Wings of Desire

Regarded by some as an inscrutable poetic masterpiece, I can’t help but think that Wings of Desire, despite all its beauty, falls into the category of pretentious arthouse cinema. The film follows two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, through a series of images and setpieces, as they regard the modern world around them–always observing, pondering, helping.  The angels have existed since the beginning of time (“it took a long time for the river to meet its bed”) and watched the progression of God’s creations with a mix of sympathy and wonder.

Along the way, they encounter a series of lost souls–a holocaust survivor, a lonely circus acrobat, a suicidal man–and help when they can; but most often they are left to witness from the margins of reality. Damiel has tired of his mere existence and longs to be, while Cassiel laments that childhood is something to be lost instead of cherished.

This is a stunning film to look at, full of sweeping tracking shots and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.  There’s a virtuoso sequence toward the beginning, where a pack of angels descend on a library to hover over their charges, as the camera dips and swoops around them.  And Peter Falk has an interesting cameo, playing himself as an actor who sees more than most.

It’s clear Wim Wenders is a gifted filmmaker.  And yet…I can’t shake the feeling that Wings of Desire relies far too heavily on visual style to tell its story, which somehow makes the film feel weighty and overlong.  Passages of dialogue meant to be “poetic,” are merely dense and impenetrable.  And Wenders switches to a classic narrative style and color palette about half way through that feels jarring. It all comes across as disjointed, a bit pretentious and overly indulgent. Still Wings of Desire is a beautiful film and should be seen, if only for its splendid images and the terrific, if odd, use of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (“The Carny”, a great song, is featured prominently).

1987; starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander; directed by Wim Wenders; 128 min; PG-13; in German, French, and English w/ English subtitles; available on Criterion.