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‘Wings of Desire’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 01, 1988

"Der Himmel Uber Berlin" (meaning "heaven over Berlin") seems a more appropriate title than the English "Wings of Desire" for Wim Wender's celestial tribute to life, love, Berlin, filmmaking, angels and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, among many things.

Seen through the (black-and-white) lens of veteran French cinematographer Henri Alekan and reflected in the gentle eyes of Wenders' star angel Bruno Ganz, "Wings" is a soaring vision that appeals to the senses and the spirit.

"Wings" perhaps makes the mistake of lingering over its one-note theme, but that note is so lovely, the error -- if it is such -- is minor. An intuitively composed fable of earthbound angels in the city of Berlin, "Wings" is closer to poetry and music than linear storytelling anyway: Your senses simply absorb the sounds and images -- although "Wings" is a healthy enough meal for the brain as well.

Damiel (the visually eloquent Ganz) is an angel assigned to the divided city (and Berlin is but one of countless dualities in Wenders' work). In partnership with angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), he observes, sympathizes with and consoles the human race. Though he is invisible to most, there are some intuitive beings who detect his presence, including Peter Falk who, with trademark aplomb, plays himself as a visiting actor appearing in a German war movie.

Damiel, Cassiel and a host of other angels, all dressed in long overcoats, the scarf tucked under the lapels, with their hair tied in ponytails, are all over town, following would-be suicides, bitter parents, accident victims, mothers in labor, Turkish immigrants on a drive. They know about the man who intends to kill himself today, sticking his rarest stamps on all his farewell letters, and the subway driver who mistakenly calls the zoo stop "Tierra del Fuego." A collective spirit of benevolence, the angels listen in without judgment and with pity. But they lack, Damiel realizes, the tactile.

In evocative language (courtesy of Wenders and cowriter Peter Handke), Damiel expresses a desire to unite his eternal spirituality with the mortal, the sensual; "to come home like Philip Marlowe and feed the cat," and "to be excited by a meal, the curve of a neck . . ." Which is where Marion (the graceful Solveig Dommartin) comes in. A trapeze artist at a French circus (named the Alekan, no doubt after the cinematographer) who wears pantomime wings and swings in the "heavens" above circus crowds, she seeks romantic solace for her deep-thinking spirit. Will Damiel forsake the eternal?

"Wings," like most Heaven-and-Earth movies, ties up its resolution with romantic ribbons but, in Wenders' eyes, such a conclusion is the crowning union of life's dual opposites, the sensual and the spiritual, German's East and West -- as well as its Nazi past and occupied and uncertain present . . . It's also one of the best endings you can hope for in a movie. And "Wings" is one of the best movies you can see.

"Wings of Desire" is in German and French with subtitles.

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