“With the angels, I was so flexible. I could just incorporate it all”. – Wim Wenders
That Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) was Hollywood-ized as City of Angels (1998), with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, directed by Brad Silberling (Land of the Lost), is no surprise; the wonder is that it took so long. After all, a distilled synopsis of Wenders’ masterpiece reveals all the trappings of a conventional Hollywood romance.
The movie follows an angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who wants to disavow his angel-hood so he can experience the sensations of the physical world. The physical world is here embodied by Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a waitress who flies like an angel when she is on the trapeze. Thus, at its heart, Wings of Desire is a boy-get-girl story, one that is not so unlike the romances that are cluttering your multiplex at this very moment.
The complication is that one lover resides in the material world, the other in the spiritual. Typically, this would be quite the complication indeed, but in Wenders’ Berlin, boundaries are fluid, and, as is the case with any exceptional romance, the question is never “if” these two will fall in love; rather, it’s really just a matter of “when”.
But this oversimplified summary is the only thing about this movie that adheres to conventions. In fact, the emphasis on Damiel and Marion accounts for less than half of this two-plus hour film. Wenders and his writing partner Peter Handke fail to even introduce their heroine until 25-minutes in, a choice that surely would have been reversed if they would have subjected their work to the normal process of workshop and conform. Marion then appears only intermittently—at the 55th minute and again at the 1:10 mark—before she becomes an actual focal point for the final quarter of the film. She doesn’t even know that she wants her knight in tarnished armor until they unite in the movie’s closing minutes.
Normally, in a story in which the lovers are destined for one another in the end, the filmmaker stretches things out by including a best friend who has problems of his or her own, or by contriving reason after reason why the lovers can’t be together (he has to focus less on his work; she must give up someone who is all wrong for her, to name but two of the more hackneyed examples). Thankfully, Wenders resorts to no such methods. Rather than stringing the audience along by devising ways to keep Damiel and Marion apart, he instead fills the space between their encounters with—gasp—ideas! Not that ideas and romance somehow cancel one another out, but they rarely coexist to the degree that they do in Wings of Desire.
One such idea is that the lives of angels may not be so heavenly after all. Or at least the lives of these angels aren’t. These angels look more like gangsters than cherubim, what with their knee-length coats, their slicked back hair, and their steely gaze. They pass each other in the library and acknowledge one another with unfeeling nods. They sit on tops of buildings, not clouds, and as they look down, you will be forgiven if you think that they look like they might want to jump.
But their greatest curse is that they are subjected to every thought by every person below. The thoughts are communicated via voiceover (italicized subtitles for those of you who, like me, don’t know German), and they are accompanied by scene after scene of silence and implication: a man walks through an unkempt room and thinks “Still smells the same, only dustier”, as a picture of a stern-looking woman hangs on the wall; another man picks his teeth as he wonders what will come of his rock ‘n’ roll obsessed son; “Blackie, I think I’m lost”, says a woman to her dog as she speeds down the motorway. (The scenes of people in cars reminded me that REM borrowed this device for their video, “Everybody Hurts”.)
The images are shot in stunning black and white by renowned Director of Photography Henri Alekan, and the text is drawn from a series of monologues that Handke provided for Wenders. The grace of Wenders’ camera movements creates nothing less than a kind of cinematic poetry, and, yes, I am aware how pretentious that sounds. But consider even a stationary scene in which Damiel and his angel-comrade Cassiel (Otto Sander) visit in the front seat of a BMW convertible, the showroom lights above reflecting in a full quarter of the windshield.
They are checking in with one another, a familiar ritual of going over their notes from the previous day, and Damiel says, “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds. But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don’t want to always hover above. I’d rather feel a weight within, casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth. At every step, every gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say ‘Now’ and ‘now’ and ‘now’”. Otto listens patiently as Damiel holds forth for a full two and a half minutes, an eternity in movie time. But this isn’t movie speak. This is literature.
A potential knock on Wings of Desire is that it is such a fine example of film as high art that it just begs for ridicule: the black and white with purposeful bursts of color, the subtitles, the overly stylized shots and movements, the glacial pace at which the camera moves, the haunting chamber-music-ish soundtrack. If Saturday Night Live were to parody an art film, they would use Wings of Desire as their model.
One aspect of the movie that defends it against such accusations is that, serious though it may be, Wings of Desire does not take itself too seriously. This willingness to “play” is best exemplified by the way it handles the one actor who would be instantly recognizable to American audiences: Peter Falk, Columbo himself. The credits bill Falk as a “Special Appearance by”, and special it is, indeed.
He plays himself, and his movie self is in Berlin shooting a movie about World War II (another aspect rife for ridicule). The reveal of exactly how Falk fits into the story is too much fun for me to spoil here, so I’ll just say that he carries himself with a lightness that permits the audience to smile. A scene in which a group of boys think they see Columbo before denying that he would ever be in a dump like this shows just how good a sport Falk must have been.
Readers of PopMatters might be especially interested to know that Wings of Desire includes another pop-cultural cameo: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play “From Here to Eternity” during the movie’s climactic scene. This is the Nick Cave show you always wanted to see. It takes place in a small, gothic-looking club in Berlin, and, while Wenders isn’t exactly generous with the amount of screen time that he grants the band, there is enough there to make you (1) realize how bad ass they were back then and (2) vow that next time they come through town, you’ll be sure to check them out. This is footage for the vault.
The new Criterion release of Wings of Desire receives the full Criterion treatment. Disc 1 of this two-disc set includes a restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film and a feature-length audio commentary. The commentary is cobbled together from interviews with Wenders and Falk from 1996–97, but it is cut in such a way that it seems as if it were recorded specifically for this edition.
Disc 2 includes a handful of documentaries, an interview with Alekan, deleted scenes and outtakes, and notes and photos by the art directors, to name but a few of its treasures. The 45-minute documentary The Angels Among Us (2003) is especially noteworthy as Wenders, Handke, and others talk about the unique way that the movie came to be (much of this information is repeated in the commentary, which underwhelmed me perhaps because I heard it here first).
For those of you who have seen the movie before, I recommend starting with the documentary as a way of whetting your appetite and enriching your (re)viewing experience. For those of you who are lucky enough to experience Wings of Desire for the first time, just dive right in, and explore disc 2 after the fact. Everyone, however, should be sure to eventually take in the 30-minutes of deleted scenes, if only to witness the alternate ending. One wonders if the reviews would have glowed quite so much if Wenders would have opted to go this route.
In addition to all of these visual goodies, Criterion also throws in a 28-page booklet that includes a poem by Handke that is featured in the film, an essay by Michael Atkinson, and a portion of the first treatment of Wings of Desire, written by Wenders himself. The excerpt is called “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film”, and it reads more like a journal than anything that one would present to, say, a studio executive. It starts, “At first it’s not possible to describe anything beyond a wish or a desire. That’s how it begins, making a film, writing a book, painting a picture, composing a tune, generally creating something. You have a wish”. Later he writes, “I’m not after a ‘screenplay’ here. All I can do is go on describing what’s ‘ghosting around’ in my imagination”. It has its moments of analysis and insight, but you get the idea.
I confess that as I re-read this review, I’m experiencing firsthand what Wenders means by “an attempted description of an indescribable film”. I feel like I got it right, for the most part anyway. But there were 40 more lines that I could have quoted directly. And I never did talk about how this is the quintessential “city” film. And somehow I didn’t even mention the documentary that is spliced into the middle (see disc 2). Or the sequel. Heck, I wasn’t even able to work in the line that was originally going to be my lead: “Wings of Desire is a great film that would be a good one if it weren’t so flawed”.
Atkinson begins his essay, “If ever there was a European art film that could be all things to all people, it’s Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire”. I don’t think we need to descend into that kind of relativism, but I do think that much of what makes this film great cannot be explained (not in 2,000 words or less, anyway, not by me). You really have to experience it for yourself.
If you Google the phrase “Criterion has done it again”, you will get 37,500 hits. I have a hunch that now that Wings of Desire is back on the streets, this number is going to increase significantly.