Why everyone still loves Wings of Desire.
See a Magnum Photos gallery of winged things.
If you were pop-culturally sentient in the early 1990s—if, say, you opened a glossy magazine or two and had a passing acquaintance with MTV—then Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' tale of angels on the streets of pre-unification Berlin, may inspire déjà vu even on a first viewing. For the half-decade or so after the film opened stateside in the spring of 1988 (just 18 months before the fall of the wall), its descendent angels freely roamed the upper-middlebrow sectors of popular culture. Tony Kushner's AIDS-haunted stage epic Angels in America (1991-92) took inspiration from the movie's intermingling of celestial guardians and tormented, earthbound souls. R.E.M. won a "Breakthrough" MTV award for relocating a segment of Wings to a Texas traffic jam in its heavy-rotation "Everybody Hurts" video (1993). That same year, U2 one-upped "Everybody Hurts" by encapsulating the plot of Wings in the promo for "Stay" (off the soundtrack for Wings' lesser 1993 sequel, Faraway So Close!). No longer typecast as Precious Moments figurines, not yet conscripted as soldiers of the apocalypse, angels were briefly the sacred muses of Kurt Cobain (Nirvana's In Utero, 1993) and David Byrne (the single "Angels," 1994) and High Supermodel Era fashion photography: A winged Bruno Ganz on Potsdamer Platz in the twilight of the Soviet period could shape-shift into a winged Amber Valetta in Times Square on the eve of gentrification (Harper's Bazaar, 1993).
Given the film's ultra-voguish afterlife, not to mention its boldly sentimental premise and trapped-in-amber historical specificity, it's surprising how beautifully Wings of Desire holds up 20-plus years after its release (judging by Criterion's splendid new two-disc set). At once rarefied and accessible, with a singular visual style that's impossible to carbon-date, Wings has earned its place alongside the likes of The Seventh Sealand The 400 Blows in the Art House for Beginners canon: Its gate still swings wide for both the starry-eyed undergrad and the grizzled rep-house veteran.
Evergreen though it is, Wings had a sense of timing uncanny enough to seem preordained. Largely shot in and around the flattened, graffiti-covered no man's land just over the wall, the movie was a prescient backward glance at a city that would soon have all the world's eyes upon it. Invisible to mere mortals but able to overhear their every thought, the angels Damiel (Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) evoke the condition of marooned West Berlin itself: They are in their surroundings but not of them, part yet not part of a whole. Arriving in the still-early depths of the AIDS crisis, Wings also offered a solacing picture of a divine order that was palliative, not punitive. As the angels perform their subliminal ministrations—placing a comforting hand on an anxious commuter's shoulder, touching foreheads with an elderly library patron—they evoke kindly nurses doing rounds, with the fractured city as their sick ward. (Wings posits the Berlin State Library as the closest thing the always-on-duty angels have to a break room, where a gently cacophonous medley of overheard thoughts and composer Jürgen Knieper's lush string and choral arrangements crescendo in an ecstatic requiem.)