An angel, eternal spirit of observation, grows envious of humanity’s finite existence and corporal nature.
This is exactly my kind of film. It is also a rare example of a philosophical and spiritual film which wasn’t made by a Christian but also isn’t drowning in material that a conservative would find offensive. I can actually recommend this one to a lot of people who I normally wouldn’t be able to.
While the Black and White cinematography wasn’t necessary for the film, the choice to use it lends itself to the ethereal quality for which the film is striving. The detachment of the angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz, “Downfall”) and Cassiel (Otto Sander, “Das Boot”) is especially felt as they roam Berlin observing the people and their spiritual thoughts but never more so than in the brief moments and extended sequences of color.
As a cinephile, B&W cinematography is second nature and doesn’t even feel odd anymore. Even if you are unaccustomed to it, I think by about 20 minutes in, a modern audience would cease to even notice it. Until it changes to color, that is. At this point, the reality of what the humans possess and the spirits do not is keenly felt. As a result, Damiel’s choice of whether to stay and angel or become human feels authentic rather than just being a fact that is told to us.
Cinema, in its best moments, creates an emotion or feeling within us which transcends verbal communication. This transcendence is one of the reasons that “Wings of Desire” goes from being a simple fantasy movie, which we are accustomed to seeing, to an exploration of humanity’s nature and the value of actual experience.
Of course this is done through dialogue as well. The discussions between the angels mirror some of my own conversations with academics. Within those circles there is often the student who longs to do more than study. They want to participate. The difficulty for these angels is that participation means choice and that means the loss of the spirit’s essential quality: objective eternality.
Through the exploration of this choice Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”) helps us feel the value of experience and relish the opportunity to live which is presented to us every day.
Setting this film in West Berlin was not a choice based in what was available to Wenders at the time. After making films in America for a few years he wanted to return to Germany and make an essentially Berlin-centric film. This backdrop and subject matter provide a clue as to how he intended this work to be received.
Returning to Berlin must have been painful and joyous at the same time. To see the city you grew up in bifurcated and destroyed could easily leave one looking for meaning or attachment. Looking for something familiar and comforting but not finding it is a feeling most of us understand.
It is also the feeling that the angels in this film are struggling with. The difference between the two spirits is that Damiel’s attention is captured by a trapeze artist, whom he falls in love with, and Cassiel is observing a suicidal man. Here, I think, is another clue to the meaning of the film. The people we surround ourselves with play some role in our journeys. Are they hope filled, despairing, vivacious, or lethargic? How do we engage with that? With detachment, tenderness, interest, or indifference?
This is a film with a lot of questions and not many answers. It isn’t meant to be more than that, though. Many times in the film it seemed to almost highlight the ways that I am more like the angels than the humans in the film. Perhaps that is was the film is intended to do. Make us question ourselves. Make us long to live.
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