Wings of Desire (German: Der Himmel über Berlin, “The Sky/Heaven Over Berlin”)
is a 1987 Franco-German romantic fantasy film directed by Wim Wenders. The film is about invisible, immortal angels who populate Berlin and listen to the thoughts of the human inhabitants and comfort those who are in distress. Even though the city is densely populated, many of the people are isolated or estranged from their loved ones. One of the angels, played by Bruno Ganz, falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist. The angel chooses to become human so that he can experience the human sensory pleasures, ranging from enjoying food to touching a loved one, and so that he can experience human love with the trapeze artist. The film is shot in both a rich, sepia-toned black-and-white and color, with the former being used to represent the world as experienced by the angels. Wim Wenders won best director award both at Cannes film festival and European film Awards for the film. The film was selected as the West German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy award and BAFTA award, and was accepted as a nominee for the latter. The film has cult status and is included in Criterion Collection since 2009.
The film was followed by a sequel – Faraway, So Close!, in 1993. City of Angels, an American remake, was released in 1998.
PLOT – WARNING: SPOILERS ALERT!
Set in contemporary West Berlin (at the time still enclosed by the Berlin Wall), Wings of Desire follows two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, as they roam the city, unseen and unheard by its human inhabitants, observing and listening to the diverse thoughts of Berliners: a pregnant woman in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, a painter struggling to find inspiration, a broken man who thinks his girlfriend no longer loves him. Their raison d’être is, as Cassiel says, to “assemble, testify, preserve” reality. In addition to the story of two angels, the film is also a meditation on Berlin’s past, present, and future. Damiel and Cassiel have always existed as angels; they existed in Berlin before it was a city, and before there were even any humans.
Among the Berliners they encounter in their wanderings is an old man named Homer, who, unlike the Greek poet Homer, dreams of an “epic of peace.” Cassiel follows the old man as he looks for the then-demolished Potsdamer Platz in an open field, and finds only the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall. Although Damiel and Cassiel are pure observers, visible only to children, and incapable of any physical interaction with our world, Damiel begins to fall in love with a profoundly lonely circus trapeze artist named Marion. She lives by herself in a caravan, dances alone to the music of Crime & the City Solution, and drifts through the city.
A subplot follows Peter Falk, who has arrived in Berlin to make a film about Berlin’s Nazi past. As the film progresses, it emerges that Peter Falk was once an angel, who, having grown tired of always observing and never experiencing, renounced his immortality to become a participant in the world.
As one can take only so much of infinity, Damiel’s longing is in the opposite direction, for the genuineness and limitedness of human existence in the world, perhaps a reference to Dasein, or Existenz. When he sheds his immortal existence, he experiences life for the first time: he bleeds, sees colors for the first time (the movie up to this point is filmed in a sepia-toned monochrome, except for brief moments when the angels are not present or looking), tastes food and drinks coffee. Meanwhile, Cassiel inadvertently taps into the mind of a young man just about to commit suicide by jumping off a building. Cassiel tries to save the young man but is unable to do so, and is left haunted and tormented by the experience. Eventually, Damiel meets the trapeze artist Marion at a bar (during a concert by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and they greet each other with familiarity as if they had long known each other. In the end, Damiel is united with the woman he has desired for so long. The film ends with the message: “To be continued.”
The story is concluded in Wenders’ 1993 sequel, In weiter Ferne, so nah! (Faraway, So Close!).
The film was shot by the 77-year-old cinematographer Henri Alekan, who had worked on Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. It represents the angels’ point of view in monochrome — they cannot see colors — and switches to color to show the human point of view. During filming, Alekan used a very old and fragile silk stocking that had belonged to his grandmother as a filter for the monochromatic sequences.
The shift from monochrome to color, to distinguish the angels’ reality from that of the mortals, was first used in A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger in 1946.
As revealed in the DVD, Wings of Desire could have turned out to be a far less serious film. Cut scenes from the beginning of the film had Cassiel humorously mimicking the humans’ actions. Other cut scenes were experiments of how to show the angel’s invisibility/lack of physical form using double exposure. There was also a female angel who was cut from the movie, appearing only during a pan-shot in the library scene. The end was much different from the final cut—it was originally to have Cassiel turn human as well, and finding Damiel and Marion at the bar where they engage in a pie fight.
In the closing titles it says: “Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej.” This is a reference to fellow filmmakers Yasujirō Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky.
My favourite City film – from The Guardian
Berlin, says Wim Wenders, is where pony-tailed seraphim perch on the golden trapezius of the Victoria monument – checkpoint between the firmament and the Tiergarten, free west Berlin over one shoulder, over the other the lost öst. Plenty of films excel at portraying a city in a particular time, on a particular night, but few are deft enough, like Wings of Desire, to go beyond: to ghost through the streets, peer through the windows, catch the fleeting glances and take a metaphysical sounding of a place.
OK, Damiel and Cassiel, our angels, do rock up in town at a fortuitous moment. In 1987, drifting unconcerned within range of the machine-guns on a desolate Potsdamer Platz, they are harbingers of the freedom that was awaiting Berlin just over the horizon. But politics isn’t really angels’ business. They’ve got pastoral care to administer on a civic scale, and as they tap into the inhabitants’ thoughts and dreams – Berliners halted on the streets, slumped in tenements or in U-Bahn carriages – Wings of Desire starts to hum with the introspection that is the peculiar quality of that city. Individual lives are backlit against the pockmarked wasteland and unrepaired churches, the remnants of war and occupation: a stage set for a new era.
Many of those spaces have been bricked up now, the giant leisure complex around Potsdamer Platz being the ultimate example. Berlin’s bars and clubs are full of artists and creative people attracted by the new freedom. Wings of Desire envisioned this rebirth, and the spirit that would preside over it: human potential over abstract historical, economic and ideological forces. Damiel chooses to become one of us: “At last to guess instead of knowing. To be able to say, ‘Ah, and oh, and hey, instead of yes and Amen.’”
It’s this little idealism that, since the early 90s, has vivified Berlin – the place where grand idealism was particularly calamitous. (As if to underline this, Bruno Ganz – who plays the downwardly mobile Damiel – would also play the city’s greatest demon 17 years later in Downfall.) Wings of Desire knows that, in Berlin and cities everywhere, it’s the people that count.
A.O. Scott of The New York Times reviews the Wim Wenders film “Wings of Desire,” a meditation on the nature of time and intimacy:
A very interesting article from the BFI on the visual themes of the film “Wings of Desire”
Rotten Tomatoes – Wings of Desire – Score: 98%
Imbd – Wings of Desire – Score: 8.1