Since the descent of the Iron Curtain, Berlin has been divided by an imposing wall. Unbeknownst to the citizens of Berlin, two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, watch the over the city. Adults cannot perceive the existence of these angels while children seem to be vaguely aware of them. As Cassiel says, their reason for existing is to assemble, testify, and preserve reality. While some of their subjects dream of peace and others have given into despair, Damiel eventually learns of a trapeze artist named Marion. Living by herself in a caravan in West Berlin, she is a very lonely, depressed individual. To his surprise, Damiel begins developing feelings for her, and contemplates a decision that will forever change the nature of his immeasurably long existence.
Director Wim Wenders had lived and worked in the United States for eight years, creating highly-regarded films such as The American Friend and Paris, Texas. He then decided to return to his native West Germany and began conceiving a new road film he was to name Until the End of the World. He planned for the film to be released in 1985, but realized the project would not be ready for at least another two years. This was a problem because he wished to return to photography as soon as possible. He was thus compelled to consider an entirely different project. To this end, Mr. Wenders took inspiration from the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, saying angels seemed to dwell in his words.
During his film treatment, Mr. Wenders considered a backstory wherein God exiled his angels to Berlin. The slight He felt worthy of such a punishment was his angels deciding to defend humans when He Himself desired to forsake them. This backstory was eventually excised in the drafting phase. Whether or not the angels in Wings of Desire answer to a higher being is never made clear. In fact, God is never even mentioned in the film. Instead, the nature of their existence suggests they themselves are analogues to God. These beings have existed since the beginning of time, and they had wait eons before creatures bearing their likeness, humans, began to appear.
Though Mr. Wenders forewent his original idea of how the angels came to watch over the world, trace elements remain in the final product. Despite clearly having a lot of affection for West Berlin, he does not overlook its checkered past. On a wider scale, his film doesn’t sugarcoat the atrocities committed by humankind. Sprinkled throughout the film are brief snippets of the destruction caused by the Second World War. Many of those atrocities give way to the general, ordinary misery felt by the citizens of Berlin in the peaceful present – particularly in how gloomy of a wasteland the area surrounding the Berlin Wall seems to be.
What is commendable about the angels in Wings of Desire is that their faith in humankind never waivers. Indeed, I truly admire the overall tone of Wings of Desire because of how unapologetically optimistic it manages to be. The European arthouse film stereotype had been fully cemented in the public eye by 1987. Every erudite film by the ethos of the high-minded directors had to be a slow-paced, cynical, navel gazing think piece on the human condition. Though this doesn’t even begin to fully cover the stylistic ground covered by the films under the arthouse umbrella, it’s not a wholly undeserved reputation. What makes the optimism in Wings of Desire work so well is that it doesn’t come across as disingenuous in any capacity.
Cassiel muses about how humans have fought and persecuted each other since they gained sentience. Damiel simply counters by pointing out how humans have always loved each other as well. Though this would seem to paint Cassiel as the cynical foil to Damiel, he too is shown deeply care about humans. An affecting moment is when he attempts to stop a young man from committing suicide. Tragically, the man jumps too quickly for Cassiel to influence his thoughts to make him reconsider. These are beings who have existed long before the dawn of humans and witnessed every single atrocity they’ve committed, yet they never consider them a lost cause. These beings would attempt to steer humanity in the right direction even if they were on the brink of extinction. For their part, the citizens of Berlin demonstrate that the angel’s faith in them isn’t misplaced. Throughout the narrative, a film about Berlin’s past under the Third Reich starring actor Peter Falk is being shot. It’s their way of acknowledging their past mistakes and a desire to craft a better future.
Whether someone saw Wings of Desire when it came out or long after the fact, one of the first things the average viewer is going to notice is the cinematography. Color had been accepted as the industry standard long before the original release of this film. It was to the point where when Martin Scorsese’s landmark biographical feature Raging Bull premiered in 1980, that he chose to shoot it in black-and-white caught many filmgoers off-guard. With Wings of Desire, Mr. Wenders appears to tangentially follow in the footsteps of Mr. Scorsese in how his work is deliberately devoid of color so as to invoke a certain mood. From here, the audience accepts that the lack of color just happens to be Mr. Wenders stylistic choice. Little did they know that he was about to go a step further with the idea.
As Damiel shows interest in Marion, we get to see things from her perspective for a brief moment. Suddenly, the film is in color. The narrative doesn’t treat this as unusual, carrying on as normal until everything is monochrome once more. When you see later scenes shot in color contrasted with the ones remaining in black-and-white, you begin catching on to what Mr. Wenders was trying to do. The scenes shot in black-and-white represent the metaphysical plane on which the angels reside. What they see is the world, but not quite as it is. For want of the mortal, human experience, they may as well be watching a film – albeit with the ability to subtly influence its actors and actresses. Meanwhile, the color scenes depict the world as seen through the eyes of humans. Andrei Tarkovsky had previously experimented with this monochrome-and-color dichotomy in his 1983 effort Nostalghia, but with the benefit of a comprehensible narrative, Wim Wenders’s own take on the concept was far more successful.
The most significant turning point in the film is when Damiel begins observing Peter Falk. To the angel’s surprise, the actor is able to sense his presence. It is revealed that Falk was once an angel. He had grown tired of always observing and never experiencing as well as the general tedium that comes with an eternal existence. Realizing he too has become weary of infinity and yearns for the genuineness of the human experience, Damiel decides to follow Peter Falk’s example.
Once Damiel casts away his immortality, he experiences life for the first time. He is immediately fascinated with the many mundane sensations we take for granted such as seeing colors and tasting food. Even the simple act of feeling pain and bleeding entrances him. Barely knowing where to start, he seeks out Falk to ask him what he should do. Though the actor tells the former angel of what he has done since he became human, he ultimately places the burden of discovering the answers on him. Eventually, he discovers Marion at a concert hall where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are performing. As if she was subconsciously aware of his presence all along, she greets him and talks about finally finding a serious love capable of making her feel complete. In the end, Damiel reflects on his time with Marion, realizing she taught him how to feel amazed, gaining knowledge no angel could ever possess.
The story beats that drive the final act arguably resonate more in the internet age than in 1987. With many people choosing to retreat into their entertainment options to decidedly unhealthy degrees, they miss out on what life has to offer. Much like how the angels in Wings of Desire have limited influence over their world, the typical internet addict would only watch what unfolds around them. They may comment on it through social media, but they wouldn’t go out and experience any of what the world has to offer for themselves. It does mean they miss out on worst aspects of life, but there would be so many great things to which they turn a blind eye. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but taking a chance and putting oneself out there is ultimately more fulfilling than being a fixture of the background. Cassiel pointedly does not follow Falk’s example when offered the chance. His decision allows him to continue to exist and not exist at the same time. In a striking scene, the world around him he chooses to shun is in color while he himself remains monochrome.
Even without this admittedly anachronistic interpretation, Wings of Desire could be seen as an allegory against excessive hermitage and reclusive predilections. From the standpoint of a mortal, the idea of giving away eternal life would seem downright foolhardy. However, taking a Taoist stance, the narrative makes the case that one must accept the bad along with the good in life. Once you accept your low points for what they are, you can make something of your life and find reward and meaning in your personal triumphs.
Wings of Desire is without a doubt one of the greatest films of the eighties. It initially presents itself as a morose fantasy tale, detailing the basest sins committed by humankind. However, at the end of the day, it accepts these atrocities and accents the good aspects of humanity that rarely receive recognition – especially among the more philosophically inclined filmmakers. Though Wings of Desire is universally beloved by cinephiles, I get the feeling some would argue it’s a good film dampened by its idealism. I, on the other hand, believe that the narrative is enhanced by its brazen idealism and not held back by it. It handles its subject matter in a far more mature, nuanced fashion than the stereotypical bleak film conceived by the fatalistic director who chastises their audience for having hope in their fellow humans.
If you’re hesitant to see Wings of Desire because it’s an arthouse film, don’t be. Much like Krzysztof Kieślowski, Wim Wenders has a knack of causally dropping erudite themes in his narrative without once coming across as aloof or pretentious. His is a film that absolutely takes its audience seriously. Whether you’re entirely new to these kinds of films or a connoisseur of them, Mr. Wenders’s masterwork has a lot to offer even to this day, displaying a level of earnestness and wisdom few have matched much less surpass.
Final Score: 9/10