Joe Wright’s Pick: Wings of Desire
Black and white sweeping views of West Berlin with voice over, ” When the child was a child…” As the view sweeps past people on the street, in their homes, and doing every day things, we “hear” their thoughts of concern, wonderment, feelings of inadequacies. In children’s faces, there is recognition of a presence and a welcoming smile exchange between them and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and gorgeous, dark-haired angel with the most serene energy of love and curious look upon his face.
Damiel moves about the city, giving the occasional light touch on someone’s shoulder, a closer lean to uplift a person’s thoughts, or just to observe children enjoying life. Damiel meets up with fellow angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander). A blond-haired angel with an un-surprised yet understanding face. Damiel tells Cassiel how he dreams of doing human things like take his shows off under the table and wiggle his toes, smoke a cigarette, be in love and be loved in return. Cassiel listens with interest and reminds Damiel they are there to observe and report with a helpful nudge here and there.
Both Damiel and Cassiel visit the library often to sit with humans and wander around from person to person. Cassiel spends time with an elderly man Homer ( Curt Bois) a poet who wonders where his readers have gone, what happened to his muse and gift of storytelling, why is he still here, and whether he should keep going.
Damiel is drawn to a local circus troupe which is about to close for lack money. After many visits watching with the children and observing the beautiful trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), Damiel realizes he may be in love with her.
Meanwhile, there is a film shoot going on in town which Damiel and Cassiel frequently visit to observe. They are drawn to Peter Falk who is playing a character in the film. Peter Falk spends his time talking with extras, wandering the set, and drawing pictures of people in his notebook making observations of those around him. While Peter gets coffee from a small food stand, Damiel approaches and stands near. Peter tells him he can’t see him and can feel him there. This both startles and intrigues Damiel.
Damiel takes Cassiel to the circus to see Marion to help him understand why he wants to be a human. Cassiel observes but makes no judgement. They follow her later to a club and observe her, listening to her thoughts of loneliness and concerns about where she’ll go and what she’ll do once the circus ends. Later, Damiel visits Marion while she sleeps and tries to get as close to her as he can as an angel.
The final night of the circus, Marion is worried it will be her last as the moon is full and it’s bad luck to trapeze on such a night. Damiel is there below watching and reassuring her. The night is perfect and Marion is happy. Damiel tells Cassiel again he’s made the decision to be human. “It’s now or never”, he says. Cassiel accepts this as Damiel vanishes before him.
Damiel wakes up lying on the ground, feeling the earth for the first time, and the chest plate which landed on his head. He picks it up and starts walking. H encounters many kind people to help him along the way– a man who tells him about colors, the antique shop where he exchanges his chest plate for a new coat and money, and a coffee stand merchant. He heads to the film shoot to talk to Peter Falk but the security guard won’t let him in. Damiel sees Peter and calls to him. Peter recognizes him and through a brief and encouraging conversation, Damiel learns Peter was once an angel like him who decided to be human. “There’s always a girl!”
Renewed, Damiel sets off to see Marion; but the circus has packed up and she has left. Damiel feels sick to his stomach thinking he has lost his chance and may not find her. After a while, he gets up and wanders the streets looking for her. Cassiel shows up here and there watching over Damiel and Marion until they both end up at a club. Marion is near the front listening to the band while Damiel hangs toward the back. They don’t see each other. Cassiel watches over them from different areas.
Eventually, Damiel heads to the bar and sits down and after a while, Marion does the same. When they meet for the first time, Marion tells Damiel her life in relationships and what she’s looking for. “It has to be serious.” Damiel listens intently until the moment when she invites him to her and they kiss.
They go on to live together in love….
What I Liked
I loved the beauty of wandering around the city and listening to people’s thoughts. I loved the idea there are angels around us all the time. Damiel and Cassiel aren’t there to make things change or necessarily better but just to “be there”. Even our darkest moments, like the guy who jumps off the building or the old people remembering the horrors of war–they are there so we are not “alone”. Comforting to me in many ways. The voice-overs were integral in more ways than hearing the thoughts of the humans. They were also bridges from the angels explaining through poetic exposition of the fate of humanity. “And once mankind loses its storyteller, it will also lose its childhood”.
I loved the way the story took its time unfolding to help us understand Damiel and his desire to feel. So many quiet, disconnected moments and yet all connected through Damiel. I loved Cassiel’s way of walking along or being near without being obtrusive into the other’s space. When the angels connect with the children, it made sense and felt natural. The interaction between Damiel and Cassiel worked very well as did their interaction with the German actors. It was if the angels weren’t there…
The music was in perfect support of each scene, whether it was angelic, sorrowful, or circus, it captured the emotion of the scenes perfectly.
I loved how the film would change in color fluid for different scenes. Human moments got a soft color saturation, the past was washed in an antique amber tone, and the angels lived in black and white. The editing skating in and out of these seamlessly was beautiful.
There is something in the way a foreign language sounds while contradicting the meaning of the words I read in the subtitles. The softness in Marion’s speech near the end–she’s telling him she’s played around long enough with relationships and wants something serious. She could feel it was Damiel who visited her while she was sleeping and she doesn’t want to waster her time with anyone else. There’s so much resolution and pain and longing in her voice and yet it barely fluctuates in tempo and pitch. The screenplay is magnificent. Knowing when to dialogue, when to listen, when to observe.
What I Wished Was Better
Peter Falk. He plays himself but he’s playing Columbo, kinda. He’s just this famous actor working on a war film at the same time Damiel and Cassiel are watching over the streets and they happen to cross paths. The part I wanted to be better–or different– was when he and Damiel have the exchange at the coffee stand. He “can’t see” Damiel but he knows he’s there. He purposely diverts his eyes from Damiel’s eyes/body. Peter Falk makes eye contact throughout the film except this one scene. A little search with his eyes, it’s all I need…
Director Joe Wright chose this film for his life boat as a reminder of his love for humanity. I can understand why. This film expresses human emotion, the desire for love, and meaning of purpose in a way which makes thinking and feeling a certain way–whether we act or not–relevant and valid. Beautiful and masterful. Available on Amazon. Watch the trailer below:
Fun Facts: The black and white shots were filmed through a stocking previously owned by the cinematographer Henri Alekan, whom the circus is named after. Peter Falk preferred to work without a script and would often wander the streets of Berlin during shooting. City of Angels (1998) starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan was based on Wings of Desire.