If ever there was a European art film that could be all things to all people, it’s Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987). Marking Wenders’s career midpoint like a lightning strike cutting across tree rings, the movie is at once audience-seductive and demanding, holistic and aestheticized. It has beguiled the Wenders aficionado as reliably as it’s absorbed the spiritually hungry civilian, the rogue filmhead, the bookish square, and the nondenominational seeker. It seemed upon its release closer to the effervescent fantasias of Michael Powell, Maya Deren, Georges Méliès, and Jean Vigo, as well as Victorian postcards, than to Wenders’s earlier New German Cinema existentialism, or to the troubled legacy of German cinema as a whole. Even after the two-decades-plus of global exploration that has followed for the filmmaker, it appears to be sui generis, born from its own shadowy nitrate soup.
So, let’s think subjectively, you and I, about possible ways to look at the movie, and if none suit you, others are not hard to find. In thumbnail, Wings of Desire belongs to a trafficked subgenre, the angel-on-earth ballade (Victorian, modern-comedic, or otherwise, and usually trifling), but it’s clear we’re a world away from Raoul Walsh’s goofy 1945 Jack Benny comedy The Horn Blows at Midnight (though perhaps closer, in the first half, to the sylphlike angel presences chaperoning the sermonic fables in Lois Weber’s 1915 dream film Hypocrites). There’s little doubt as to the originality of the experience from the very first airborne camera patrols of autumnal cold-war Berlin. In Wenders’s silvery black-and-white view, this is the paradigmatic city wasteland of its age, still war-torn and withstanding a historicized physical and political schizophrenia like no other, symbolized, like the elephant in the parlor, by the wall itself, snaking through the urban spaces covered with graffiti, obliterating your view, wherever you stand, of the city’s other half. This cognitively dissonant urban experiment had frequently been the grim arena for sixties spy noir, but never had we seen Berlin become Berlin so clearly, so eloquently before. (The more sober and evocative German title translates as The Sky over Berlin.) Of course the city is haunted.
Haunted by angels, that is, like Bruno Ganz’s questing hero Damiel, saturnine but benevolent men and women in black coats occupying the thick of human flow, but in a quantum way, in between molecules, present but unseen, and always listening. The details of Wenders’s concept are everything: the fact that the angels’ eavesdropping is both empathetic and voyeuristic, the precise way the angels exude patience and sympathy (not, say, the detachment of analysts observing human folly), the manner in which they slowly lean in and gently place mollifying hands on human shoulders, the unpredictable weft of languages and ethnicities they meet, the fact that most of what the angels hear from their earthling subjects is worry, worry, worry. Arguing, silent recriminations, trauma, doubt, an ambulance in which the pregnant mother addresses her unborn baby (“I can’t wait to see you”) as the husband focuses on the wife (“If only I could suffer in her place”), a public library crowded with angels listening to the hum of learning and inquiry, the occasional child who sees the angels outright but only smiles—this all constitutes a genuine vision of humanity, one that at its heart comes bearing a moral idea. Ironically, given the iconography, it’s a passionately humanist film, suggesting by its very texture and rhythm a prescriptive notion of how we should regard our compatriot Homo sapiens, and how we should seize the mundane moments as they catapult by. It’s a soaring anthem for everydayness, as Buddhist as it is Christlike, but defined by its own metaphysics.
Still, it’s not a pedagogical work but a poetic one, filthy with Keats’s “negative capability.” The film’s revelation of a heaven and earth infrastructure does not absolve mysteries but compounds them. Nevertheless, despite this spirituality, the film’s mysteries turn out to be largely cinematic. Wenders has always been a quintessential Euro movie-lover of the New Wave generation, and Wings of Desire has a rich vein of cinephilic self-reflexivity running through it. After all, although the angels we see can subtly affect human behavior (Damiel steers a suicidal subway rider toward the future, and calms a dying bicyclist after an accident), they, like the moviegoer, are mostly observers.
To watch is to love, as we see in the scene where Damiel, having fallen for Solveig Dommartin’s trapeze artist, Marion, loiters in her trailer, and is galvanized when she begins undressing. He tries to touch her but cannot. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, the angel can only watch, and he is as much defined by his helpless voyeurism as we are in the audience. On one level, the angels are pure-hearted documentarians, bearing witness to life (cinema began as documentary, after all), yet their work is not action but attention. Is there a culpability inherent in the distance of being an observer? (Michael Haneke, among others, has clearly thought so.) Damiel is an idealized surrogate for us and our role, hypnotized and passive and all too human; and if Hitchcock’s film was about the anxiety of viewing, then Wenders’s is about its melancholy, its beauty, its final limitations.
The allegorization of our experience as viewers is bedizened by the spectatorship of the traveling circus (which is regularly breached by the chaos of the active participation of children, something Damiel experiences as rapturous), the film history references (Damiel explains his desire to mix in by saying he wants to be like Philip Marlowe and “come home to a cat”), the news footage of postwar Berlin’s rubble and ruin, and of course the film being shot within the film, some kind of dire concentration camp thriller starring Peter Falk, who senses the angels because, as he explains, he converted to humanity himself “thirty years ago” (and 1957 was indeed when Falk made his first appearance on American television). But Damiel ultimately becomes dissatisfied with his role, and his position as an observer begins to dissolve once he sits beside the costumed Nazi-victim extras, who are “living” in multiple time periods at once, self-observing ruminators as well as subjects, for the film-in-the-film’s cameras, for the angels, for Wenders, and of course for us.
As the angels haunt Berlin, Wings of Desire also has its haunters—the audience, observing the observers. As it dawns that we, at least in the viewing moment, might be closer to the ineffectual angels than to the people they hover over, Damiel edges nearer to surrendering his angelic immortality and omnipotence for a short life of love, books, coffee, wind, children, and urban messiness—in effect, exiting his own private movie house and entering the throng of unaestheticized life. He desires, in a sense, to leave the movie he’s in and join us on our way home. Is the plot arc of Wings of Desire a cry against cinema, even as it equates watching with love? Or does it suggest, to the choir, only a more engaged participation for us, the give-and-take of art film as opposed to the utterly passive experience of Hollywood dross, the Godardian sense that cinema is not an escape from life but life itself? Once Damiel goes human, awakening in the no-man’s-land between the east and west sections of the wall, we as viewers may have an experience akin to Greta Garbo’s after she’d seen the Beast in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast transform into the clean-shaven Jean Marais: “Give me back my Beast.”
But confronting the prosaic Damiel (in color, dressed like a thrift shop retiree, and as penniless as an illegal alien) is part of the strategy, the engagement, the awakening away from the dream of cinema and toward contact. Who said watching movies was a simple or responsibility-free act? When Damiel and Marion meet in a nightclub bar (where, onstage, the angel played by Otto Sander listens in to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds but hears nothing), they launch into a notorious, full-frontal logorrheic climax (a Wenders trademark) that effectively leaves us in the dust. But they’re building a mythos outside of the parameters of cinema, and by that point it’s not about us, the audience, any longer, or Wenders. It’s life, carrying on.
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His newest books are Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.