Two men meet at a used-car dealership. They sit in an ‘84 Plymouth, turn the radio knobs back and forth, bounce a couple of times to test the shocks, and then decide to go with an Audi Quattro instead. It is only two-thirds of the way through the movie that I realize these two men are angels.
The Film: Wim Wenders’ 1987 New German masterpiece
The Potable: One bottle of 2014 Apothic Red winemaker’s blend
I sat down to watch this film with the understanding that it was, as they say, a doozy. A black-and-white German meditation on what it means to be human. A study of middle-class lives in divided, post-war Berlin. An examination of the link between man and the divine, and our lonely understanding of our own existence in a place and a time.
But I also knew that not all of it was black-and-white (spoiler: there’s less color than I was led to believe.This is not a 50/50, equal airtime deal like Pleasantville.) I knew this movie featured Nick Cave. I knew it featured Columbo, for God’s sake!
Right up front I will say that Nick Cave does not appear until the final five, maybe ten minutes. By then I was dying for some tunes, and the man didn’t disappoint. My biggest suggestion for director Wim Wenders? Maybe the angels could spend more time at concerts and less time in the library.
Columbo appears much sooner. Peter Falk plays himself, a man who once starred as TV’s favorite detective, but who is currently making a World War II documentary in a house with a troubling amount of exposed rebar. He is recognized by a trio of teens as Columbo, which was strange to me as a viewer, but not nearly as strange as the film’s ultimate insinuation that Columbo was, himself, an angel.
This reveal is played as something of a twist, but aside from that development there is no plot that I could follow. Angels loiter along rooftops, walk moodily down streets, pose by the Berlin Wall. I would say the entire movie is a 2-hour cigarette ad except nobody smokes.
Plot or no, there is one conceit consistent throughout. The angels are allowed to observe the city unnoticed, invisible to all except a few select children, presumably those who are most innocent and thus closer to God.
I am almost certain this caveat was only included in the script after shooting began. Wings of Desire features several long tracking shots meant to represent the angel’s point of view as he drifts among humans unnoticed. But more than once, these shots end with some dumb kid looking right at the camera, completely ruining the effect. Suggesting that “some” kids can sense the divine may be a clever way to keep from reshooting the whole scene, but it doesn’t hide the fact that this is lazy filmmaking used to cover up bad acting.
Columbo, inexplicably, can also see the angels, presumably because he also kept fucking up on set.
The acting isn’t all bad. Bruno Ganz stars as the titular Wings, and is really given the only plot point aside from the big Columbo surprise. Bruno decides, late in the film, that he wants to be human. He has observed for an eternity and now he wants to live, to feel. The first effect of this transformation seems to be on his hairline, which noticeably recedes.
Ganz plays the role with a charming mix of innocent boredom, appropriate for an otherworldly being who has lived both always and not at all. He sometimes looks at the camera, but he seems to do so with purpose, and not the way Columbo does.
Columbo, who consistently looks as though he’s just tripped over a power cord and looks up to see if the camera’s still working.
The film ends with the aforementioned Nick Cave show. Those expecting tracks from his latest album must remember that Wings of Desire was released in 1987. After the concert, our protagonist is confronted at a bar by his love interest. She takes his face in his hands, yells at him for a solid seven-and-a-half minutes, and the film fades as a title card reads “to be continued.”
I have no idea what she said to him, but I felt personally scolded for not having paid better attention.
Verdict: need to rewatch