Revisiting Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Jan. 12 2010 10:01 AM

Earth Angel

Why everyone still loves Wings of Desire.

See a Magnum Photos gallery of winged things.

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For the Düsseldorf-born Wenders, a specialist in existential road movies (such as Paris, Texasand Kings of the Road), Wings was a sort of homecoming after eight years in the United States—a quest tale about wanting to be "tied to the earth," as Damiel puts it. The angel wants to live "not forever but now," to trade the unbearable lightness of being for the heft and dirt of the mortal coil. He rhapsodizes about being able to feel his own bones, to let the newspaper blacken his fingers, to "feed the cat like Philip Marlowe." (Or, perhaps, Columbo: Peter Falk has an extended cameo as an ex-angel.) Mostly, Damiel wants sex and love, and he concentrates his desire on Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lissome trapeze artist who (in an endearingly literal-minded touch)wears angel wings in her act. Before Damiel leaves behind forever for now—when he effectively resigns his post and joins the living, triggering a switch from black-and-white to dazzling color—Wings of Desire's imagery is appropriately eternal. Cinematographer Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946), used silent-movie-style superimpositions and a filter dating back to the 1930s—one he'd fashioned by hand out of his grandmother's stocking—to add pearly-gray textures to Wings' monochrome passages. These antique methods, coupled with occasional interpolations of documentary footage of postwar Berlin buried in rubble, result in an ultra-timely movie that, visually speaking, is not quite anchored in time.

Wings is catnip to cinephiles in part because it's simply gorgeous, and in part because its gorgeousness has a clearly defined film-historical lineage: The movie's ancestors include not only Beauty and the Beast but Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946). But Wings mayalso resonate with the film junkie because, as Michael Atkinson argues in an essay that accompanies the Criterion package, it can be read as a movie about moviegoing. When Damiel relinquishes the largely passive role of sympathetic observer and strides into the daylight of real life, he's a beacon to anyone who's ever suspected himself of spending too much time in the dark (or on the couch in front of the DVD player).And, like many a film critic, Damiel must overcome certain sartorial and grooming handicaps. In angel form, he's a professorial chap in overcoat and little samurai ponytail; once he falls to earth, he must cope with tacky thrift-store duds and the novelty of working sebaceous glands—though the newly dorkifiedcan still gain entry to the punk-cabaret club where Marion gyrates dreamily to Nick Cave performing "From Her to Eternity." One could argue that Wings' blind spot is in depicting a spiritual transformation oddly devoid of spiritual crisis. (It scarcely pricks Damiel's conscience that, in joining his human charges, he's also abandoning them.) But one could also argue that spiritual crises don't apply when opportunity comes knocking with Nick Cave tickets and a date with a hot trapeze artist.

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Like Damiel himself, Wings of Desire might be thought of as a beatific misfit: a pure-hearted charmer who gets to have his cake forever and eat it now. The movie is monochrome and colorful, bleak and comforting, existential yet sentimental, old-fashioned yet avant-garde, of impeccable pedigree yet somehow sui generis, cool and uncool. It gives you license to believe in angels that happily clip their own wings. And, perhaps best of all for those of us who suffer from some degree of thanatophobia, it makes an excellent case that life eternal is overrated.

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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