Try this one on for size: there’s this angel who gives up his wings, gives up immortality and omniscience for the sake of the woman he’s in love with, a woman who doesn’t even know he exists.
Schmaltzy, right? Complete barf-fest. More Hollywood than Hollywood. And yes, it’s something that Hollywood’s already done – the 1998 Nic Cage and Meg Ryan starrer ‘City of Angels’. And yes, it was a pile of poo.
But, see, this German guy did it first, name of Wim Wenders. Bit of an individualist, like. Does things differently. Try this one on for size: he made this movie called ‘Paris, Texas’, road movie like, but the critical scene in it, the scene the whole movie hinges on, is just a close-up of someone talking for four minutes. Static, you know. Absence of movement … in a road movie. See what I mean?
Same kind of deal with his angel-who-falls-for-a-mortal-woman-and-gives-up-his-wings movie, innit? The angel doesn’t forsake Heaven until the last quarter of the film, doesn’t even talk to the girl until the last ten minutes. I mean, in Hollywood right they’d be up in arms at the script conference, they’d want the angel and the mortal woman lighting up the old post-coital smoke in the first reel. Know what I mean …
Apologies. It would seem that the motor-mouthed little spiv who hijacked the ‘Hell Drivers’ write-up has got in on the act again. Let’s escort him off the premises and hail a passing constable.
Now, where were we?
‘Wings of Desire’ – its original German title ‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ translates as the considerable less poetic ‘The Sky Over Berlin’ – contains enough narrative to fill its closing few minutes. What Hollywood would have taken as a conceptual starting point, Wenders arrives at after nearly two hours of philosophical enquiry; and when he arrives at it, the union of angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) isn’t a denouement as much as a re-beginning*.
So: two hours of philosophical enquiry. It sounds heavy, and in some respects it is. This is certainly not a film for anyone whose cinematic comfort zone is defined by narrative. It’s probably the closest Wenders – no stranger to long running times and extended takes – has come to what Andrei Tarkovsky called “sculpting in time”. Wenders also sculpts a very specific sense of place. ‘Wings of Desire’ was released in 1987, two years before the Wall fell, and it’s perhaps the most evocative portrait of Berlin as a divided city that cinema has ever achieved.
It sounds heavy, but in many respects it isn’t. You could easily watch it without subtitles, disregard the often portentous dialogue (although most of the film isn’t even dialogue: it’s the overheard thoughts of the people the angels encounter), and be spellbound by Wenders’ astounding gallery of black-and-white images. The film shifts to colour for the end sequence, as Damiel embraces the panoply of human experience. But it’s the black and white sequences that you remember. Wenders’ Berlin, part mythic part shatteringly realistic, is as detailed and memorable and alive as Dickens’s London.
‘Wings of Desire’ is a film-poem: at one an the same time, a hymn, an ode and an elegy. It is pure cinema, from its director’s astoundingly realised vision, to the pitch-perfect humanity of Bruno Ganz’s performance, to its captivating romantic heroine. The radiant Solveig Dommartin, Wenders’ then-girlfriend, also appeared in ‘Faraway, So Close’ and ‘Until the End of the World’ (which she co-wrote), as well as directing the short film ‘Il suffirait d'un pont’. She passed away in France two years ago at the age of forty-five.
* ‘Wings of Desire’ ends with the credit “to be continued”, a promise Wenders made good on six years later with ‘Faraway, So Close’.
i.m. Solveig Dommartin (16th May 1961 – 11th January 2007)