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Wings of Desire review – transcendent empathy in partitioned Berlin

Wim Wenders' beguiling romantic fantasy, now re-released and restored in 4K, follows two angels in search of human connection

As angels opine high above bisecting motorways and busy streets, we’re asked: “Isn’t life under the sun only a dream?” This is the lulling premise of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ romantic fantasy about love and loneliness in partitioned Berlin, now remastered in crisp 4K and re-released to coincide with its 35th anniversary. Starring Bruno Ganz as a kind-eyed angel and Solveig Dommartin as the ethereal-yet-human trapeze artist for whom he falls, the film remains as soothing and esoteric as it was upon release, suffused with a sweet lyricality and lightness of touch despite its heavily philosophical outlook.

Ganz and Otto Sander are Damiel and Cassiel, two trench-coated angels providing comfort to the dispossessed in gloomy Berlin three years before the fall of the Wall. The narrative flows forward in elegant, swooping long takes, the camera itself inhabiting a celestial grace. Like the two angels, we are observers to this monochromatic world, meeting many lonesome people throughout the city’s graffiti-strewn streets – including circus performer Marion and American actor Peter Falk, seemingly playing himself as on set for a Nazisploitation flick that will reckon with the “German soul.”

There’s a dreamy melancholy here that characterises many of Wenders’ works, particularly that of Paris, Texas; Bruno Ganz and Harry Dean Stanton’s faces both reflect a similar, heart-shattering empathy. With such kind eyes we can’t help but root for Damiel as he grows disillusioned with his angel role – one that seems to have become something closer to a prison warden – and decides to become mortal in order to find love, true love, at last.

Wings of Desire isn’t the first film to suggest that people can be lonely even while surrounded by a constant ebb and flow of nameless faces, but Wenders captures an unparalleled atmosphere of alienation among the ever-moving throng of life. It is profoundly earnest about the life-affirming and limitless possibilities of real love with another human – life bursts into colour when Damiel is rendered mortal, finally able to have his world set alight through his connection with Marion. “Mad at last,” he says, “but no longer alone!” The feel is elegant and literary: Wenders’ camera sweeps through libraries, close-ups show hands writing with impeccable penmanship, while the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is an obvious, inextricable influence. Many interpret the film, too, as a call for German reunification: the seismic emotional impact that occurs when two disparate groups reunite.

Remastering the film was difficult, as the colour and black-and-white sequences were captured on different film stocks that necessitated their own treatment methods. The transitions therefore required complex visual trickery, which play out on the big screen with discretion and imperceptibility. What’s more, the film’s music feels as fresh and startling as it did in 1987, combining the expected harp plucking with a cacophonic score of religious intensity, where choral incantations and restless voices chitter in the background. And that’s before you throw in the exhilarating scenes of an intimately lit Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert, where the post-punk gothic rock drawl of “The Carny” and “From Her To Eternity” follow the forlornly moody tones of Crime & the City Solution’s “Six Bells Chime.” Dommartin’s Marion is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Wendersland: a face among a cloud of golden curls, dancing to the club’s music in a melancholic reverie.

In A Beginner's Mind – Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine’s 2021 album whereby each track was inspired by a different film – the pair directly reference Wings of Desire in “Reach Out.” They sing: “I have a memory of a time and place where history resigned / Now in my reverie, for the guiding light that opened up my mind.” With their two voices intertwining in perfect harmony, the song’s lyrics succinctly encapsulate the entrancing simplicity of Wenders’ extraordinary film. Despite its sibylline script, the meaning can be boiled down to two simple facts: all life’s a circus, and the best thing we have as humans is our ability to love and be loved in return.

Wings of Desire is re-released in UK cinemas from 24 June as part of Kino Dreams, the first UK retrospective of Wim Wenders’ films in 15 years.

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