Wim Wenders’ extravagantly wistful, intensely literary romantic fantasy, co-conceived with Peter Handke, is re-released and right now it looks more than anything like an elegiac “city symphony” about Berlin. How extraordinary to think that just two years after this film came out, the Wall and the city’s division into east and west – which had seemed as poetically fixed and immutable as a river shoreline – disappeared. With its amazing crane and helicopter shots, Wenders’ movie swoops and hovers and floats over the city, pointedly surmounting the hated wall, enacting the longing of Berliners to somehow overcome history’s gravity and get over this ugly barrier.
Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander play Damiel and Cassiel, two angels in the sky above Berlin who amuse themselves by watching and studying all the people in the teeming city below them. They can hear what these human beings are thinking and feeling. They roam freely, ubiquitously, through the still semi-shattered city of Berlin and their musings are interspersed with archive footage of the destroyed capital in 1945. Children can see the angels, but not the grownups – except for one grownup, the Hollywood movie actor Peter Falk, who has come to Berlin to shoot a movie apparently set during the second world war, and can somehow sense the angels in front of him. Falk’s presence is a reminder of Wenders’ unique love of America and melding American cultural presences in Europe: appropriately enough, as Berlin itself was the epicentre of Germany’s prewar Amerikanismus, its fierce love of everything from the US.
Damiel has fallen in love with a circus trapeze artist called Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and marvels at the quaintly exotic artistry of her act. He yearns to abandon his immortality and god status so that he can meet Marion and induce her to fall in love with him – though it is a measure of his still godlike confidence that he never has any doubt that this will happen. Damiel yearns to submit to time itself and the sensual embrace of growing, ageing and dying. Cassiel sympathises, though without wishing to join him, and joins in the musing about the pleasures of humanity and mortality, how exciting it must be to “get enthused about evil for once – be a savage!”
The angels drift and muse, especially in the lovingly photographed Berlin State Library, and surely no library was ever so passionately captured on film. They come across Homer himself (Curt Bois) who wants to get the city down on paper. There is an extraordinary sequence in which they wander through the Potsdamer Platz trying to remember what it was once like: in 1987 this was still a wasteland, a vacant lot, and almost rural gloaming of nothingness.
Wenders had something of Frank Capra or Powell and Pressburger with this tale of benevolent angels, and also something of Marcel Carné or even TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Perhaps Wings of Desire has dated a little, but it is a cinema of ideas, almost an essay movie, and utterly distinctive.
• Wings of Desire is released on 24 June in cinemas.