Wings of Desire (1987)
Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander
Plot: An angel tires of overseeing human activity and wishes to become human when he falls in love with a mortal.
Genre: Drama / Mystery / Romance
Awards: Won Best Director (Cannes).
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Influential German director Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is perhaps his greatest known film. It is a towering achievement that blends the aestheticism of film art with fantasy storytelling grounded in reality. The result is a unique work that delves into the primal human need for love, and finding purpose in one’s existence through it. The film takes the age-old idea of forbidden (or impossible) romance between two parties and gives it a one-sided twist.
In Wings, the lead character Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is an angel who perches atop the Berlin Victory Column every day, looking down at Berliners and hearing their thoughts. Many of them seem to be struggling to cope with life’s multitude of problems, but there are a few who appear optimistic that their lives are getting better. One day, Damiel sees a beautiful but lonesome trapeze artiste performing and falls in love with her. He contemplates giving up his immortality to come down to Earth to be with her.
Wenders’ choice of using black-and-white cinematography and sparsely intercutting it with color images gives the film a visual style that is indescribably poetic. The black-and-white imagery suggests a time of the past captured through the lens of the now such that it feels like it is an elongated fleeing moment that seems to last for eternity, as if trapped in historic time that has profoundly changed the city of Berlin and its inhabitants.
The color imagery, on the other hand, suggests the moment as it is passing, a breath taken in, and the smell of fresh scent lingering in the air. The contrast is meant to be jarring, unlike “the girl in red coat” sequence in Spielberg’s predominantly black-and-white Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993) which is more subtle in nature.
The jarring effect would heighten the aesthetical senses of the viewer, leading him (or her) to ponder about what reality means, and more fundamentally, how reality shows itself. Color, as real as it could get, could symbolize a fantastical construct of someone’s hopeful dreams, whereas, black-and-white images portray poetic realism that borders on the unreal.
Combining with an aural soundscape that is distinctive as it is peculiar, Wings becomes like a mystical song of sorts – a song that blends the repetitive voice of someone reciting a poem, the collective “thought-sighs” of Berliners, the slow strings that accompany the balletic aerial shots, the psychedelic beats of a sub-culture German band, and the lazy, drifty jazzy sound that gives a dangerous trapeze act a measure of elegance in its motion.
I quote from Wenders: “My story isn’t about Berlin because it’s set there but because it couldn’t be set anywhere else. The name of the film will be “The Sky Over Berlin” (a translation of the film’s more evocative German title) because the sky is maybe the only thing that unites these two cities apart from their past of course. Will there be a common future? Heaven only knows.” (Criterion DVD booklet, p. 15). And indeed heaven does know, at least in the context of Wings.
Wings of Desire is very much a colorful ode to the beauty of Berlin, its people, their struggles and hopes, and above all, their desire for normalcy. The great Wenders explores the realmic transcendence of love with the delicateness of an artist toying seriously with the visuality of the medium. The result is pure visual splendor, a filmic poem for the ages, and a recommended experience to behold.