One of my all-time favorite films is, admittedly, a foreign film (cue gasp from outraged American readers). It’s a Franco-German film produced and directed by Wim Wenders called Wings of Desire (or, in the original German, Der Himmel über Berlin). It’s almost entirely shot in black and white, features a lot of quiet talking in German and precious English, and doesn’t really have a clear storyline.
So why do I love this film so much? Because it has angels, acrobats, and Peter Falk, that’s why!
The Story: Or Rather, The Story Repeating Itself Again
In the midst of 1980s West Berlin, two angels walk and discuss all the things they are charged to observe and record–namely, the good and bad deeds and thoughts of human beings. There is no judgment on their part, although one of the angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), wishes he could “descend” and enjoy all the pleasures of the world, having observed at a distance since the beginning of time. He falls in love with a French acrobat named Marion (Solveig Donmartin), who belongs to a traveling circus and tries not to feel sad about the approaching end of the season. Eventually, Damiel gets his wish and becomes fully human, meeting the love of his life in person and appreciating everything about the human experience.
The Cast: Aren’t We All Just Angels Missing Our Wings?
Damiel is our protagonist and one of the angels we follow most closely. His partner Cassiel (Otto Sander) is often present and usually disbelieves Damiel’s yearning to become human. Marion is a French acrobat whom Damiel is drawn toward, and who desires to have a deeply intimate relationship (being unaware for most of the film that Damiel even exists, let alone knows of her plight).
And then there’s Peter Falk, the actor best known for playing the lead role in Columbo. Here he plays himself, albeit at work playing a detective in a fictional film set in Berlin. He wanders throughout the film, usually sketching what he sees and having a rather fun stream-of-consciousness narration. He also, we eventually learn, can sense Damiel’s presence and seems to recognize him when he becomes human near the end (it being implied Falk used to be an angel himself).
One more important (albeit peculiar) character in this story is an old poet (Curt Bois), whom the angel Cassiel tends to follow almost as much as Damiel watches over Marion. He’s listed as Homer and if his dialogue is anything to go by, he may somehow be the original Homer who wrote the Iliad. However, he doesn’t really have a story, just commentary on the world and the ever-changing modern day.
Oh, and there’s a musical cameo by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The Style: A View Of Berlin And The People Who Dwell Within
The film is not so much a story as it is a collection of stories. Yes, we do have a general arc involving the love story of Damiel and Marion, but for the most part we’re just treated to the everyday live of people in West Berlin. Disaffected youths, adults in midlife crises, children playing games or going to the circus, that one man who commits suicide, and Peter Falk–we hear their thoughts in a constant murmuring voice-over just as the angels do. This panoramic style fits the original title, which translates as “The View Over Berlin.”
My other favorite bit about this film’s style is when it switches from black and white to color, which marks Damiel’s transition from his angelic existence to a fully human state. One would think an angel would see more than a human, but not here. All of Berlin becomes vivid as we finally experience it in color, which is also a testament to the color and life that was allowed to flourish on that side of the Iron Curtain.
Final Verdict: Ausgezeichnet! (Excellent!)
I know that this is a quiet film and that it might be more of a favorite for film critics and art house attendees than your average audience. And yet, I don’t care. It’s a beautiful film, emotionally and spiritually uplifting in its own subtle way. If you should care to see it for yourself, I’d advise you to sit back, relax, and enjoy this kaleidoscopic display of the human race.
Bibliography: Wings of Desire. Directed by Wim Wenders. Produced by Wim Wenders and Anatole Dauman. Written by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke. Screenplay by Richard Reitinger. Perf. Bruno Ganz, Solveig Donmartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, and Peter Falk. Road Movies, Filmproduktion. Orion Classics (US release). May 6, 1988 (US release).