Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Wings of Desire (West Germany/France, 1987, Wim Wenders)

Set in Berlin just a couple of years before the fall of the Wall, Wenders’ classic paints a portrait of a divided city, still showing scars (physical and mental) from World War Two, and a populace disconnected from one another. Sympathetic angels watch over these people and making notes, whilst listening in on their thoughts and showing concern. The first appearance of Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is shown sitting atop the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, an iconic building on the Kurfurstendamm, still damaged by Allied bombing. Damiel’s sympathies are so strong that he yearns to feel what it would be like to be human, rather than just hovering above, observing. His desire increases upon seeing Marion, a French trapeze artist who is part of a travelling circus. She is lonely, sensitive, prone to self-doubt, and yearns to be loved. Interestingly, as part of her act she wears angels wings, which sets her up as something of a kindred spirit of Damiel’s, as if she was an angel on earth herself.

The other main character which the angels follow is a concentration camp survivor, who remembers pre-war Berlin, and the war itself, which acts as a counterpoint to the modern Berlin, which even by the late 1980s was still ravaged by the effects of war, even though it is evidently undergoing extensive development. The man is equally lost and disorientated as Marion, a reminder of Berlin’s past. He exists here and there within the film, as does the actor Peter Falk, playing himself who has a part in a film about World War Two. His appearances are for comic effect; passers by wonder whether it is indeed Colombo, but he also feels the presence of angels, on two occasions when Damiel observes him, at which he says “I can’t see you – but I know you’re there”. On the second occasion, when Falk is standing by Anhalter Bahnhof station, once the biggest railway station in Europe, but now disused after bombing, and then speaks to Damiel about the pleasures of being mortal; simple things, such as drawing or rubbing hands together in the cold.

When Damiel wakes as a human, he sets out to find Marion. En route, he meets Peter Falk, who intuitively knows that Damiel was an angel. Falk tells him he was once an angel who became mortal, and that he must learn to become human. The circus that Marion was part of has now left Berlin after the season finished for the year, but Damiel finds Marion at a Nick Cave concert. Whilst she is watching, she senses Damiels’ presence – he is in the bar, so she looks for him. She knows it is him that she has been looking for all this time, and it is perhaps at this point, when he falls in love, that he truly crosses over into the human world.

‘Wings of Desire’ is an existentialist fable crafted with great technical virtuosity. One of the opening scenes is set in a library, showing all the visitors going about their business, but with angels watching over them. The scale of this set piece is truly magnificent. Wenders alternates between using black and white and colour photography, depending on whose point of view we see. The angels perceive the world in black and white, whilst humans view the world in colour. The angels are unable to feel the richness and textures of life, the simple pleasures, and the use of colour demonstrates the differences between the two worlds (monochrome represents drabness, colour represents vibrancy). The use of iconic Berlin landmarks add extra resonance to the film; the Berlin Wall, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and the Berlin Victory Column are significant symbols of Berlin’s past. The presence of the Berlin Wall in particular represents division; the division between East and West Berlin, but also the division between people, the metaphorical wall which prevents us from connecting. Aspects of the film, as well as its quasi-sequel ‘Faraway So Close’ were paid homage to in the U2 song ‘Stay (Faraway So Close) with Bono taking the Bruno Ganz role, with Wenders directing the accompanying music video. Whilst Wenders’ critical stock has been steadily declining, and his output remains hit and miss since, there is so much to admire about ‘Wings of Desire’, and whilst it’s meandering nature and loose plots may infuriate as many as are in awe of it, I believe it’s an outstanding film about a city and a people with an unknown future.

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