It’s a Wonderful Life begins with the introduction of angels, and so does Wings of Desire. But Wim Wenders’ 1988 film stays with the angels and keeps the focus on them.
Shot in gorgeous photography by Henri Alekan that’s in black and white most of the time, it’s in black and white from the angels’ point of view, and color the rest of the time. Wings of Desire is a gorgeous work about the human condition, as well as a snapshot of West Berlin, shortly before the Berlin Wall came down. It also uses the music of Nick Cave, far and away, the best that any movie ever has.
Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) are immortal angels, who have been watching Berlin for millennia. The film opens with a beautiful montage of them watching people in the city and hearing their thoughts.
Eventually, Damiel falls in love with a mortal trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and chooses to fall from his angelic status to experience love, food, and everything else that being human entails.
The main subplot has American actor Peter Falk playing himself, as an actor who comes to Berlin to make a movie about the Holocaust – and who turns out to be an ex-angel himself.
Wings of Desire debuted in U.S. theaters in May of 1988, 35 years ago this week, although it had premiered at Cannes the year before and opened in West Germany later in 1987. A new 4K edition recently arrived in the Criterion Collection, which called it “one of cinema’s loveliest city symphonies,” giving the film renewed attention of late, even as it was left out of the recent Sight and Sound 100.
Wenders made a sequel in the early 1990s called Faraway So Close. I’ve never seen the sequel, which went on to inspire the U2 song “Stay (Faraway, So Close),” the video of which Wenders directed.
City of Angels Remake
Then, a decade after the original, Wings of Desire received a U.S. remake called City of Angels, with Nicolas Cage as the angel, Meg Ryan as the human woman, and Dennis Franz standing in for Peter Falk.
City of Angels was an extremely loose remake, left out most of what made Wings of Desire special: no Berlin, no late ’80s setting, no black and white, no Nick Cave. While not bad exactly, it was more of a pure tragic romance, tagging on an extreme bummer of an ending. I remember two things about it primarily: It introduced the Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris,” and when I saw it on a date in Boston in 1998, a guy in the theater decided to start screaming about how “the only fallen angel is Lucifer!”
Last month, for some reason, Warner announced yet another Wings of Desire remake, also called City of Angels, but gender-flipped this time with a female angel.
At any rate, it’s hard to imagine any future remake coming close to the original Wings of Desire, one of the best international features of the 1980s.
Wings of Desire is streaming on HBO Max.