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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Twenty-Eight: Wings of Desire

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

One of the most critically praised films in this entire Great Movies series, Wings of Desire has inspired numerous directors and moviegoers during its 20-year history. Directed by Germany’s Wim Wenders, the 1987 picture earned numerous awards, including the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It also inspired R.E.M.’s popular video for “Everybody Hurts” and the Hollywood remake City of Angels. While I haven’t seen the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan vehicle, I can’t imagine it comes even close to duplicating this film’s power. Born in 1945, Wenders has enjoyed a diverse and lengthy directing career since the late 1960s. His other prominent features include The American Friend; Paris, Texas; Until the End of the World; and The Buena Vista Social Club. Utilizing multiple languages and covering a diverse array of themes, Wenders’ films are rarely predictable and often showcase masterful storytelling.

The story focuses on two angels living in Berlin who spend their days observing humans going about their everyday lives. Many are struggling to find happiness, and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) comfort them with a hand on the shoulder. The people aren’t consciously aware that an angel is present, but they still feel an inexplicable comfort. The angels are able to hear the thoughts of each person, which allows Wenders to create an intimate connection with us. Like the angels, we’re able to hear the characters’ personal thoughts and sympathize with each individual’s situation. Although they have close access to people, angels are not able to truly feel human emotions. Damiel yearns to become human and truly walk among them, even if he must face life’s difficulties. His inspiration is the elegant circus performer Marion (Solveig Dommartin), who moves with such beauty that Damiel experiences a brief look at the earth’s true colors. Will he really choose to exit the world of angels? Is it even possible? These questions are only the beginning of this complex, remarkable picture.

This film’s definite highlight is the gorgeous photography from Henri Alekan, who had worked in the industry since the early 1930s. He also shot Jean Cocteau’s excellent Beauty and the Beast, one of my favorite pictures in this entire series. The angels see in black and white, which allows for grand shots of a Berlin that is rarely viewed on screen. When the image shifts to color, the majestic environment is truly breathtaking. Frequent Wenders collaborator Peter Przygodda edits the film with a deliberate pace that showcases Alekan’s fine work. This slow tempo was the only difficult part of the film for me, but the many inspiring shots compensate for any moments that drag. This type of movie could easily get bogged down with exposition about the workings of angels, but Wenders presents all the required info visually during several interesting scenes. As the angels move through the library, circus, and several captivating rock concerts, he creates a stunning palette of images. A highly effective sequence involves a performance by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds that involves Damiel, Cassiel, and Marion. A description cannot do justice to the visual and emotional layers that are present within this sequence.

Roger Ebert comments that Wings of Desire “evokes a mood of reverie, elegy and meditation,” and I totally agree with this graceful description. It takes a short while for the film to grab you, but once it happens, the images will remain in your mind for a long time. Another interesting aspect is the appearance of Peter Falk, who plays an alternate version of himself shooting a film in Berlin. He senses the angels’ presence and even speaks to them while sipping coffee at a local stand. Falk gives a wonderfully understated performance that adds more layers to an already complex picture. Wings of Desire is the type of film that I expect to have an even stronger impact on repeated viewings. While its deliberate pace could turn off some viewers, those who take the journey can expect to see a truly Great Movie.

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