Wings of Desire shows us the perspective of life on earth as seen by two benevolent angels who spend their time invisibly watching humans. We learn what it’s like to be one of these angels, not only because we hear them speak of their experience to each other, but also because the way Wim Wenders uses his camera gives the film such dynamic movement, it feels like we’re flying along with them. It’s ironic that despite its supernatural characters, much of the film’s interest lies in the simple, everyday details of human life; but seen from the perspective of angels, these details seem uplifting and special. It’s as if the angels, and Wim Wenders’ camera, cast a light onto everyday humanity, and show us how interesting it all is. After all, if these angels can find humans interesting, surely we can too.
The two angels who live in (and above) Berlin are known as Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). For mystical beings, they look rather like humans: although they own suits of armor and can grow enormous wings on command, they elect to walk around in dark pea coats and gray scarves, their long hair tied back in neat pony tails. Still, there’s a kind of an aura around them nonetheless, partly because the film is shot in black and white, and so their costumes contrast the lightness in their faces, but more importantly, because Ganz and Sander have a kind of silent presence on the screen that seems almost ethereal. Ganz and Sander seem angelic because the humans in the film, realistically, are rarely as still as Damiel and Cassiel. The humans seem to be more concerned with doingthings and with getting somewhere than with simply and silently listening and watching.
However nothing last forever, even for angels it seems, and Damiel decides that he wants to stop listening and watching and start living. He tells Cassiel that he longs to take off his wings and become a human being, ‘even just to hold an apple in my hand’. There’s another reason Damiel wants to become human, but he doesn’t tell Cassiel right away: he’s falling for a girl. Marion, a trapeze artist, works for a local circus that’s being closed down. Her performance involves wearing angel wings and ‘flying’ around the tent on her trapeze, and so they seem made for each other: Damiel, the angel, who wants to give away his wings and live on the ground, and Marion, the human, who wants to grow wings and fly. When Damiel sees Marion for the first time, the movie briefly changes into full colour, and it becomes easier to understand why Damiel is tired of his angelic, but black and white world. For him, the colour of life is in humanity, and, as Wenders shows us when he gives us a flash of Marion in colour, in love.
When Damiel finally takes off his wings, the film immerses us in colour, and Damiel couldn’t be happier. He soon sells his armor at a pawnshop and trades in his peacoat for an almost-ridiculous sweater and hat. He looks funny in his new outfit, but for the first time in the film, he seems vulnerable, and happy. He talks to Peter Falk, who plays himself in a ‘special role’ (which it certainly is), on the set of a movie, and begins to try to track down his love, Marion. The circus is gone and she’s not there, so he goes to the only other logical place to look, a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert. And the best scene of the film is when the two meet at the bar in the back.
The first fifteen minutes of Wings of Desire is the film’s most unconventional. We don’t meet Damiel and Cassiel right away, instead we follow various humans in the midst of their daily lives, with the actors narrating their own thoughts in voice over. The camera doesn’t stop very often throughout the sequence. Instead, we swoop in on people from above, follow birds as they fly through the sky, zip around with bicyclists and families in station wagons, and hear Peter Falk’s thoughts on a plane. The first shot of the film is an extreme close-up of an eye, and then a long shot taken from a helicopter flying over Berlin, and it’s a fitting way to start a movie that is so much about flight and observation.
The film has a poetic motif, half sung, half spoken by Bruno Ganz, that runs throughout the movie. The poem, written by Peter Handke, who co-wrote the script with Wenders, is about what it means to be a child. We see a hand, presumably Damiel’s, writing the poem at the beginning and the end of the film, and it serves as a landmark that we follow throughout the movie. The poem is about the innocence of days past, and it’s a fitting parallel for Damiel’s journey from being a silent, angelic witness to a colourful, alive human being, and the innocence of his days to come.