CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)
Directed by: Wim Wenders
Written by: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, Richard Reitinger
Produced by: Wim Wenders, Anatole Dauman
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk, Nick Cave, etc.
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
I hadn’t seen Wim Wenders cinematic masterpiece, Wings of Desire (1987), for many years. Probably thirty-three years. I’m glad I waited so long because I think I am mature enough now to appreciate the poetry of the filmmaking style and the soulful gravity of the characters and themes on display.
I am of the belief that cinema is a collaborative craft in general. Yet, on fleeting occasions a film will be released that transcends the craft of the medium and become art. Wings of Desire (1987) is such a film. Moreover, while I am not a religious person watching Wings of Desire (1987) is as close to experiencing a spiritual filmic happening as I could have. It truly is a thing of transcendent beauty concerned as it is with the afterlife, the soul, humanity, angels, life, love, death and rebirth.
Angels walk amongst the living in a Berlin separated by the wall. Voices reveal their inner most thoughts as said Angels listen, watch, witness and gather human experience, thoughts and emotions. The Angels led by Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) inhabit Berlin aiming to assemble, preserve and testify reality. In a stunningly beautiful opening sequence the gliding camerawork, chiming harps, poetic voiceovers and sublime photography introduces both a majestic world and compelling characterisations. The monochrome film sets a moody glow illuminating and beautifying the urban locales. If you didn’t know, the black & white sequences were shot through a filter made from a stocking that belonged to cinematographer Henri Alekan’s grandmother.
Wim Wenders directs Wings of Desire (1987) with an assured confidence throughout. Every stylistic and formal choice is driven by the characters’ hearts and an imaginative vision of both reality and the afterlife. It is incredible that Wenders and his production team did not have a traditional script when filming began. Thus, the poetic feel of the film derives from a series of experimental concepts and improvisatory creative choices. Having said that, there is a strong narrative spine amidst the seemingly loose narrative and episodic bones. The anchor amidst these hypnotic vignettes is Damiel’s journey of falling in love, ceasing to be immortal and becoming human.
As Damiel experiences the pain of existing outside human life, Bruno Ganz’s performance is heartbreakingly moving. Damiel also finds love too for Solveig Dammartin’s circus artist. His romantic longing and empathy for her and humanity overall is unforgettable. I mean this celestial and immortal being desires the opportunity to feel, taste and love. There is also humour amidst the pathos too, with a supporting story that follows the actor, Peter Falk, working on a film in Berlin. His brilliant scenes provide a quirky counterpoint to Damiel’s celestial crisis and fledgling romance. Indeed, Peter Falk called his role in Wings of Desire (1987) “the craziest thing I was ever offered”. When Wenders told him his part had not been developed yet, Falk responded, “I’ve worked that way with John Cassavetes. I prefer working without a script.”
Wings of Desire (1987) is deservedly acclaimed as one of the best films ever made. I couldn’t agree more, such is its cinematic power and beauty. It combines both visual, aural and literary styles almost to perfection. Thematically it is just as impressive. While it is a universal story about life, death, love and sacrifice, the fact it is set in Berlin adds an incredible gravitas. The politics and separation caused by the Cold War course through the veins of the film like ice. Nevertheless, Wim Wenders and his creative team wholly reject the gloom of oppression, choosing hope, life and love over said deathly wall.*
Mark: 10 out of 11
(*Note: Interestingly, filming the actual Berlin Wall was prohibited, so a replica of the wall twice had to be built close to the original. The first fake wall warped in the rain because the contractor cheated the producers and built it from wood.)