February 6, 2003

Under the Radar

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They mostly prefer the tall buildings, the landmarks. They stand on the shoulders of the statues or the roof of the library in their dark coats like a flock of ravens. Sometimes they go down into the city. Sit on the subway. Go to the circus. Everywhere they go, they observe. They are the watchers. They are angels. Wim Wenders’ masterpiece Wings of Desire concerns two of the watchers, a few of their subjects, and their city: Berlin. This is a love story in the most universal sense of the word. Love of a city, love of the world, love of humanity. It is also about what it means to be alive. About why it is worth eternity to live.

Demiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) have known this city since it was a plain. They have seen the river carve it into a valley, and the ape creatures arrive. They understand the secrets of the universe and it is their sole responsibility to sympathize and watch.

Lately, it hasn’t been enough for Demiel. He wonders what it would be like to eat an apple, or have a cup of coffee or touch someone — like the trapeze artist at the circus, with whom he falls in love. She is afraid she will fall because it is the night of the full moon, performs with angel wings on her back, and goes to clubs with good bands. He decides to give up his immortality and live as a human. No one tries to stop him, there is no great revelation about the nature of things (although there are quite a few small ones) and there’s no climactic sex scene.

That’s all the formal plot there is, which seems somewhat minimal for its running time. The movie is one of the best and most moving I’ve ever seen because it devotes its time to a dozen disparate stories and moments which serve to show the angel and the audience just exactly what he’s getting into if he chooses to live as a mortal.

This jewel of a film is made up of myriad facets which are all striking in their own right. Through a constant stream of vignettes, Wenders presents the full spectrum of existence. When Demiel tries to explain his desire to Cassiel he couches it in terms the other can understand: “what would it be like to come home like Phillip Marlowe and feed the cat?” Somehow it is comforting to know that angels have such taste in literature.

The cinematographer (who also worked for Couctaeu on Beauty and the Beast) shoots with sweeping angles and long held cuts which seem to lovingly observe the smallest details from a great height, until the city is idealized and immediate at the same time. The angels see through a scrim of grey-blue, casting everything into cool relief so that when we see through one of the mortals — or the newly mortal Demiel — the world dazzles us. Wenders’ direction, the choices he makes, all serve to sustain the mood and the message of the film, which is a delight in mundane perfection. The conductor in the passing streetcar calls out “Tierra del Fuego” instead of his usual stops. The old man in the library (an author perhaps, or a storyteller and perhaps a Holocaust survivor as well) is named Homer.

Wenders peoples his Berlin with a thousand interesting histories, but none is more important than Peter Falk’s. Falk, who plays himself, is in town working on a movie. In the streets the children call him Columbo. He sketches extras and fights with Wardrobe, and one day he feels Demiel’s presence near the coffee truck. Adults can’t, as a rule, perceive angels. Falk can because he “took the plunge” in 1922 and pawned his breastplate in SoHo. The idea of Falk as a former angel works because his face carries with it the suggestion that he has see

Archived article by Erica Stein