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Wings of Desire revisited
Is Wim Wenders' 1987 award favourite still worth watching?
Revisiting the films that thrilled you as a youth can be a bittersweet experience. What horrifying things will they reveal about the teenager you once were, to the teenager on your sofa? Forewarned is fore-armed.
Can we show the kids?
Wings of Desire (1987)
Angels haunt ‘80s Berlin, gathering up the moments of mystical revelation that humans experience. One of them, Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz, falls in love with Solvieg Donmartin, a trapeze artist. Egged on by fallen angel Peter Falk, Damiel becomes human, to be borne aloft not on the wings of angels but on the wings… of desire.
Look, the original title Der Himmel über Berlin was fine. Wings of Desire is a silly title for anything.
It’s quite hard, at this remove, to explain to young people the doomy glamour and seedy appeal of post-Bowie, pre-techno ‘80s Berlin. Halved by the Wall and haunted by the Cold War, it felt like the epitome of the flickering neon concrete underpass every synth band was filming their video in. Doomed, romantic, sophisticated.
Wings of Desire captures this entirely. A little too entirely, in places.
All ruminative black and white camera moves, impenetrable cod-philosophical monologues and quirky German outsiders. In places it feels like a Fast Show parody of a European film. The central conceit - that angels wander unseen among us, listening to the thoughts of passing Berliners (which are conveyed to us in voiceover) - tends to a strain of Continental whimsy1 that the more purse-lipped Anglo-Saxon in the audience may find grating.
Wenders’ films have been described as: “Aren’t women mysterious? Don’t kids say the darndest things? Let’s put another record on.” This is a little reductive but also largely accurate.
What IMDb says: Sex & Nudity / Violence & Gore / Profanity / Alcohol, Drugs & Smoking / Frightening & Intense Scenes
Misogyny: Definitely fails the Bechdel Test. Solvieg Donmartin’s circus performer love interest is not so much manic dream pixie girl as depressed dream trapeze lady, very much the kind of female character dreamt up by a confused sixth former in a crombie overcoat with a book of poseur poetry in the pocket.
Sex: There’s a long description at the end, as Damiel the angel holds onto a rope and stares up at the trapeze artist’s bottom, but we don’t actually see it. Hearing about it is bad enough.
Nudity: For a German film, fairly restrained. At one point Solvieg Donmartin takes her top off while an invisible angel ferrets about her trailer, which feels more uncomfortable now than it did then.
Violence: The aftermath of a road accident as a motorcyclist dies with an angel listening to him passing.
Genuine content warning for the depiction of suicide: Cassiel the angel (angel of sorrow and tears) listens in agony to the last thoughts of a man who throws himself off a tall building. We see the man jump but nothing further.
Style: Henri Alekan’s photography is luminous, perfectly matched to the long, still takes of thinking faces. And when the film breaks out of the angels’ world and into human colour, it just blooms in a glorious grain.
Performances: Bruno Ganz, the angel who has fallen in love and consequently out of heaven, is so enlivening in his serious enthusiasm that it’s hard to resist him. Peter Falk meanwhile, as the fallen angel who encourages Damiel to join him among the humans, gets to play Peter Falk, a role he was born to play.
Music: If you like early Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, you’re going to have some favourite bits. Marion listens to The Carny - a song about miserable circus folk - in her caravan (a bit on the nose, Wim)2 and we get to watch a live performance of From Her To Eternity.
“I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.”
Delightful afterlife of the stars: Somehow Nick Cave, the heroin-addicted, confrontational imp of the perverse, has since become something of an angelic visitation himself: a stern uncle-angel, a beneficent gothfather who appears out of the darkness to dispense wisdom, soul and melody. And he’s largely stopped singing about killing women, which is nice.
Is it as good as you remember?
Actually, yes. For all its whimsy and posing, it is deeply charming, Peter Falk is charming, Bruno Ganz is charming, the Berliners are charming, Berlin is charming.
It is also life-affirming. There is something deeply reassuring in its depiction of life as a circus, pitching its tents for a brief moment. There is the alarming comedy of the clowns and the enlivening danger of the human cannonball, there are delights and sorrows, but in the end every circus packs up and moves on, sometimes taking angels with it.
In its focus on the ever-remarkable everyday it reminds us that we are all trapeze artists, engaged in a high-wire act over the plunge into the ineffable, making it all look terribly easy and normal. In the still gaze of the camera, quotidian moments are held up to the eye and examined, revealing each to be as precious as the others, each the stuff of ongoing and irresistable life. It suggests the mundane as extraordinary, and it's not wrong.
Plus you get to watch a Mercy Seat era Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performance in a gloomy Berlin goth club, a gig truly fit for the angels.
Next week: Doctor Who arrives at the end of the sixties, the end of a Doctor and the end of Empire
Don’t worry, we’ll get to Delicatessen eventually
Mind you, the song has its tongue so firmly in its cheek that Cave is practically singing out of his ears and this may actually be a deliberate joke. ‘Should have done a better job of burying Sorrow’ indeed.