“Why is life worth living? It’s a very good question. Um…well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh…like what? Okay…um…For me, uh…ooh…I would say…what? Groucho Marx, to name one thing…uh…um…and Willie Mays…and um…the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony…and um…Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues…um…Swedish movies, naturally…Sentimental Education by Flaubert…uh…Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra…um…those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne…uh…the crabs at Sam Wo’s…uh…Tracy’s face…”
– Woody Allen in MANHATTAN (1979)
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) spends his days watching, listening. He hears people’s biggest fears and greatest failures. When they are at their lowest, he is at his best. He soothes them without words or caresses, but with kind thoughts and spiritual clarity. Damiel is an angel. Sent to West Berlin to observe the people there, Damiel discovers something about himself. Listening to stories of love and heartbreak isn’t enough. He’s dissatisfied with his voyeuristic role and longs to be human. In his words, “…it would be nice to come home after a long day and feed the cat like Philip Marlowe.” That simple wish becomes fervent desire after Damiel sees Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lonely and beautiful trapeze artist working at a ramshackle traveling circus. He empathizes with the lovely woman and longs to be with her. Soon, he can think of little else.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!
– Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Despite the apparent simplicity of the plot, WINGS OF DESIRE touches on issues director Wim Wenders could only guess about in 1987. Issues like isolation, longing, and empathy mean something entirely different today because of the technological advances we’ve made since 1987. In a way, we have the power to be angels or devils as we watch and compliment or insult or simply acknowledge the work or opinions of others. We fly anonymously from one country to another in an instant and hear the thoughts and hopes and prayers of scores of people in the course of a day. Like Damiel, we hear a cacophony of voices in our heads. It’s exhausting.
Perhaps it’s feeling the weight of so many regrets and so much sadness that makes Damiel want to chuck the wings, join the human race, and hear just one voice echoing in his head, his own. Maybe he wants to taste streusel or kiss a baby or pet a dog. The fact that he wants to give up his wings at all based on what he hears speaks volumes about his capacity for hope and his desire to, as he puts it, “for once just to guess instead of always knowing.”
Maybe he’s pushed over the edge by his friend, his compañero, Peter Falk. Falk plays himself, an actor in Berlin to shoot a WWII movie. Falk feels the presence of Damiel and his angel friend, Cassiel (Otto Sander). That’s odd because as a rule, the only ones who see the pair are children. Falk even encourages Damiel to become human when he says, “There’s so many good things.” He describes some simple pleasures. “To smoke and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.”
Wim Wenders’ bleak vision of life without contact, surprise, or change is made real by the grays of Henri Alekan’s cinematography interspersed with stark WWII footage and by the hangdog expressions of most of the people Damiel and Cassiel encounter. In fact, the only people who appear to enjoy themselves are children and Marion’s circus-performer friends. Later, color explodes onto the screen, WIZARD OF OZ-like. Music plays a big part in WINGS OF DESIRE as well. Early in the film, the music is spare. We hear strings and short bursts of an angelic choir. As the film progresses, we’re treated to a song by Crime & the City Solution and nightclub performances by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Now I’ll wax poetic about Bruno Ganz. I watched WINGS OF DESIRE in German with English subtitles so I know I missed some nuances of language, but I didn’t miss a single emotion because Ganz communicates so well with his eyes. I could feel his yearning to touch Marion; to be a part of her life. I could feel his childlike glee as he sat with the little ones and watched the circus. I could feel how much he wanted to feed Philip Marlowe’s cat. Otto Sander as Cassiel was all restraint and pent up emotions and the entire cast was full of faces. They weren’t shined up for filming. They were expressive and real.
In many ways, Damiel’s need to be human rings a bell. Like Damiel, we long for simple things; a crisp fall day, a good meal, a friend’s smile. Instead we get a close-up picture of a leaf on Instagram, a website full of recipes, and a former classmate’s wedding photo on facebook. Are we angels? Hardly. We do a lot more observing than joining in though so maybe making a list of things that make life worth living isn’t a bad idea. I’ll start. Hugging my daughter, scratching my dog’s head, eating a Macoun apple, singing a song, picking up rocks at the beach, drawing a picture…all do it for me. I smiled just making the list.