Don't think I'm going all Oprah on you when I tell you that angels exist. But one winter afternoon, as an undergraduate nursing a cold, I met them. A friend brought a pair of them to my room. They stood magisterial -- flickering and insubstantial, speaking in a language I could only partially understand.
I fell asleep before the end of the movie, however, so it was a few days before I learned that the angels were just as screwed up as I was. Maybe even more. In Wim Wenders' (Buena Vista Social Club) film Wings of Desire, angels surround people constantly, though they can't do much more than observe, listen to our thoughts and occasionally offer us comfort. No touch, no dining, not even the sight of a single color in the film's silver-toned angelic world. Eternity, it seems, is gorgeously dull.
But shortly into the movie, the angel Damiel, hauntingly played by Bruno Ganz, becomes attached to the beautiful ephemera of the world -- or more accurately, the effect that living has on the living. He falls particularly for Marion, a soulful trapeze artist. Damiel desires nothing more than to know her intimately, passing through time and bidding her farewell moment by moment as only humans can when they are in love. (Or perhaps he merely wants to know that he has somehow made an impression on this woman whose thoughts have so captivated him.) Willing himself to fall from divine contemplation into the watercolor-drenched world of sensation, he's guided by Peter Falk, playing himself as a fallen angel probably playing Columbo.
To those unfortunate souls for whom romance has departed, the themes of this film will seem a touch juvenile. But it's a technical masterpiece by anyone's standards, with cinematography by Henri Alekan (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast), and a script that brings magical realism to film without copying literature. And Wenders, in the DVD's commentary, doesn't ruin too much of that magic by explaining everything he was trying to achieve. He gives dedicated viewers enough to enhance their experience without locking them into a particular interpretation. Similarly, there's nothing in Wings of Desire itself that reeks of self-help or preaching. It doesn't force its themes upon us. It doesn't tell us how we should or shouldn't live our lives. If anything, it tells us how we do and do not live them.
Publication date: 07/31/03