Perched on buildings high above Berlin, angels listen to the private thoughts of its citizens. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel are two such benevolent creatures, eavesdropping on the pains and fears of ordinary people. But when Damiel falls in love with beautiful trapeze artist Marion, he renounces his immortality and pounds the pavements with the mortals below. There to help him through this transition is Peter Falk, playing himself.
Wim Wenders's hypnotic city symphony is a melancholic elegy to a still divided Berlin, and marked the director's homecoming as his first German film following eight years in America. Inspired by the poems of Rilke and dedicated to Ozu, Truffaut, and »other fallen angels«, the film is shot in mesmeric black and white and colour by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan. Wings of Desire earned Wenders Best Director honours at Cannes in 1987.
»The last person to join the angelic ranks was Peter Falk. His part was a sort of comedy idea: he had to be some extremely famous figure, and you would gradually realize he was a former angel. At first I thought of painters, writers, and so on, even politicians, someone like Willy Brandt, but you couldn’t film with those people. And he had to be someone so famous that he’d be instantly recognized, and you’d say to yourself: 'Ah, so he’s an angel too…' In the end, I got around to thinking of actors, and then, by necessity, of American actors. They are the only world-famous actors. One evening I got Peter Falk on the telephone and told him this bewildering story of guardian angels, circuses, a trapeze artiste, and an American actor who charms his former colleagues. There was a pause, and then he asked me if I could send him a script. I said: 'No, I can’t. There’s nothing in writing about this ex-angel. I can’t even send you a single page: he’s just an idea.' He liked that; if I’d sent him a script, he might not have accepted. But since there was nothing to go on at all, he said: 'Ah, I’ve worked like that before, with Cassavetes, and honestly, I prefer working without a script.'«
- Wim Wenders, October 1987 (originally appeared in The Logic of Images, 1992)
»The film evokes a mood of reverie, elegy and meditation. It doesn’t rush headlong into plot, but has the patience of its angels. /…/ Like many directors who make films of greater length, Wenders is not a perfectionist. He will include what a perfectionist would leave out, because of intangible reasons that are more important to him than flawlessness. Consider, for example, the first time the trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) encounters Peter Falk at that coffee stand. Her performance is almost giddy; she seems like an actress pleased to meet a star she’s seen on TV, and the scene’s reality is broken by her vocal tone and body language. They both seem to be doing an ill-prepared improvisation. That may make it a 'bad' scene in terms of the movie’s narrow purposes, but does it have a life of its own? Yes, for the same reasons it’s flawed. Movies are moments of time, and that is a moment I am happy to have.
Wings of Desire is one of those films movie critics are accused of liking because it’s esoteric and difficult. 'Nothing happens but it takes two hours and there’s a lot of complex symbolism,' complains a Web-based critic named Peter van der Linden. In the fullness of time, perhaps he will return to it and see that astonishing things happen and that symbolism can only work by being apparent. For me, the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions. Some of them are asked in the film: 'Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?'«
- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
»A film about the Fall and the Wall, it’s full of astonishingly hypnotic images. /.../ Few films are so rich, so intriguing, or so ambitious.«
- Geoff Andrew, Time Out