What is the significance of rubbing your hands together to keep warm? What does it mean to lie? To feel pain? To experience the joys of music? To appreciate an interesting face? What is the difference between simply observing and actually living life? Wings of Desire is a film that tackles all of these questions and more or less answers them to the degree a film is capable of addressing such a complex question. I don't think it is a stretch to say that the central musings of Wings of Desire are probably unanswerable but the film spends so much time pondering that by the end we really don't care all that much.
The overarching plot of the film is really not all that important. Basically, the earth is filled with angels who spend all of their time observing and recording human behavior. They hang out in libraries, on buses, walking the streets, soothing those they observe through touch but otherwise stay at a distance. If you are familiar with The Watchers in the Marvel Comics Universe then you've got a pretty good idea of what is happening here. Every once in a while an angel will get the notion that it is better to be human and will in turn "fall" to our world. In the case of the primary protagonist in Wings of Desire, his inspiration to become human is pushed forward through his intrigue toward a woman; a trapeze artist who is introduced to the audience gliding through the air with a pair of angelic wings made from chicken feathers.
The plot of Wings of Desire is only somewhat important. It moves the film along, but the real weight of Wings of Desire is hidden in-between the lines. In many was we the audience are treated as if we are angels too. Notice the way other angels stare directly into the camera and nod toward the viewer in recognition of our existence. Notice how there is not a single thought from a human left hidden or untranslated. Notice the way the camera glides through each scene at the pace of a person walking. The director, Wim Wenders, gave the audience the power of an angel and showed us how powerless that gift really is when compared to that of a human being.
I first discovered Wings of Desire after a friend of mine mentioned to me that it prominently features a performance by the musician Nick Cave. I was, and still am, a big fan of Nick Cave's music so I figured I had nothing to lose by checking it out. I am ashamed to say that within the first five minutes of watching Wings of Desire I found myself saying, "hey, this is just like City of Angels!!" How naive I was. Of course the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan romantic film was the pretender in this situation. Granted, City of Angels isn't a bad film per se, however what City of Angels failed to understand is that Wings of Desire isn't a movie about two people falling in love. It's a critique about humanity. All of humanity. The good and the ugly. The moments when Wings of Desire narrows to its central characters it simply serves as a tool for the audience to orient itself and to put its scope into perspective.
But enough about unnecessary comparisons. Let us stick with the film I initially set out to discuss. I was mentioning Nick Cave earlier and I feel that does need some elaboration. Wings of Desire does feature a few "characters" that to some degree more or less play their real life personas. Nick Cave is one, another would be Peter Falk, better known for his role in the television series Columbo. In Wings of Desire he plays himself, visiting Berlin to act in a film about Germany during the reign of the Nazi Party. The fact that he plays himself is a source of endless intrigue for me. It adds a new dimension to the experience of observation since we are now looking in on a man we have all looked in on at one time or another through his classic television show. Only this time we aren't' watching Columbo the character, we are watching Pater Falk himself. The same can be said of Nick Cave, who only appears on screen for a couple of songs at a nightclub concert, but we are treated to his inner dialogue spilling out to his gothic rants on stage. Really neat stuff!
Whenever I convince my friends to watch Wings of Desire for the first time I have to admit I typically give them a disclaimer. All the best films in the world should come with disclaimers really so I don't consider this a negative by any frame of reasoning. Wings of Desire is a slow and ponderous film. It isn't in any hurry to get to its conclusion, in part because there really isn't any conclusions to get to. It's about simply stating that life is worth living, or at the very least is interesting. That there is meaning in every action no matter how mundane. There is even meaning in the action of death. I believe that is something worth taking your time to say.
I think it is also fair to say that Wings of Desire is one of the most gorgeous films to look at of any era. About ninety percent of the film is in stark and contrasty black and white which matches perfectly against the backdrop of the city of Berlin. The camera spends a lot of time recording and staying up close to people's faces and we the audience are treated to the joys of every wrinkle, every eye twitch, every curl of a smile, every look of boredom and wonder. On occasion, when the frame of the film becomes devoid of the presence of angels, the film will switch to color photography. Thankfully at no point does this feel like a gimmick and is instead used strategically and sparingly.
There is a scene in Wings of Desire that I feel sums up everything I am trying to say in this review. The scene features Peter Falk rambling poetically about the simple joys of life, such as drinking a hot cup of coffee and smoking a cigerette at the same time. He is right of course. The pleasure of smoking a cigarette is just as important as the forging of a mighty river at the dawn of time. Maybe we should all just sit back and appreciate that for a moment.