Even when New German Cinema maestro Wim Wenders isn’t making literal road movies, his most personal films feel like they’re always on the go, destination unknown.
An intuitive filmmaker seemingly driven more by whims and tides and implacable emotions and songs he likes than by the rigid dictates of a script, Wenders’s shambolic approach has yielded its share of masterpieces (Paris, Texas) and duds (The Million Dollar Hotel) alike. That’s the thing when your movies are like dreams: Some can be mesmerizing, while others are simply tedious. His 287-minute cut of 1991’s Until the End of the World falls into both of these categories.
Wenders’ idiosyncratic style found some of its greatest purchase in 1987’s Wings of Desire, a stunningly original international co-production newly released on Blu-ray and 4K from the Criterion Collection and loaded with generous supplements ($39.96). Plot is certainly secondary to tone, to feeling, to texture, to the stuff of poetry. It would look and sound great in an art museum, spectators coming and going, basking in a scene or two and moving on, fulfilled in ways they can’t quite elucidate.
Shot with a screenplay largely on the fly, in the late-‘80s twilight of the Iron Curtain, Wings of Desire centers on two angels: Bruno Ganz’s Damiel and Otto Sander’s Cassiel, who provide dutiful, thankless and invisible comfort to a cross-section of Berliners. Though only able to be sensed, occasionally, by the very young and the very old — people whose tether to the heavens, so to speak, is at its closest — their presence changes lives, whether hushing the regrets of a dying man, overseeing a pregnancy in a hospital ward, or uplifting a subway depressive with an unseen arm around his shoulder. They don’t work miracles, per se; a suicidal man still takes his life despite Cassiel’s silent pleading at the top of a skyscraper. They’re more like non-pharmacological mood enhancers, showing up just when they’re needed.
And, blessed or cursed with telepathic abilities, the angels hear everything. Wings of Desire’s soundtrack is a city symphony of commingling signals from radio towers, home stereo emanations, and anxieties both voiced and unvoiced. Wenders’s camera captures everything in the angels’ glorious black-and-white perspective, drifting from streetside to apartment building to subway car to library and absorbing both the minutiae and the monuments of everyone from prostitutes to fretting parents to the elderly poet Homer (Curt Bois), the story’s rich lifeline to Weimar Berlin.
There’s a bit of Bergman and a bit of Hitchcock in Wenders’s conceit; like James Stewart in Rear Window, his protagonists are eavesdroppers gazing into strangers’s intimate spaces. You could even say that Damiel and Cassiel are surrogates for filmmakers in general, a profession that grants permission to pry — to lay bare our vulnerabilities, to erase distinctions between public and private life.
The story doesn’t so much extend in a linear direction as spread out. We hang with the angels as they return, like trapped spirits, to familiar haunts. A giant library is their home base — a symbol, perhaps, for the sanctity of knowledge. There’s also a film set, where Peter Falk, playing himself in one of the most satisfying roles of his career, is filming a World War II period piece, while harboring an unusual connection to the angelic realm. (“I can’t see you, but I know you’re here,” he offers out loud to both Damiel and Cassiel on different occasions, an introduction that baffles the flesh-and-blood people around him.) And there’s a traveling circus, whose lonely trapeze artist, portrayed by a transcendent Solveig Dommartin, so enraptures Damiel that he makes the life-altering decision to become mortal.
So yes, Wings of Desire is, ultimately, a love story, a movie that can accurately be categorized as a romantic drama. But it’s much more than that, of course. Wenders’s eccentric diversions have seldom eclipsed the musical cameos here, as we watch Dommartin gyrate to a kinetic performance by Crime and the City Solution and, later, to a riveting concert from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, whose two on-screen selections, “The Carny” and “From Her to Eternity,” directly address the movie’s characters and themes.
But it’s the existential and weighty questions of what it means to be alive that continue to beguile viewers of this groundbreaking, deeply humanistic film. By inhabiting two worlds, the angels are a subtle metaphor for the divided Berlin, but Wings of Desire transcends its time and place. As philosophical a film as it is a spiritual one, the movie ponders nothing less than the nature of self.
In the film’s loveliest monologue, Damiel shares with Cassiel the things he hopes to one day experience as a living, breathing member of Homo sapiens: “to feel your fingers blackened by a newspaper … to feel your bones as you walk along.” These are the sort of quiet revelations that make us realize, even in fractious times, how good we have it.