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German director Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), which translates to "Heaven over Berlin" in Wenders' native tongue, is a contemporary fable of two angels watching over life in modern Berlin. In Wenders' hip, cosmopolitan story the two middle aged angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are an art film variation on the "average Joe" angel of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The angels wear ponytails and amble through the city full of lonely, pain-wracked, anxious citizens, offering comfort to women in labor and suicidal men. In the words of The New York Times's film critic Janet Maslin, the angels are "like so many existential Clark Kents...mild-mannered, all-seeing individuals poised to assist those in need."
The angels offer solace and silent comfort to the residents of the city to whom they are invisible. The only people able to see the angels are children. But angel Damiel longs for a more intense involvement with human joy and pain. He is inspired to seek mortality by an American actor (Peter Falk) in town to shoot a World War II movie and Marion, a beautiful trapeze artist at a French circus, the Alekan, named for Wings of Desire's cinematographer. Damiel soon becomes infatuated by Marion (played by Solveig Dommartin, Wenders' real life companion) and contemplates becoming a mortal, a process that occupies the movie's second half.
Wings of Desire is a thoughtful visual poem touching on ideas of mortality, existence and time. Though it takes place in a divided Germany, separated by the Berlin Wall, the film seems a prescient look into the future, only two years away, when the two Germanys would finally reunite. Because filming of the actual Berlin Wall was forbidden, several replica walls had to be built to stand in its place. When one of the replica walls warped in a rainstorm, the filmmakers quickly learned it had been created hastily and cheaply from wood.
Wings of Desire was Wenders' return to West Germany and an expression of the unique beauty of the country after seven years in America indulging his American pop culture fixations while making Hammett: The State of Things (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984).
Wenders grew up on American movies and especially loved B-movie melodramas and Westerns. Before he attended Munich's Academy of Film and Television, Wenders had studied both philosophy and medicine. He began his film career writing film criticism. Wenders' obsessive film interests can be gleaned in his first English-language film The American Friend (1977) in which he cast a bevy of cult film luminaries including Dennis Hopper and directors Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller. Bruno Ganz also appeared in the film, which he regarded as one of his favorites, and once came to blows with Hopper over acting technique while working on the film. Wenders later co-directed with Nicholas Ray the latter's candid film portrait of himself, Lightning Over Water (1980). It was not Wenders' last collaboration with another director. In 1995, Wenders co-directed Beyond the Clouds with Italian art house auteur Michelangelo Antonioni.
Wings of Desire also signaled Wenders' turn away from films fixated on alienation, to films centered on romance and the spiritual.
Part of the film's magical, fairy tale ambiance was undoubtedly due in part to 79-year-old cinematographer Henri Alekan, who is best remembered for his exquisite camerawork in Jean Cocteau's fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (1946) and who also worked with Charlie Chaplin and Abel Gance. Alekan's approach to Wings of Desire's atmosphere was unique. He created its distinct ambiance by shooting through a filter made from his grandmother's stockings.
Wings of Desire's ultimate success may have come from its ability to somehow bridge a divide between art house fare and commercial, Hollywood film and reach a large, diverse audience. Wenders was named Best Director at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Part of the film's exquisite, global aura also came from a soundtrack peppered with songs from an eclectic batch of performers including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (who also appear in the film) and Laurie Anderson.
A sequel to Wings of Desire, Faraway, So Close (1993) was less successful though it did garner Wenders a Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Hollywood eventually remade Wings of Desire in 1998, as City of Angels starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.
The Peter Falk role in Wings of Desire, considered one of the most unique aspects of the film, was not cast until fairly late in the film's pre-production phase. Wenders wanted someone iconic for the role and imagined using a painter, writer, politician or musician in the part. Wenders' assistant Claire Denis eventually came up with the idea of using Peter Falk, an actor whose role on the television series Columbo made him instantly recognizable to a large portion of the film-going audience. Wenders was also a fan of Falk from his days as part of the tight cadre of actors who worked with innovative Seventies filmmaker John Cassavetes. In his days working with Cassavetes, Falk was used to not working with a script, and so he didn't balk when Wenders told him he had not yet created Falk's character, despite the fact that the movie was already in production.
To prepare for his part as a former angel-turned-actor, Falk and Wenders spent a weekend together in Germany developing the role, which led to some of the improvisation-inspired moments in the film like the scene of Falk trying to choose a hat to wear. The director also incorporated Falk's habit of sketching in between takes.
Falk's voice-over internal monologue was actually shot after the actor had left Germany. Those inner thoughts, also improvised by Falk, were recorded in an L.A. sound studio with Wenders directing Falk over the telephone.
Director: Wim Wenders
Producer: Wim Wenders, Anatole Dauman
Screenplay: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Production Design: Heidi Ludi
Music: Jurgen Knieper
Cast: Bruno Ganz (Damiel), Solveig Dommartin (Marion), Otto Sander (Cassiel), Curt Bois (Homer), Peter Falk (Himself).
by Felicia Feaster