Sometimes my favorite part of a film is just after the closing credits, when I leave the theater and step into the bathroom. I wash my hands, stand just beyond the bank of fluorescent lights beaming over the soap dispenser, and glance up. If I’m lucky, I’m surprised. When a movie really works, I’ve forgotten that my face isn’t the face of the film. It’s happened recently: with Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman, and Benicio del Toro in Sicario, and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country, and Kristen Stewart in lots of things. The face doesn’t have to be the film’s star, just a portrait that becomes self-expression through recognition, through resonance. The face stands for emotions I’ve felt or that still linger or a presentiment of something to come.
Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ panorama of Berlin’s people and its history, is a film that teaches humanism across many memorable faces. The sprawling tale weaves together three narrative threads: two angels who survey the city; a circus aerialist who inspires one of them to become human; and a former angel who chose a mortal existence as an actor and a star.
Why am I here and why not there? The story begins as a child’s rhyme, and is anchored by one childlike visage. Again and again, director Wenders relies on Bruno Ganz—the performer’s modest smile, his kind eyes, weighted but still joyful—to look steadily into the camera. Ganz’s reverse angle is 1987 Germany; his reverse is also, somehow, us. Ganz has played Hitler and Nosferatu, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a physical geometry that adds up to such a consistent sense of decency. His dark eyes are always a portal to feeling; the smudge of his nose is democratic in its asymmetry; the small bow of his mouth shows appreciation without calling attention to his own pleasure. It’s Ganz’s face, this expression of radical kindness, that centers our gaze and leads us through the discord. In somber overcoats and pulled-back hair, Damiel (Ganz) and his cohort Cassiel (Otto Sander) are eternal observers of life’s meaningful details: people’s surprise or self-selected endings, their aftermaths, their downtimes.
Each day, the angels meet to read their notes: A train conductor did not announce the station name; instead he shouted, “Tierra del Fuego!” They smile. Before the internet, before everyone kept an official record of self, these angels are the keepers of the world’s messy and elaborate fanfare. They are spiritual detectives, in search not of causes or effects, crimes or perpetrators, but of each soul’s articulation. Wings of Desire is not a movie about small things, although its fabric comprises epigrams of stray thought and accidental glances. As the angels share their highlights we understand: there is no filler in life if we observe it properly.
Wim Wenders’ production company is called Road Movies, and for many years his films conformed to that tagline, stories trailing after Germans in the New World, or Americans who’ve lost themselves, or free spirits who feel most at home while on the move. His narratives, which sometimes dip into noir or intrigue, always slip from the urgency of genre to follow the maxim, “Let’s get lost.” As if to say: the condition of being lost is a precondition to something more important…something wordless, accidentally beautiful, on the crest of meaning. A road trip, after all, is about visions on the fly, about a collage of impressions that add up to a self portrait.
When Wenders returned to his home city for his 13th feature, Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), his wanderer’s spirit conjoined with a totemic past—distant history overlays the crumbling, impermanent now of late Communist-era Berlin. Like their city, the people are divided from themselves. Through the angels, we hear what they think, the bracing urgency of minds when emotion propels monologue: worries, laments and wishes, often in repetition. Each soul is given its due without overwhelming us; the angels provide a shelter the individual mind can almost never find.
To depict this world, Wenders breaks from the muted color and spare landscapes of Robby Müller’s camera used in past projects, and turns instead to cinema’s master of light and shadow, Henri Alekan. Wenders’ Berlin is lit in the most shimmering and radiant black, gray and white this side of Jean Cocteau’s Le Belle et la Bête (which Alekan also framed). The lofty camera cranes down from the heavens to meet its subjects on equal ground, to look them in the face—never to diminish them but to exalt. For Wenders and Alekan believe in obsessive, idealized attention: Lighting scenes with mirrors (in order to show the angels’ wings and then to make them vanish), with sculptural lights to render space in an expressionistic style; with source lighting in tandem with spots to emphasize a moment or an expression; with a handmade, ancient filter as a scrim over the camera’s eye. All so emotion can be delivered like “an arrow into the viewer’s mind” and heart. With Alekan’s participation, Wings of Desire assumes a place alongside Cocteau’s filmography—it becomes a story about the other side of the looking glass, a romantic world of magical parable.
After many years in New York, I find myself suddenly wondering at its numbers, at its odds. I’ll sit on the subway and think, more often than not: I’ve never seen any of these people before and I’ll never see any of them again. In a theater or a restaurant or an airport, the anonymity, the diversity, the numbers— they’re invigorating. But where does one person fit amid an onslaught?
When we meet circus aerialist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), she is about to discover she’s out of a job because the circus is folding. Who is she, as a trapezist without a wire? Marion has enjoyed the lightness of itinerant life, but now she suffers from its frailty. Damiel finds her at this transition, and perhaps he identifies with her. He startles when one of her circus friends jokes, An angel passes by. Or maybe he’s arrested by her beauty: the nimbus of her hair, the wry wonder in her eyes, her elegant limbs as she suspends mid-air. But we sense the appeal is in her searching. Damiel follows Marion to her trailer, watching as she puts on a Nick Cave album and muses. How to live? Marion asks herself. Maybe that’s not the question. How to think? Damiel nods in agreement.
For angel and trapezist, the problem is the same: How not to get lost in the onslaught of observation. If eternity confers remove, time adds meaning and pressure. But how to recognize the important and eternal in life’s eddying current? To find Marion, Damiel descends to earth and finds himself, knocked out and bloodied from the impact of losing his armor, but at last able to enjoy life’s lurid color. Alekan’s light and shadow turns to matte blues, blue grays, dull oranges, deep red. A riot of incongruous hues.
In his search for Marion, Damiel finds Peter Falk, a former angel turned TV star, filming a Holocaust movie in Berlin. Between camera setups, Falks sketches the extras. These are extras, he thinks. Extra people. But his pencil and his eye make them more than extras, echoing Wenders’ camera. They become neither extra nor ordinary faces, but each is elevated by its acknowledged specificity.
Damiel finds Marion at a Nick Cave concert. At last, they can turn to another on an equal plane, to find solace from communion and commitment from being on earth rather than being in the sky. They face each other, at once strangers and intimates. At last, it’s become serious, Marion whispers to him. Amid the world’s surfeit of impressions and images, distractions and demands, Wings of Desire shows us how to recognize the real and the urgent—through the character’s thoughts and their faces—as if the softness of a child is necessary to withstand life’s broad canvas and to recognize another kindred spirit.