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Monday, November 8, 2010

Ebert's Greats #3: Wings of Desire (1987)


* * * *

Director: Wim Wenders
Starring: Bruno Ganz

Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire unfolds like a dream, emphasizing mood over story and flowing at a slow, easy pace. It's a film you'll likely hate if you dislike "art" movies, and you'll probably be left frustrated if you go into it with only City of Angels, the Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan starring remake, as your point of reference. But this poetic masterpiece is a deeply rewarding film if you're in the right frame of mind for it.

Set in West Berlin, Wings of Desire follows two angels: Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). The angels are there to observe people, to listen to their thoughts, to bear witness. They come together throughout the course of their travels to share what they've seen and heard and to reminisce about the history they've watched unfold. In one scene they recall watching the river find its bed, seeing the arrival of the first humans, watching as society took its shape. They have been content in their roles since the beginning of time, but Damiel starts to want more; he wants to experience life rather than simply observe it.

Damiel's revelation is brought about by two people. The first is Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeeze artist whose loneliness (and loveliness) touches Damiel. The second is Peter Falk, playing himself - or, rather "himself." In Wenders' vision Falk is still the man who played Columbo, but he's also a former angel who can sense the presence of Damiel and Cassiel though, like other humans, cannot see them. He speaks to them, encouraging them to attain physicality so that he can see them and once Damiel does so, he gives him a couple of tips about existing in the human world.

The narrative threads involving Falk and Marion provide the film with shape, giving the story a destination (though its ending is "to be continued" and the story picks up in 1993's Faraway, So Close!), but it really isn't the kind of movie that's about what "happens." Yes, we want Damiel to find Marion and live happily ever after, but we'd also be happy to float along as we have been, following Damiel and Cassiel from subject to subject. Wenders submerges us into this world, taking us from vignette to vignette, showing us bits and pieces of the lives of people in West Berlin, and creates a viewing experience that is truly entrancing.

Not everything in Wings of Desire works - there's a scene between Falk and Dommartin that is strangely stilted and sticks out amongst the other scenes in the film which are so carefully and beautifully crafted and executed. I also think that in general Falk's presence is a bit distracting and somewhat tempers the film's spell. In spite of that, however, Wings of Desire is still a magical film experience that I most highly recommend.

5 comments:

The Mad Hatter said...

"Now I know what no angel knows"

I truly love this movie, and the way it gives angels a sense of existentialism. When I think back on it, I'll always remember it as the movie my wife and I saw on one of our first dates (And yes - I was testing her to see if she had good taste in movies).

I'm enjoying reading this series you've decided to tackle...keep 'em coming!

Tom said...

This one is in my queue to see; I've always wanted to see this one.

Norma Desmond said...

@Mad Hatter: I certainly will - Lord knows there are enough movies to choose from!

@Tom: You won't be disappointed once you do.

film finance said...

I better put this movie on my "To-watch" list. This seems like good one.

- Dexter DeLima

Alex said...

I love this film, and your review sums it up perfectly- it really is all about allowing yourself to soak up Wenders' carefully crafted atmosphere. I love the various vignettes, and the scene with Cassiel and the man contemplating suicide on the roof makes me cry every time.

The remake is almost laughable- it just misses the mark, I think. I actually did a film paper years ago comparing the two, focusing on how Wenders' ideas became so Americanized.