Wings of Desire
Having reached the end of the road movie in 1984 with the Palme d'Or winning Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders turned his gaze to the heavens for this haunting metaphysical fantasy about divine desire and the pleasures of the flesh.
Gorgeously shot in a coded combination of black and white and colour, Wings Of Desire is a far more dense and ambitious enterprise than the sparse journeys of self-discovery Wenders undertook in the 1970s. It's also the only time the director has successfully folded his yearning for a form of filmmaking that reaches with one hand for the sublime, and with the other for rock 'n' roll, into a coherent, cohesive whole. Wings Of Desire is both an elegy and an allegory, built round a seductive philosophical speculation: what price the trade-off between knowing everything yet feeling nothing, as do Berlin's immortal angels, and knowing nothing yet feeling everything, as do the city's mortal humans?
The stately opening sequence is a tour of Berlin, still a divided city in 1987. Eavesdropping on all its tragedies, triumphs, dreams and delusions are Damiel (Ganz) and Cassiel (Sander), unobserved guardian angels visible only to children. They drift through the city, tenderly dispensing comfort to those they feel need it, but otherwise remain unseen spectators of the great game below.
For Damiel, this endless state of privileged detachment is no longer enough. He wants to eat, drink, love and lie with the rest of humanity. "To guess instead of always knowing," he says in the film's great statement of angelic anguish. "To say 'yea' instead of 'amen'."
Also in the picture is Peter Falk (described merely as 'The Filmstar' in the original credits) who, as insistent TV 'tec Columbo, exhibited the same wearily benign demeanour as the film's own trenchcoat-wearing angels. Swinging through the story too is trapeze artist Marion (Domartin, Wenders' partner in the 1980s; she died in 2007). Just as Marion reaches nightly for the sky in the big top, so Damiel is seduced down to earth - in love with her, the angel engineers his own fall and tastes the bittersweet fruits of the flesh - an experience he isn't entirely able to process.
Just as Paris, Texas had its antecedents - the dusty westerns of John Ford - so Wings Of Desire's assimilation of the sacred and secular isn't entirely without precedent: Powell and Pressburger mounted their own stairway to heaven with A Matter of Life and Death in 1946, and Wings Of Desire itself is dedicated to "all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej," these being Wender's own sources of divine inspiration, Ozu, Truffaut and Tarkovsky.
Wenders himself was a filmmaker who came of age alongside post-modernism, and his early work acknowledged - not always comfortably - those difficult questions about authorial integrity and the purpose of storytelling. Wings Of Desire resists those reflexive impulses: among the film's most courageous aspects is the way it treats its premise seriously - though not without wit - thereby granting these angels the earthly anguish that grounds them.
Wenders' underhand rock 'n' roll impulse has frequently introduced an unintentional tension to his work. On occasions he's looked like a director for whom the camera was a substitute guitar, and by the time we get to the worthily alternative soundtrack to Until The End of the World in 1991 he was beginning to look like a director loudly telling audiences he was cool. The musical interludes are at least as indulgent here, but within Wings Of Desire's fabulously romantic context they make a dark kind of theatrical sense. Crime & The City Solution swagger sullenly through 'Six Bells Chime', and former Berlin resident Nick Cave races through a furious version of - what else could it be? - 'From Her To Eternity.'
Wenders' sequel Faraway, So Close! caught up with Damiel and Cassiel - though not Marion - in 1993, by which point the Berlin Wall had come down, and so it seemed had the director; that second film was an undisciplined, indulgent, Bono-hugging mess which taints the original almost as much as the 1998 Hollywood remake City of Angels. Here though, as with Paris, Texas, Wenders finds an extraordinary new language that enables him to recount one of those ancient stories we've always known and make it look like a broadcast beamed directly from heaven.