Wings of Desire (1987)

In any given scene, Wings of Desire is doing something that pushes the bounds of art. Not only is it trying to express something that feels inexpressible, it’s trying to understand it as well. In any given scene, words, images and characters synthesize into something that tries to convey both the divine and natural state of existence. It does this by a simultaneous longing for both the spiritual and the physical.

The film’s conduit is Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel who has become fascinated by human existence. He longs to warm his hands by nursing a cup of warm coffee and feel the weight of the passage of time. But all around him are people whose minds scream out to him, they yearn for a better existence, to transcend the pain and sorrow of their physical torment.

Director Wim Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan are able to visually express both worlds. When following the angels, the camera is loose, ethereal and weightless, the came slides effortlessly though the public library or hovers high above the city of Berlin. But the world they see is one without color. It’s black and white, abstract, and they’re unable to experience the full richness and beauty of the physical world.

Throughout the film, Bruno gets brief glimpses of human existence, in these moments, the film breaks into rich, colorful cinematography. In these moments, the camera is now grounded and not nearly as elegant or ethereal in moment as the black and white scenes, but the warmth of colors shines and the vibrancy of physical life is on display.

Likewise, the words reinforce these yearnings. The angels can hear the inner voices of the people around them. Initially, this would seem to be their inner thoughts, but the way they are written are sometimes abstract, they seem more like ideas and yearnings that the owner of those voices may not even know they have. Longings of their heart they are unable to fully express.

The film continually returns to the writings of Bruno, who makes a sort of sing-song love-letter to human existence, extolling the virtues of the human child: the inquisitiveness, the insight and the delight of a childlike mind. These written words become an expression of Bruno’s longings, but in the sing-song form, they also become tricky to interpret.

This might make it sound like Wings of Desire is obtuse for the sake of obscurity, but it’s more about the realization of the complex nature of desire. What one truly, deeply yearns may not be easy to put into words and may be even more difficult to actually know and realize.

Peter Falk (who plays himself in the film) can sense the presence of an angel, but cannot see one, he knows it’s there, right in front of it, but he’s not sure what shape it takes. When he later sees Damiel, he says he expected a taller man. In the same way, one may not be able to understand the true shape and nature of an unseen layer of existence.

Wings of Desire takes on the same shapes of trying to discover oneself; it requires work, peeling back layers, dissecting thoughts and digging deeper. It’s not always easy, sometimes it can feel like grasping at straws, like the film is as elusive and intangible as the angels themselves, but like Bruno, just a glimpse of the deeper truths is enough to make Wings of Desire exciting and the prospect of returning to it once more an event to be anticipated.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing

  • Nicely stated. There’s an ineffable quality (I think) to a lot of Wenders’s work, and none more in my experience than this one. I think this film needs to be felt more than expressed or defined–it’s a spiritual, wordless experience.

    For me Peter Falk makes this film. There’s a simple joy in his performance, a love of the prosaic (like when he describes the pleasure of holding a warm cup of coffee) that seems so genuine, filled with equal amounts of experience and childish wonder.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I was just thinking as I posed this that Peter Falk’s performance is probably one of my favorite performances in film. He’s not in the film that much, but the moments he is, he feels like he embodies both the world-weary and joyous nature of physical existence effortlessly.