I don’t toss around cinematic superlatives like I’m handing out Sweet Tarts. I rarely use the word “perfect” while reviewing a film. If I have used that word it was probably preceded or followed by a reference to Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Hitchcock, or a handful of others. I believe Wings of Desire, the Wim Wenders ’80s era masterpiece of angelic longing, may be as close as we can get in this realm.
The narrative follows Damiel and Cassiel, witnessing angels and angels of testimony, as they haunt the skies and alleys of Berlin sharing the pain of the world one person at a time. Damiel seems resigned to his destiny until he falls for a beautiful trapeze artists. The narrative plays out as angels and humans seek out transcendent journeys in opposite directions.
Watching Wings of Desire reminds me what the cinema is capable of in the hands of a director who willfully employs all its tricks.
The cinematography by Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, is stunning. Alekan’s use of color is intrinsic to the narrative. The composition, dynamic or static, is purposeful and rife with meaning from the sweeping aerials looking down on the divided city to the Ozu inspired low-angle shots of the claustrophobic Berliner apartments. The lighting is textured, at times subtly; at times dramatically. The images are singularly lovely and collectively powerful.
The sound is a complex medley of music (diegetic and non-diegetic), nature, and urban din. Listen closely to the scenes in the library and you’ll be amazed at the numerous layers of insistent sound that create dramatic tension within the scene. From the waves of amorphous noise to the deft tricks of the Foley artist to the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; the sound and music pushes the narrative, develops character, and creates tension.
The words are a collage of poetic inner monologues, angelic exposition, and narrative dialogue. The musings of the Berliners as witnessed by the angels slips from the prosaic to the poetic to the melodic and back again with ease and meaning.
The characters and their stories are mesmerizing. There are angels who long to experience the physical realm of humanity and humans who seem exhausted by it. In addition, set against the more personal stories and told through archival footage and smart writing is a story of humanity from the development of rudimentary language and unique pelvic girdles to the violent 20th Century wars that left Berlin a divided and wounded city.
Berlin circa 1987 is the perfect metaphor for a universe divided. The omnipresent wall, the wall that would so soon fall, is a physical example of a spiritual hedge not unlike the film’s demarcation between the sepia world of angels and the colorful world of humans. Empathetic pain, a cut hand, witnessing altruistic acts of kindness from high above, hot coffee sipped between long drags on a cigarette: these are experiences that may lie separated by time or space or experience or even planes of existence. These are experiences that may or may not be bridged by men and angels.
These are just some of the reasons I believe Wings of Desire may be a perfect cinematic experience. The gods of cinema are indeed an unruly troop and because of this, cinematic perfection is elusive. Films like Wings of Desire demonstrate what cinema is capable of in capable hands under fortunate circumstances. Sure, movies that achieve less can still be terrific films and great fun to watch. But films that reach higher, that reach this high, are few in number and should be cherished for the sheer serendipity of their creation.