The most miserable thing about melancholy is that it has no object. You can be sad about something: the passing of a loved one, the souring of a relationship, a mealy peach. Melancholy, however, in its various fashions—alienation, anomie, despondence, sturm und drang, etc.—flows in no such identifiable direction. It floats free. Instead of afflicting, it hangs like a gloomy pall over everything, impossible to dispel. Its commingling of beauty and sadness can come to define the emotional and intellectual life of an individual and, perhaps, an entire city.
Wings of Desire, which won Wim Wenders Best Director honors at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival before opening in America in 1988 among a slate of summer-movie sequels and pseudo-tent-pole blockbusters, is acutely melancholic, in the way that anything can be reasonably said to be acutely melancholic. Wenders manages to capture an ineffable mood, a whole mode of being, with the knowledge that its very ineffability means that it’ll slip through his fingers. It’s gloomy and rapturous, imposingly grand and fleetingly light, all at once.
Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander play angels patrolling the streets of West Berlin, beautifully lensed in black and white by cinematographer Henri Alekan, on the cusp of the Wall’s collapse. They lurk through apartment complexes, offering invisible comfort to the despondent. They gather in libraries, eavesdropping on the thoughts of the silent masses, compiling their own archive of human experience. They trail Peter Falk, in Berlin shooting a film he doesn’t quite seem to understand. As Sander’s Cassiel pus it, their job is to “assemble, testify, preserve.”
They also observe the city from above, perched on the precipices of cathedrals and skyscrapers like gargoyles. Ganz’s Damiel seems more like Kierkegaard’s “Watchman of Copenhagen” in The Concept of Anxiety. Above the city, enamored with it, and especially with a young trapeze artist played by Solveig Dommartin, Damiel becomes seized by an anxiety as vast and object-less as the melancholy skulking through the streets below, clutched by what Kierkegaard calls “the dizziness of freedom.”
Damiel dreams of simple things: of returning home after a long day, of the curve of a woman’s neck, of lying. He dreams of being human. And when he first sees Dommartin’s Marion, dressed up in tacky angels wings swinging on a high wire, he sees his own divinity from the inside out. His state of studied grace is something to aspire to, instead of just something to silently suffer.
So Damiel commits to meeting Marion in the middle. He “takes the plunge,” clipping his wings, pawning off his angelic armor for a measly $200, wrapping himself in second-hand flannels and attempting to carve out a life for himself. Here, Wings of Desire’s whole aesthetic shifts. Instead of gliding long takes and crane shots, we see Berlin from Damiel’s now grounded point of view. It’s as if the Earth is staring up at him, instead of vice versa.
The film also switches from black and white to color, and in the process, reveals that the preceding monochromatic schema wasn’t merely an aesthetic flourish on Wenders’s part, but reflective of how these angels-on-high actually see the world they patrol. Scrambling around a blasted-out lot, Damiel grabs a stranger, imploring him to identify a series of colors on a wall, seeing them for the first time. Now that he can die, he can truly live.
Wings of Desire is a film of moments: Damiel and Cassiel in the library; the scrabbling old man who dreams of writing a peacetime epic poem; the folks at the carnival preparing to tear down and return to the real world; heads lethargically bobbing at Nick Cave and Crime and the City Solution concerts, as Marion twists freely among them. Many of these moments are suffused by the melancholia, or the out-and-out sadness, of a city cleaved in two, drifting through history, cut off from itself, lost. As Damiel’s decision to shed his divinity illustrates, such sadness if often accented by moments of rare splendor—a twisting trapeze artist, a shimmying rock frontman beguiling a basement club, a child smiling.
And even when sadness isn’t equalized by its opposite, even when no light pierces the fog, even when all there is is gloomy, abiding melancholy, well, at least it’s in Technicolor.
John Semley as an irregular contributor to Slant, an occasional film writer, and the online editor of NOW Magazine in Toronto.