German director Wim Wenders’ magical, elegiac 1987 film Wings of Desire follows two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, watching over a mostly monochrome pre-unification Berlin. They listen to the thoughts of people in their apartments, on the U-Bahn, and on the wintry streets, where an old man, Homer, looks for Potsdamer Platz in the still-ravaged city but finds only the wall, covered in graffiti.
Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz in possibly his most-famed role before Downfall, is in love with a trapeze artist called Marion, and longs to be human, and to experience all the sensations he has never known. Damiel and Cassiel, you see, have been angels since the beginning of time…
Marion meanwhile, lies in her circus trailer listening to The Carny by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and later goes to watch the band, then resident in Berlin, and all looking impossibly youthful, in a club full of German goths. American actor Peter Falk wanders through the film as a version of himself, shooting a movie about the Nazis, being recognised as Columbo, and talking with the angels.
I first saw Wings of Desire on its release. I was at an impressionable age, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on any major new European films. Watching it now, it’s striking how different this Berlin is to the modern city, but what really still resonates is Ganz’s performance – blessed with one of the most sympathetic faces ever to grace the screen, he was born to play the angel. When you remind yourself of his terrifying and paranoid Hitler in Downfall, you appreciate just how great he was.
Wings of Desire, with its switch from black and white to colour drawing faint but obvious comparisons to Powell and Pressburger’s own angelic fable A Matter of Life and Death, remains an elegant, dreamy thing, where everyone is either living inside their heads or in someone else’s.
Upcoming screenings of Wings of Desire
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