Synopsis: Wings Of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) is one of cinema’s loveliest city symphonies. Bruno Ganz is Damiel, an angel perched atop buildings high over Berlin who can hear the thoughts – fears, hopes, and dreams – of all the people living below. But when he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist, he is willing to give up his immortality to come back to earth to be with her. Made not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this stunning tapestry of sounds and images, shot in black and white and color by the legendary Henri Alekan, is movie poetry. And it forever made the name Wim Wenders synonymous with film art.
eyelights: its contemplative nature. its metaphysical musings. its core plot. its cinematography. its music.
eyesores: the third act.
“Longing. Longing for a wave of love that would stir in me. That’s what makes me clumsy. The absence of pleasure. Desire for love. Desire to love.”
Ever wondered what it might be like to be an angel, to observe humanity but remain invisible to the world, to never partake of its joys and sorrows except as a bystander – and this forever and ever?
Personally, as someone who can’t stand merely watching idly by (even though one of my main hobbies is watching movies), I wonder how fulfilling this would ultimately be. Wouldn’t it get tedious?
It certainly could.
Damiel is an angel. Posted in Berlin (along with others) since the beginning of time, he has seen the world get formed, watched evolution take its course, has witnessed the human race’s highs and lows.
He’s had enough.
A thought has crawled into his head: Wouldn’t it be nice to be one of them for a change? So when he stumbles upon Marion, a trapeze artist in town with the circus, his mind is nearly made up for him.
He will become human. He will experience life. With Marion.
‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ was released to wide acclaim in 1987. Directed (and co-written) by Wim Wenders, it is a contemplative look at the human spirit from the perspective of outsiders looking in.
And that’s quite literally what a large part of the film is: us watching people in their daily travails, hearing their concerns, hopes and dreams through Damiel – who, as an angel, is privy to all of their thoughts.
Damiel narrates at times, waxing metaphysical as he debates the virtues of existence with himself and his friend Cassiel – with whom he exchanges reports on some of the more unusual behaviour they’ve observed.
Frankly, I relished watching people, getting into their heads (quite literally!) and discovering what was going on beneath the surface. It’s probably due to my general interest in human psychology, but I couldn’t get enough.
I also quite liked the way Damiel interacted with the world, inspiring behaviour or giving glimmers of hope to people when they needed them. He would just sit by them and, at a key moment, spark a thought.
I found it intriguing because it was a subtle form of interference: He and Cassiel (and the others – we get knowing glances from other angels as we explore Berlin with Damiel) never directly alter events.
So it made me wonder about the rules by which they watched over humanity. Where was the line drawn exactly? They can clearly “massage” a person’s thoughts, but to what extent? Could they plant new ideas?
I also found it exciting to think that you could shepherd people in that way. Wouldn’t it be extremely empowering to make people’s lives better not by interfering, but by allowing hope to spring forward in them?
I would love to play that role.
In any event, I really enjoyed spending time with Damiel. Things became a little less interesting when he finally made the transition from angel to mortal, unfortunately – at the 90-minute mark, in the third act.
For starters, I didn’t find it as fascinating to watch him wander about experiencing human life. What he was living was mundane and, although he beamed his way through it, I didn’t share any of his enthusiasm.
Secondly, there was also the look of the film: It is in black and white from an angel’s perspective and in colour from a human’s perspective; it’s a great way to illustrate how limited the angel’s experience is.
But, honestly, Berlin looks much better in black and white. At least 1987’s Berlin did. It’s cold and uninspiring, but the superb cinematography (by Henri Alekan, who also shot ‘Le Belle et la Bête‘) makes it shine.
He made even the most intimidating structures fascinating to look at: for instance the half-demolished building/bomb shelter, where we can see three levels at once so that we see a film crew and cast working on all levels.
It’s quite an astonishing series of shots, and it makes you wonder about the solidity of the structure they’re working on if it can hold people even after having been gutted like that. I just watched in complete awe.
All this to say that it just didn’t work nearly as well in colour; I became far less involved at that point. We still got glimpses of black and white when we checked in on Cassiel, and it was always more visually appealing.
The cast is terrific, though:
- You couldn’t get a better person than Bruno Ganz as Damiel. In him we saw all the hope and inspiration of humanity. It was all about his eyes, which are very friendly, tender – George Clooney-esque, especially when he smiles. With Ganz you understand why Damiel is making this choice, even if it’s not necessarily a choice you’d make. And you want to join him in his transition.
- Otto Sander is also excellent as Cassiel, Damiel’s friend. What’s interesting about Cassiel is that he’s less hopeful, more sombre; he sees divisions between people, borders, walls, between them. He reflect upon the state of Germany (which was still divided by the Berlin Wall then). And Sander conveys this perfectly. The contrast between them creates a fine balance.
- Solveig Dommartin plays Marion, the trapeze artist that Damiel falls for. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and what little she has is frequently silent, but what’s impressive is that she did all of her own trapeze work. And she’s an actress, not an acrobat – she learned it for the part. Wow. But Dommartin’s very angelic, so you totally understand why Damiel is drawn to her.
- Peter Falk plays an American actor in Berlin to shoot a picture. Although he’s credited as “Der Filmstar”, it’s clear he’s supposed to be playing an alternate reality version of himself because people frequently refer to ‘Columbo’ when they see him or speak to him. But what’s interesting is that he can feel the angels around him, even if he can’t see them. He talks to them.
He has a secret. (Which, yes, is revealed in the third act.)
Also of note is a small cameo by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who perform an intimate concert towards the end of the picture; Marion is a big fan so their album and posters pop up throughout the picture. Très cool.
In fact, much of the music is worth noting. Aside for some of the post-punk stuff, there was also a gorgeous score by Jürgen Knieper and Laurent Petitgand, some of it lush atmospherics and choirs. It was pure ear candy.
But what you really want to know, is… will Damiel and Marion fall in love? I will leave it for you to find out. It is a film of hope and fantasy, however, so it doesn’t at all end badly, even if parts of it were a bit too cryptic for my taste.
All told, I think that ‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ is well worth seeing: it’s a metaphysical romantic fantasy (like ‘La Belle et la Bête’, it also starts with a written intro about childhood innocence, suggesting a fable…), a rare treat indeed.
Sure, it loses some of its initial charm in the last half hour, but by then it’s kept you thoroughly involved for so long that it’s easily forgivable. In the end, it’s the perfect picture for philosophers, people watchers and romantics alike.
Ultimately, it left me with one question: If I were an angel, would I want to become human?
For love, maybe I would…
Post scriptum: The film ends with “to be continued”, although it’s a self-contained picture. I once saw its 1993 follow-up, ‘In weiter Ferne, so nah!’ and I felt it added nothing new. As for its remake, ‘City of Angels’, it was a bastardization of the original. Plus which it spun an insufferable Nicolas Cage around a vacuous Meg Ryan. Yuck.
Date of viewing: February 6, 2016