The story of Damiel and Cassiel, two angels who haunt the divided, Cold War city of Berlin, and featuring the black and white photography of French cinematographer Henri Alekan, Wings of Desire, the 1987 classic by German Director Wim Wenders, just might be the most beautiful film ever made. There isn’t a bad scene in the entire movie. Two or three, a concert with Nick Cave, a man enjoying his first cup of coffee, an old poet looking for the vanished city of his childhood, are the very pinnacle of cinema.
“Through me many long dumb voices, voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, voices of the diseased and despairing,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself. To follow Henri Alekan’s camera as it pans through the streets of the German capital, over and above city parks and apartment complexes, its perspective ever shifting, moving, as if it were a third, unseen angel, is to see the world from the point of view of a disembodied spirit, to be freed from human limitations, and invested with the powers of a God. Yet when he sees Marion, a French trapeze artist played by the luminous Solveig Dommartin, Damiel, a Teutonic Whitman gifted with immortality, wants nothing more than to be a short, dumpy, middle-aged man, Bruno Ganz in ill-fitting thrift store clothes, an ordinary mortal who will get sick, grow old and feeble, and finally die. After he completes his transformation, the movie changes from black and white to color. We begin to understand what it meant when Jesus, a spirit, became flesh.
So was there anything I didn’t like about Wings of Desire? To be honest, no. I’m sure it has its flaws, but each time I watch it, I lose all my critical instincts, and allow myself to be taken over by its poetry. It’s easy to why it played at the old Bleecker Street Cinema in The Village for most of the late 1980s, becoming, in a sense, part of a religious ritual for lonely, film-loving NYU students. Even Peter Falk, who I usually find supremely annoying, works perfectly. My only regret that I can’t speak German, that I have to be distracted by the subtitles that come between me and what I see on screen. Perhaps if I watch it a few more times, I’ll be able to break it down into its components, to explain to myself how and why it works so well. Maybe some brilliant film critic will write a hilarious essay demonstrating that underneath all the seductive camera movements and perfectly photographed greyscales it’s just a bad movie, and I’ll feel silly for ever having liked it. Maybe all these arty films about the end of the Cold War, films like D’Est by Chantal Akerman or The Double Life of Veronique by Krzysztof Kieślowski, were dodges, attempts to escape from history into aesthetics, the kind of “art for art’s sake” I usually see right through.
After all, that dream of a united Germany hasn’t worked out so well, has it?