FILM (1987)


Wings of Desire revisited - guardian angels in Berlin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:42pm

Wings of Desire
Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander
Director: Wim Wenders


Although this thoughtful film by German director Wim Wenders is about guardian angels, it contains no references to religion or God. Instead, it focuses on the humans the angels oversee. Wenders and his two angels carefully observe people carrying out the minutiae of everyday life: eating, talking, travelling, worrying and working. In doing so, the director creates a paean to humanity that's suffused with the qualities of hope and endurance in equal measure.

The plot of Wings of Desire, which was filmed in West Berlin in 1986 when the city was still partitioned, is delicately simple. Two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), patrol the city listening to the thoughts of its inhabitants. They mainly express empathy, as their powers don't extend to influencing the lives of their charges. Although the angels are depicted as winged humans, they can't fully experience the five senses - they see in black and white, for instance. But then the ethereal Damiel begins to fall in with love with a circus trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). To meet her, he decides he wants to touch, taste and shed tears like a human, and gives up his angelic immortality.

The film grew out of Wenders' wish to make a film in Berlin. Returning to the city after eight years working in the US, he wandered around Berlin taking notes in the hope that a story would present itself. He noticed the many statues of angels that decorate Berlin, and the idea arose. The film's a graceful document of Berlin before reunification, a time when it was, as Wenders remembers it, "an island … not really Germany, a no-man's land in the middle of nowhere".

The city looks bleak and cold, but the film is warm and loving; Wenders ensured that the film would be gentle by casting friends and family as some of the people the angels encounter. His blind aunt plays a blind woman, and the trapeze artist is played by his then-girlfriend, Dommartin.

One atmospheric touch is that when we see the world from the angels' point of view, it's always in black and white. But when Damiel becomes mortal, his view of the world changes into colour. Cinematography, by Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau's poetic classic Beauty and the Beast, is rich and dark in the monochrome scenes, and the overlapping voices of the humans that the angels encounter in trains, public spaces and notably the Berlin State Library add a lyrical touch.

Although it's Wenders' masterpiece, Wings of Desire was not a planned project. The director needed to make a film quickly to keep his production company, Road Movies, afloat while he was planning his epic Until the End of the World, and this was the result.