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
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:
Falk: Let me give you a few dollars. Just to tide you over.
Damiel: I have money!
Damiel: I sold something.
Falk: The armor!
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...
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
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
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