German with English subtitles
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 9 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
I am hoping that the American City of Angels, now available on video, will arouse interest in the film that served as its inspiration. German Wim Wenders directed and co-wrote (with Peter Handke) what has often called “a visual poem.” That it is, compared to which City of Angels is more like a prose essay written by a romantic love-infatuated college student. But a word of forewarning is in order, judging by my experience of showing this film to American audiences: good poetry is not always easily understood, requiring some mental work on the part of the reader or listener. Wings of Desire is a deeply spiritual work, and like anything spiritual, moves at a slower pace than films popular at the local Cineplex. The plot does not move from A to B to C in a straightforward way, but meanders, with the two principal angel characters brooding over their charges and their situations. Like good wine, this film must be sipped slowly to appreciate its delicate flavor of longing and desire, which will linger long after the images disappear from the screen.
The film opens with two angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) conversing by the banks of the river that runs through the divided city of Berlin. They share memories, not in a human short span of time but in geological terms–they can recall when there was no river that had cut its way through the land. The two at times perch on a giant winged statue high above the busy streets. They move about among people, an accident victim, whom they try to reassure, a worried parent on a train, a young man about to commit suicide. They can listen to the thoughts of the people they encounter–we hear a collage of human thoughts, filled with melancholy longing, despair, dreams and plans, and mundane concerns for the immediate. As the angels travel through the city only an occasional child can see them.
They focus their attention on three individuals, an elderly poet, aptly named Homer (Curt Bois), a famous American TV actor (Peter Falk playing himself), and Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a French trapeze artist. The episode with Peter Falk is interesting. In town to make a war film (a neat device that reminds us of the city’s Nazi past), he is able to sense the presence of the angel near him. While buying a sandwich at a stand, he says that although he cannot see Damiel, he knows that he is near. Perhaps sensitivity and imagination are child-like qualities that actors and artists continue to have in common with children.
Damiel and Cassiel cannot directly intervene in human affairs. They are witnesses to what God has created, observers of the lives of his creatures. They do hover or stand nearby, intangibly offering their support and inspiration, so that others beside Peter Falk are also able to benefit from their presence. Damiel, however, wants to do more than watch, inspire and encourage. He wants to enter into the human experience, to feel their joy, as well as their passion. He especially wants to embrace the discouraged Marion and share love with her. Night after night he has watched her perform in the tawdry little circus. With a pair of wings strapped to her back, she performs her solo act high above the audience. Each night she spends in lonely yearning after the crowds have dispersed. Damiel’s desire to do more than stand by and try to influence her heart and mind builds to a climax. He so wants to embrace her that he takes the plunge into humanity. Then the suspense builds, for the circus is leaving town. Will the two ever meet? It is easy for an angel to move around, and above, the city, but for one human to find another in such a teeming city is another matter.
Wings of Desire is one of those rare films that make us realize what a joy and a privilege it is to be a human being, and how close the world of the spirit is to that of our more tangible one. Not every video store will stock it, so you might have to search for it, as Gamiel does for his beloved. Marion. The result will be well worth the effort.
Reprinted from the November 1998 issue of Visual Parables.
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