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Wings of Desire

Peter Falk presents "Wings" Director Wim Wenders
the Directors Guild of America Award

Review by Roger Ebert

The angels in "Wings of Desire" are not merely guardian angels, placed on Earth to look after human beings. They are witnesses, and they have been watching for a long time--since the beginning. Standing on a concrete river bank in Berlin, they recall that it took a long time before the primeval river found its bed. They remember the melting of the glaciers. They are a reflection of the solitude of God, who created everything and then had no one to witness what he had done; the role of the angels is to see.In Wim Wenders' film, they move invisibly through the divided city of Berlin, watching, listening, comparing notes. Often they stand on high places--the shoulder of a heroic statue, the tops of buildings--but sometimes they descend to comfort an accident victim, or to put a hand on the shoulder of a young man considering suicide. They cannot directly change events (the young man does kill himself), but perhaps they can suggest the possibility of hope, the intuition that we are not completely alone.

The film evokes a mood of reverie, elegy and meditation. It doesn't rush headlong into plot, but has the patience of its angels. It suggests what it would be like to see everything but not participate in it. We follow two angels: Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). They listen to the thoughts of an old Holocaust victim, and of parents worried about their son, and of the passengers on trams and the people in the streets; it's like turning the dial and hearing snatches of many radio programs. They make notes about the hooker who hopes to earn enough money to go south, and the circus aerialist who fears that she will fall, because it is the night of the full moon.

You're seduced into the spell of this movie, made in 1987 by Wenders, who collaborated on the screenplay with the German playwright Peter Handke. It moves slowly, but you don't grow impatient, because there is no plot to speak of, and so you don't fret that it should move to its next predictable stage. It is about being, not doing. And then it falls into the world of doing, when the angel Damiel decides that he must become human.

He falls in love with the trapeze artist. He goes night after night to the shabby little circus where she performs above the center ring. He is touched by her doubts and vulnerability. He talks with Cassiel, the other angel, about how it would feel to feel: to be able to feed a cat, or get ink from a newspaper on your fingers. He senses a certain sympathy from one of the humans he watches, an American movie actor (Peter Falk, playing himself). "I can't see you, but I know you're here," Falk tells him. How can Falk sense him? Sometimes children can see angels, but adults are supposed to have lost the facility.

Peter Falk and two young actors get direction from Wenders

"Wings of Desire" doesn't release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.

It is a beautiful film, photographed by the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who made the characters float weightlessly in Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" (the circus in the movie is named after him). When he shows the point of view of the angels, he shoots in a kind of blue-tinted monochrome. When he sees through human eyes, he shoots in color. His camera seems liberated from gravity; it floats over the city, or glides down the aisle of an airplane. It does not intrude; it observes. When the angel follows the trapeze artist into a rock club, it doesn't fall into faster cutting rhythms; it remains detached. The critic Bryant Frazer observes that Cassiel, the other angel, "leans against the wall and closes his eyes, and the stage lights cast three different shadows off his body, alternating and shifting position and color as though we're watching Cassiel's very essence fragmenting before our eyes."

Bruno Ganz has a good face for an angel. It is an ordinary, pleasant, open face, not improbably handsome. Like a creature who has been observing since the dawn of time, he doesn't react a lot. He has seen it all. Now he wants to feel. "I'm taking the plunge," his angel tells the other one. He will descend into time, disease, pain and death, because at the same time he can touch, smell and be a part of things. All that he desires is summed up in the early dawn at an outdoor coffee stand when Peter Falk tells him: "To smoke, and have coffee--and if you do it together, it's fantastic... "

Peter Falk: Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it's fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it's a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that's good, that feels good! There's so many good things! But you're not here - I'm here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. 'Cause I'm a friend.

Peter Falk: Compaņero!

In this scene, Peter Falk is not only the catalyst for Damiel's actually going through with his plan; Falk is also - in our eyes - the guarantor of the rightness of Damiel's plan. And this is what tips the balance for us, in favor of Damiel's becoming a mortal. Falk can do this because he has a special status for us: 1) he enjoys our confidence because we know him as Columbo and as the actor, Peter Falk; and 2) he is the only adult human being in the film who, in this scene at least, can sense the angelic presence we can see. Falk's wishing that Damiel were here becomes our wishing the same for Damiel. For the first time, we can feel, without reserve, that what Damiel is giving up to become a mortal is more than counterbalanced by what he will gain.

This scene also serves as the set-up for the film's magnificent pay-off: the scene at the outdoor set in which Damiel - now a man, wearing the sporty outfit he paid for by selling his armor - meets Peter Falk, face to face, and Falk's secret is disclosed for us as it is for Damiel:

Damiel: ...Time!
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Falk: Let me give you a few dollars. Just to tide you over.

Damiel: I have money!

Falk: Ah!
Damiel: I sold something.
Falk: The armor!
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Falk (off screen): Right?

Falk: What did you get for it?

Damiel: Two hundred marks.

Falk: You got robbed, but that happens. Let me tell you something. I'm going back now thirty years! New York City...

Falk (off screen): ...pawn shop, 23rd and Lex...

Falk: ...the guy gave me five hundred dollars.

Damiel: You were...

Falk: Yeah.

Damiel: You are...? You, too?

Falk: Oh yeah! There's lots of us.


Falk: ...You're not the only one!

This revelation - which comes progressively as the lines are exchanged, and Damiel's growing perplexity finally gives way to his (and our) catching on - not only explains why Peter Falk could sense Damiel's presence in the earlier Imbiss scene; it also confirms that we and Damiel were right to trust Falk's judgment, and that Damiel will never regret becoming a mortal, since Falk - thirty years after his own transformation - radiates fulfillment and well-being. Furthermore, Falk's "there's lots of us" helps to generalize Damiel's choice to such a degree that the viewer can play at imagining not only that Falk really is a former angel but also that the "us" might include people sitting in the movie theater, even oneself.

One of the functions of the former angel role is thus to assure us that in giving up an angelic existence in exchange for mortal life, far more is gained than is lost. In other words, the balance is tipped in favor of mortality.

What is Peter Falk Doing in Wings of Desire?

What Peter Falk is doing in Wings of Desire is counterbalancing with the charm of his plain language and manner,  with his irresistibly down-to-earth and street-wise voice, the elevated poetry of Peter Handke, just as the simple pleasures Falk represents in the film serve as a counterweight to the complex spirituality embodied by the characters whose lines were written by Handke.

The children in the streets call Falk "Columbo," and indeed Columbo, in his dirty raincoat, enters people's lives and stands around and observes and eventually asks questions. And the angels, who wear long black topcoats, do the same things, although their questions are not easily heard.

Wenders is an ambitious director who experiments with the ways in which a movie can be made. 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 we can be 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?"

Peter Falk's 'former angel' role is so central to the story and so essential for the balance of Wings of Desire, that it would be difficult to imagine the film without that part. Yet the role was not even conceived until quite late in the pre-production phase, when Wim Wenders met with Peter Handke at Salzburg in September 1986, only weeks before shooting was to begin.

And even at that point, when Wenders knew he needed someone who would be instantly recognized by anyone seeing the picture, the director thought at first that the part might be played by a musician, a painter, a writer, or a politician. He wanted in fact to interest Willy Brandt in playing the role, but gave up on that idea when it proved difficult even to get in touch with the busy statesman.

Eventually, Wenders thought of using an actor, who would have to be American to be sufficiently world-famous for the part. He contacted one actor he thought would be right for the role, but who eventually declined because he felt he couldn't do the part, and Wenders was so appreciative of his honesty that he has preferred not to disclose the actor's identity.

When shooting began on October 20th, Wenders still had no idea as to who would be cast in the role of former angel. He told me that during those first weeks of shooting, he and his assistant, Claire Denis, returned repeatedly to the same question during their nightly planning sessions: did they or did they not need that character? He said that Claire Denis especially insisted that they needed it, and Wenders agreed but had run out of ideas. Finally, Claire Denis brought up Peter Falk's name one night and Wenders knew immediately that Falk was exactly the actor they needed for the role, since he was not only universally known through his televised Columbo series, but also radiated gentleness and generosity to such a degree that there would be an element of credibility in his playing the part of a former angel.

Wenders had admired Peter Falk in Cassavetes' films in the 1970's, and it was probably from Cassavetes that he obtained Falk's telephone number. He phoned one evening, introduced himself, told a little about the film and explained that he needed a former angel, to which Peter Falk replied after a pause: "How did you know?" When Falk asked whether a script could be sent, Wenders said that he had nothing at all in writing about this ex-angel, not even a single page. If anything, that apparently made the part even more interesting to Falk, who answered: "Ah, I've worked like that before with Cassavetes, and honestly I prefer working without a script."

Falk arrived in Berlin one Friday in November and he and Wenders spent the weekend together, developing the role on the basis of taped improvisations. All of Falk's scenes were shot the following week, and Falk returned to Los Angeles.

Some of the most salient aspects of his part in Wings of Desire stem from events which actually occurred in preparation for or during the shooting. For example, he said that the one problem he had with the film was choosing a hat, and that of course became the basis for the wonderful scene in which Peter Falk, observed by an amused Cassiel and Damiel in the bunker, tries on a series of hats while exchanging patter with the costume lady until he finds "the hat that fits the face."

Another unexpected addition to the film resulted from Wenders' noticing that Falk frequently made sketches of extras between takes.

Wenders asked him if it was all right to use that in the film, to which the actor replied: "Yeah, why not." This is the origin of the scenes in the bunker in which Falk sketches two extras: first the woman wearing a yellow star and subsequently the man who "has eyes like a raccoon".

The inner thoughts which we hear going through Peter Falk's mind in these and other scenes, were recorded in a sound studio in Los Angeles, with Wenders directing over a long-distance telephone line, months after those scenes were shot. Wenders had sent Falk some pages to use for these voice-overs, but they just didn't work. Instead of reading the prepared lines, Falk then said, "Let me close my eyes," after which he invented the material that would eventually be used in the sound track of the film. Almost all of his inner monologue was improvised by Peter Falk, including the memorable lines spoken as he sketches the woman with the yellow star:

Peter Falk (inner voice): I wonder if she's Jewish. What a dear face! Interesting, what a nostril, a dramatic nostril. These people are extras, extra people. Extras are so patient. They just sit.  Extras, these humans are extras, extra humans... Yellow star means death. Why did they pick yellow?  Sunflowers. Van Gogh killed himself. This drawing stinks.  So what?  No one sees it.  Some day you'll make a good drawing.  I hope, I hope, I hope.

Not all of Falk's improvisations make complete sense. For example, when we see him for the first time, seated in a plane flying over Berlin, he says in voice-over: "If Grandma was here, she'd say: "Spazieren... Go spazieren"!

Later in the film, when walking past the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, he again refers to his grandmother, saying in his inner thoughts "I wish you were here, Grandma!" As Wenders put it when discussing these wonderful though not always logical improvisations, "how a former angel can have a grandmother is a rather doubtful matter."