See a Magnum Photos gallery of winged things.
If you were pop-culturally sentient in the early 1990s—if, say, you opened a glossy magazine or two and had a passing acquaintance with MTV—then Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ tale of angels on the streets of pre-unification Berlin, may inspire déjà vu even on a first viewing. For the half-decade or so after the film opened stateside in the spring of 1988 (just 18 months before the fall of the wall), its descendent angels freely roamed the upper-middlebrow sectors of popular culture. Tony Kushner’s AIDS-haunted stage epic Angels in America (1991-92) took inspiration from the movie’s intermingling of celestial guardians and tormented, earthbound souls. R.E.M. won a “Breakthrough” MTV award for relocating a segment of Wings to a Texas traffic jam in its heavy-rotation “Everybody Hurts” video (1993). That same year, U2 one-upped “Everybody Hurts” by encapsulating the plot of Wings in the promo for “Stay” (off the soundtrack for Wings’ lesser 1993 sequel, Faraway So Close!). No longer typecast as Precious Moments figurines, not yet conscripted as soldiers of the apocalypse, angels were briefly the sacred muses of Kurt Cobain (Nirvana’s In Utero, 1993) and David Byrne (the single “Angels,” 1994) and High Supermodel Era fashion photography: A winged Bruno Ganz on Potsdamer Platz in the twilight of the Soviet period could shape-shift into a winged Amber Valetta in Times Square on the eve of gentrification (Harper’s Bazaar, 1993).
Given the film’s ultra-voguish afterlife, not to mention its boldly sentimental premise and trapped-in-amber historical specificity, it’s surprising how beautifully Wings of Desire holds up 20-plus years after its release (judging by Criterion’s splendid new two-disc set). At once rarefied and accessible, with a singular visual style that’s impossible to carbon-date, Wings has earned its place alongside the likes of The Seventh Sealand The 400 Blows in the Art House for Beginners canon: Its gate still swings wide for both the starry-eyed undergrad and the grizzled rep-house veteran.
Evergreen though it is, Wings had a sense of timing uncanny enough to seem preordained. Largely shot in and around the flattened, graffiti-covered no man’s land just over the wall, the movie was a prescient backward glance at a city that would soon have all the world’s eyes upon it. Invisible to mere mortals but able to overhear their every thought, the angels Damiel (Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) evoke the condition of marooned West Berlin itself: They are in their surroundings but not of them, part yet not part of a whole. Arriving in the still-early depths of the AIDS crisis, Wings also offered a solacing picture of a divine order that was palliative, not punitive. As the angels perform their subliminal ministrations—placing a comforting hand on an anxious commuter’s shoulder, touching foreheads with an elderly library patron—they evoke kindly nurses doing rounds, with the fractured city as their sick ward. (Wings posits the Berlin State Library as the closest thing the always-on-duty angels have to a break room, where a gently cacophonous medley of overheard thoughts and composer Jürgen Knieper’s lush string and choral arrangements crescendo in an ecstatic requiem.)
For the Düsseldorf-born Wenders, a specialist in existential road movies (such as Paris, Texasand Kings of the Road), Wings was a sort of homecoming after eight years in the United States—a quest tale about wanting to be “tied to the earth,” as Damiel puts it. The angel wants to live “not forever but now,” to trade the unbearable lightness of being for the heft and dirt of the mortal coil. He rhapsodizes about being able to feel his own bones, to let the newspaper blacken his fingers, to “feed the cat like Philip Marlowe.” (Or, perhaps, Columbo: Peter Falk has an extended cameo as an ex-angel.) Mostly, Damiel wants sex and love, and he concentrates his desire on Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lissome trapeze artist who (in an endearingly literal-minded touch)wears angel wings in her act. Before Damiel leaves behind forever for now—when he effectively resigns his post and joins the living, triggering a switch from black-and-white to dazzling color—Wings of Desire’s imagery is appropriately eternal. Cinematographer Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), used silent-movie-style superimpositions and a filter dating back to the 1930s—one he’d fashioned by hand out of his grandmother’s stocking—to add pearly-gray textures to Wings’ monochrome passages. These antique methods, coupled with occasional interpolations of documentary footage of postwar Berlin buried in rubble, result in an ultra-timely movie that, visually speaking, is not quite anchored in time.
Wings is catnip to cinephiles in part because it’s simply gorgeous, and in part because its gorgeousness has a clearly defined film-historical lineage: The movie’s ancestors include not only Beauty and the Beast but Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946). But Wings mayalso resonate with the film junkie because, as Michael Atkinson argues in an essay that accompanies the Criterion package, it can be read as a movie about moviegoing. When Damiel relinquishes the largely passive role of sympathetic observer and strides into the daylight of real life, he’s a beacon to anyone who’s ever suspected himself of spending too much time in the dark (or on the couch in front of the DVD player).And, like many a film critic, Damiel must overcome certain sartorial and grooming handicaps. In angel form, he’s a professorial chap in overcoat and little samurai ponytail; once he falls to earth, he must cope with tacky thrift-store duds and the novelty of working sebaceous glands—though the newly dorkifiedcan still gain entry to the punk-cabaret club where Marion gyrates dreamily to Nick Cave performing “From Her to Eternity.” One could argue that Wings’ blind spot is in depicting a spiritual transformation oddly devoid of spiritual crisis. (It scarcely pricks Damiel’s conscience that, in joining his human charges, he’s also abandoning them.) But one could also argue that spiritual crises don’t apply when opportunity comes knocking with Nick Cave tickets and a date with a hot trapeze artist.
Like Damiel himself, Wings of Desire might be thought of as a beatific misfit: a pure-hearted charmer who gets to have his cake forever and eat it now. The movie is monochrome and colorful, bleak and comforting, existential yet sentimental, old-fashioned yet avant-garde, of impeccable pedigree yet somehow sui generis, cool and uncool. It gives you license to believe in angels that happily clip their own wings. And, perhaps best of all for those of us who suffer from some degree of thanatophobia, it makes an excellent case that life eternal is overrated.