Saturday 4 May 2019

1,001 Films: "Wings of Desire" (1987)

It's funny how the movies work. For years, Wim Wenders had been making acclaimed, sometimes literary, essentially realist dramas about flesh-and-blood people in the divided Germany, then he succeeded in hitting a real popular nerve with Wings of Desire, the metaphysical fantasia featuring angels on the rooftops of Berlin that came to serve as the template for the Nic Cage/Meg Ryan romance City of Angels. In Wenders' original, we have Bruno Ganz as the guardian angel who wants to come down off his lofty perch so as to know what it is to feel life, and Solveig Dommartin as the melancholy, earthbound trapeze artist who hastens that desire. Traces of the old, philosophical Wenders remain (on an U-bahn train, one individual can be heard wondering "Why am I living?"), but it feels very much as though the director's keynote existentialism had started to be informed by the heightened aesthetics and romanticism of the then-ascendant cinéma du look. Here is a newly wide-eyed, childlike view of the world that translated very easily into the Americanisation: as both an example of the cinema du look's self-reflexivity and a premonition of the remake, consider the sequence in which Ganz and fellow angel Otto Sander express their adoration for Peter Falk (playing himself) around the set of an American WW2 movie being shot in the city. (In Wenders' world, even the celestial get starstruck.)

In general, these angels are deployed to express an authorial joy in what it is to be mortal, and this remains one of those fantasy movies that - like Godard's Alphaville or Welles's The Trial, or Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (which may be where Wenders got the idea of using black-and-white film for the heavens and Technicolor for the world below) - locates its greatest marvels here on Earth: in the wind rustling the trees, birds flocking in the sky, and in the growing love between two people. You can, I think legitimately, accuse Wenders of getting a shade too wrapped up in his own grand vision: there are two sequences - one in a circus big top, the other a grungy nightclub - that long outstay their welcome. Nonetheless, the writing and playing strike such deep chords in places that you forgive the film its longueurs and pretensions everywhere else, and its use of a pre-unification Berlin is always resonant; the true theme of Wings of Desire is what's going on behind the walls we put up to separate our public and private selves, the present and the past, this world and the next. Claire Denis, later known for creating lush and dreamy images of her own, was the assistant director; Wenders was to try and recapture the magic (and the vast international audience) with 1993's sort-of sequel Faraway, So Close!, but he's never quite managed to top this gorgeous car commercial for the soul.

Wings of Desire is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Axiom Films, and to stream via the BFI.

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