Angels look for love in some very odd places and discover among other things, a lonely trapeze artist and the real-life Peter Falk (sans raincoat).
The idea is winning. Angels walk the earth invisibly and listen in on the unspoken thoughts of people who interest them. The idea is also potentially funny, but Wim Wenders’s new film—his first in Germany in ten years—rarely cracks a smile. Its deadpan quality gives it an inadvertent charm, a kind of secret wit. The mostly black-and-white cinematography by Henri Alekan, who photographed Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, suggests the otherworldly elegance of a Cocteau-like dream.
Wenders has always been more interested in states of soul than in narrative. Among the big three of the German new wave (along with Werner Herzog and R.W. Fassbinder), he has been the doleful poet of the episodic. His production company calls itself (in English) Road Movies—a whimsical tribute to a half-dozen American genre films of brief moment in the late 1960s. Obviously Wenders himself is the king of the road movie, and perhaps the only filmmaker of note still checking out the open road. His films—even his most plotted work, The American Friend (my favorite)—are in no hurry to get to the seemingly no particular place they’re going. What they ask of us as filmgoers is trusting patience.
Wings of Desire spends its first hour almost solely in ambiance, offering us an angel-eyed, and angel-eared, view of certain aspects of Berlin. The black-and-white cinematography connotes the solemn, colorless universe of angel apprehension. Wenders’s film is about the humanizing of one of the angels, played by Bruno Ganz, an actor who brings intelligence and weight to whatever he does. When the film breaks into color, and initially the shift is startling and beautiful, it is because Ganz’s angel is having a human episode. Angels perceive the ethereal and unheard (they are like certain artists), but they are cut off from human emotions. When Ganz’s dour angel sees a circus trapeze artist in mock angel wings (Solveig Dommartin), he falls in love with her and the film takes on the color that symbolizes his human transformation.
There is no dailiness in this film—no concern with the trivial particularities of a life. The angels are tuned in to preconscious thoughts, the language of the inexpressible. As it is with fables, life-and-death matters are often at issue. What these angels give us are readings of the soul. The lack of concern with the prosaic needs of the flesh gives this film an abstract quality, a remoteness, that is at times almost too rarefied to bear. We must engage this film on its own terms, watch it like eavesdropping angels ourselves, or lose it altogether.
Peter Falk, in a subplot, plays himself performing in a film on the Holocaust being shot in the same part of Berlin in which the two central angels hang out invisibly in their desultory angelic manner. See how easily Wenders’s film lends itself to mockery. In fact, there’s a suggestion along the way that Peter Falk—the character—was once an angel himself.
Wings of Desire has an ingenuousness, a sweetness of spirit, that triumphs over the conventional rigidities of its calculation. I am tempted to say that it is a film steeped in German romanticism, except that Alan Rudolph’s recent Made in Heaven has similar thematic concerns. Wenders, like Rudolph, though on a much higher level, continues (after his brief Hollywood flirtation) to make quirky personal films that offer little or no concession to the impatience, actually poor concentration, of audiences raised on the mindless up-tempo pace of television sitcoms. Wings of Desire has its pleasures—it is both touching and elegant—but requires viewers, I suspect, with just a touch at least of the angelic.