The story is simple: angels are around us every day – listening to our thoughts, recording our actions, and puzzling over our idiosyncrasies – but we never know they are there. When one of them falls in love with an emotionally unfulfilled trapeze artist, he has to choose between his feelings for her and his life among the immortals. It seems like the sort of subject matter Hollywood would serve up as a confection – and it is. In 1998, Wings of Desire was not so much remade as diluted into City of Angels starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. Whether or not you’ve seen that film, and whatever you thought about it, I’m convinced you’ll enjoy the original – because it’s practically impossible to imagine that anyone wouldn’t.
This is one of the world’s most life-affirming films. It’s festival of a life, an ode to the tragedies and triumphs that occur in every moment and across every lifetime. Filled with obvious but unobtrusive symbolism – the Berlin wall suggesting the division between the physical and the divine, history and ambition, life and death; the trapeze artist dangling, literally and figuratively, between Heaven and Earth – it finds sensual answers to spiritual questions, and is about both our biggest ideas and smallest experiences.
It’s also about Berlin, its architecture and atmosphere, its past and its prospects, as they were understood in the last years of the East-West divide. The city, still withered from the Second World War but somehow defiantly beautiful, is as much the star of picture as Bruno Ganz – who plays Damiel, an angel who longs to be human. His partner – around Berlin and throughout eternity – is Cassiel, another celestial overseer but one more resigned to the limits of his angelic existence. Together and apart, they eavesdrop on the interior monologues of troubled Berliners – a woman about to give birth; an OAP frustrated by man’s inability to properly embrace peace; and, most movingly, a young man about to kill himself – and, where they can, they impart a sudden and inexplicable feeling of consolation.
In an initially absurd sub-plot – which threatens to unbalance the picture but is integrated so smoothly it actually enhances it – Peter ‘Lieutenant Columbo’ Falk appears as himself, and eventually reveals he used to be an angel, but gave it up for the chance to live and love and say, ‘Just one more thing…’ in three thousand and thirty-six different ways whilst wearing a grubby raincoat. Like everyone else, Falk can feel an angel’s presence but, unlike everyone else, he understands the sensation. Recognising that Damiel is near one night, he encourages him to become human by eulogising the joys of mortal existence, praising not the life-changing thrills of falling in love or fathering a child, but the gentle delight of warming your hands on a cold day or deciding to smoke a cigarette. It’s enough to seduce Damiel, and he is soon no longer an angel.
The moment when he becomes a man – the film flicking from monochrome to colour – is cinematic magic. Suddenly, Damiel is free to taste hot coffee, tie a child’s shoelace, and buy a silly hat. He once was blind, but now he sees. Stopping a man on the street, he asks him to identify the colours in the graffitied faces on the Berlin Wall. ‘What’s this?’ he says, pointing to one of them.
‘Blue,’ says the man.
‘Blue!’ exclaims Damiel, as if he’d just recognised a long-lost loved one. His pleasure is exquisite, and his gratitude for being alive inexpressible. It’s a scene that could have come from It’s A Wonderful Life (had Frank Capra shot that movie in colour).
There are several such moments the film, and it’s because of Ganz that they all work as well as this one. None of us – except perhaps Peter Falk – has any idea what it feels like to wait from the beginning of time until the end of the 1980s just to smile and have someone smile back, and yet, when Ganz shows us the experience onscreen, it instantly rings true.
It’s misleading, though, to discuss this film purely in terms of its plot or performances. This is, for much of its running time, a mood piece unconcerned with story. It likes its characters to indulge in sensory delights for their own sake whilst pondering the great questions, and it likes its audience to do the same. That we go along with this, and never once want it to hurry up and cut to the bit where the erstwhile angel gets the girl, is predominantly due to its astonishing visual beauty.
When Wim Wenders wrote the script for Wings of Desire with the acclaimed Austrian playwright Peter Handke, he pulled off something special. When he filmed it with the equally acclaimed French cinematographer Henry Aleken, he pulled off a miracle. The idea of shooting in black and white everything we see from an angel’s-eye view, and in colour everything we see from a human’s perspective, is borrowed from A Matter of Life Death – but employed with a skill and confidence that’s totally original. If you’ve ever literally liked the look of a film, this one will mesmerize you.
This isn’t an archetypal date movie; it’s certainly not a romantic comedy, and it never makes the potential transition from eccentric celebration of human beings, and being human, to soupy love story. Even so, if your partner ever turns to you and suggests you spend an intimate evening watching City of Angels, turn to him or her and suggest you watch Wings of Desire instead.