How much Eurobabble are you willing to endure in exchange for a look at one of the cinema’s most ravishing and compassionate screen visions?
Hopefully a lot, because Wings of Desire – the art-house landmark from Wim Wenders that has been rereleased on DVD by Criterion – has endless poetic yammering that belies its deep, silent significance. Pretentious dialogue is rampant (“You and I are now time itself”), yet nothing speaks more loudly than the sight of Wenders’ angels leaning in consolation against one of their distraught earthly charges.
Set in Berlin not long before the fall of the Wall, Wings of Desire envisions a movie teeming with beneficent angels. They wander the city in trench coats (we only get a few glimpses of wings) unseen by anxious mortals. The angels can hear humanity’s thoughts – sentiments that are at turns inane, distressed and nonsensical – yet they can’t entirely intervene. An angel’s unseen embrace encourages a troubled subway commuter at one point, but later that same angel is powerless to prevent a suicide.
One of these celestial beings, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), has grown tired of his limbo existence. “I don’t want to hover above,” he says. “I’d rather feel a weight within.” He’s finally convinced to take the leap earthward after encountering a circus trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) whose high-wire riskiness – whose fallibility – gives him endless delight.
With its urban setting and anguished populace, Wings of Desire has come to stand for an era of industrial artsiness, one that encapsulates everything from U2’s “Achtung Baby” to the fall of the graffiti-strewn Wall itself. It’s a time capsule, but also somehow timeless.
A large part of that timelessness is due to the evocative black-and-white cinematography. Wings of Desire is as intricately textured and shadowed as any classic noir – it makes you wish more modern movies were made without color.
Wenders’ camera, meanwhile, is as instrumental as Ganz’s gentle smile in establishing the air of omniscient empathy. It floats gently, first from the skies above Berlin, then in and out of windows, through walls and around the shoulders of the city’s denizens in what can only be called a caress (the movie might involve more crane shots than any other in history).
This celestial dreaminess is what lingers, long after the oddball touches (Peter Falk! Nick Cave!) and the painful dialogue have faded from memory. Wings of Desire may have its earthly faults, yet it’s still one of the rare pictures that can genuinely be described as heavenly.