Reviewers always suggest watching a film at least twice and waiting at least a day to fully digest the subject matter. I’m not going to do that: mainly because I don’t have the time, and secondly because the film I’ve just watched compels me to writing through some thoughts right now.
Wings of Desire is a 1987 offering, written by Peter Handke and directed by Wim Wenders (the man behind Paris, Texas). Set in Berlin across various time periods, the film centres on the life of Damiel, an angel who surveys the diverse lives of people milling around the city below. In the movie’s universe, angels exist in a separate realm; able to walk the same streets as the living, but completely invisible and unable to interact with them.
These angels are able to hear humans’ thoughts, a technique that is pulled off excellently through a combination of roaming cinematography and stream-of-conscious voice-overs through the film. For this reason, Damiel is able to have a full understanding of human thought-processes, but has no direct experience of them himself. There is an emotional divide, that in a clever reversal, leaves the omniscient angels feeling profoundly isolated.
Damiel’s voyeuristic mind-reading slows its pace and lingers on a pretty young trapeze artist at a travelling circus. Kitted out in fake wings for her performance, Damiel is immediately drawn to her, and is privy to her most intimate private thoughts; she is lonely and longing to meet someone who can extricate her from her situation.
Try as he might Damiel cannot get through to her and with a growing discontent, sets his mind on a plan: to cast off both his immortality and atemporality and enter the world of mortals…
Wings of Desire is very unique, in that (despite what I’ve just described) it seems to lack a central storyline. This unifying thread emerges gradually, as scenes involving the girl are introduced more frequently. Rather the story mimics Damiel’s omniscience: it goes everywhere.
The camera floats through an apartment block: we hear the thoughts of a young man contemplating suicide, his parents, a man whose mother has recently died, some children playing hide-and-seek, an American journalist, a woman who worries about surviving on her small pension. In a way, one of the central characters of the movie is ‘the city of Berlin’ – as we get a cross-section of all the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants. For the first half of the film it can be argued that there is no central character, since Damiel is more of a cinematographic device than a human-being who emotions we have access to.
As such, watching Wings of Desire is a rather disjointed experience, and at first I wondered whether I could really be bothered with such a sincerely artistic experience on a lazy Sunday morning. Within thirty minutes however, I was captivated. I suddenly started caring about every little scrap of everyone’s lives – an impressive feat considering these Berliners are only given a couple of lines of interior monologue each.
And this is why Wings of Desire succeeds in its audacious form. It aligns the viewer very closely with Damiel; floating over the city, entering people’s thoughts but leaving you wishing you could turn these snapshots into more. Damiel’s compulsion to get closer to people is passed on to the viewer; we are cast outside by a lack of typical dramatic conventions such as dialogue and plot-development and start longing to flesh these people out into three-dimensional characters. When this does start to happen, it is compelling; we are finally given what we have been denied and it is all the sweeter for it.
There are some strange disjoints to the film including a live performance by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and time-leap back to wartime Berlin where we follow some sheltering Jews, but these are mesmerising in their own weird way. They are necessary to demonstrate both the film’s historical breadth, and its naturalistic contemporariness…an audacious goal for sure.
And does Wings of Desire succeed in its audaciousness? Most definitely. If it didn’t this film would be very pretentious. Many will still call it very pretentious. But this film doesn’t set out to do more than it can achieve. It actually achieves it.
This is bold, bold cinema. Even if you’re not 100% sure about the concept, it is worth watching for the execution alone. I certainly won’t be forgetting this movie any time soon…