living. Men may wish to be an immortal angels, but the angels wish equally to be men.