The grand theme of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’s cultishly adored fantasy of overcoat-clad angels in Berlin as the Cold War’s end drew near, is storytelling in all its forms as a coping mechanism of the human race. Kindly Damiel (Bruno Ganz, whose sad but easy smile helps make this an indelible role) and his more objective but similarly empathetic cohort Cassiel (Otto Sander), whose wings are only fleetingly shown by Wenders, daily swap tales of the small behaviors and interactions they’ve witnessed after traversing the skies and streets to hear “only what is spiritual in people’s minds.” (A steady chorus of interior speech, from brief, incomplete musings to ornate, torrential monologues penned by the novelist-playwright Peter Handke, floods the soundtrack.)
Among those observed are an elderly poet (Curt Bois) wandering the sites of his vanished haunts from the pre-Nazi era, wondering why “an epic of peace” has never been sung; Peter Falk, playing some eternal version of himself, arriving to shoot a film, sketch extras, and provide a good measure of American soul and humor to Berliners and angels alike; and waitress-turned-trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin, wearing feathers, a halo of sweptback hair, and an aura of sexy self-deprecation) preparing for the end of the circus season and entrancing Damiel with her musings on what her life’s story holds, preoccupied with fearful thoughts of being “gloriously alone.” Occasionally the characters’ compulsion to wax philosophic can grate (“How should I live? How should I think?” Marion frets), but the environment of the walled-off, suspended-in-time West Berlin is dazzlingly rendered by Wenders and his collaborators. It’s hard to think of another movie of its era that makes the viewer so fully feel like a denizen of its setting; the roving, dollying, craning camera makes angels of us all.
Henri Alekan’s mostly monochrome images match the beauty of their grays and blacks with the mood of a city’s historical weight (interposed 1945 clips of bombed districts are ironically in rich color), and the music ranges from classical evocation of the past in Jürgen Knieper’s score, heavy with strings and choral parts, to the theatrical aggression of Australian postpunk (Crime and the City Solution, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). Wenders’s elevation of the everyday—whether it’s a tour-de-force spatial fugue through a modernist public library, Falk’s ode to the joy of coffee and cigarettes, or the riotously ghastly jacket a metamorphosed angel buys in a pawnshop—makes the heavenly agents’ obsession with the material and finite an unquestionable attraction. So long a presence in the area that he can recall the emergence of the first Berliner from its primeval savannah, Damiel decisively gripes to Cassiel, “Enough of the world behind the world!”
As Wings of Desire moves toward uniting its lovers who will forge a link that becomes “time itself,” Wenders’s spell loses a bit of its power; his choice to shift mostly into lovely but relatively decorative color seems too on-the-nose, and a revelation concerning Falk’s identity is a tad corny, if charmingly played. But Dommartin’s last speech to Ganz (and the audience), delivered mostly in one head-on shot, restores some of the hypnotic, committed romanticism of this singular cinema souvenir of a moment in culture and Western history. “Why am I me and why not you?” is the existentialist question repeatedly asked in the film, and Wenders’s ultimate answer seems to be, “Why not be both?”