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'Wings of Desire' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 01, 1988

Eternal life is a great wait to bear. Consider the angels, as Wim Wenders has done in "Wings of Desire," an ingratiating West German "Heaven Can Wait" from a burned-out seraph's point of view.

This soaring, soul-searching film is set over Berlin, where the angst rises over the autobahn. And angels inhale it the way humans breathe smog.

Wenders explores their plight in his exalted fairy tale. Angeling is lofty but lonely work. It is a thankless occupation -- a billion years of sleepless nights, filled with human whining and existential dread. They can comfort souls, but they can't feel the wind on their wings or wiggle their toes. It's no wonder, then, that every once in a while, an angel defects.

"Instead of hovering, I'd like to feel some weight to me," says the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) to his colleague Cassiel (Otto Sander). Perched on the shoulder of Winged Victory, the invisible immortals contemplate mortality, Heaven and Earth, this and that, over a city divided between East and West.

"Wings" is an exploration of opposites, a debate right down to its structure, narrative or non. And like a feather dropped from a cloud, it floats this way and that till it catches the ground. And for the longest while, we fly with the angels, seeing Berlin through their color-blind eyes. They pick up random thoughts, individual voices -- a father worried over his teen-age son, a woman having a baby, commuters crabby over gridlock, a boy with no playmates.

Underneath its melancholia and mind-boggling, even bothersome metaphysics, it's the simplest (well, almost) story ever told -- angel meets girl, angel gets girl. From the cacophony, two distinct voices finally emerge. And the angels take them under their wings (actually they wear heavy flannel coats and ponytails). Damiel is smitten by the trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and Cassiel attaches himself to the old writer Homer (Curt Bois).

All, including the movie's director, are searching for their audiences and the story lines of their lives. Homer, troubled by memories of the war, no longer writes and has long since been forgotten by his readers. "Where are my heroes?" he asks. Perhaps Wenders sees him as an alter ego, looking for a plot much as the director did with his road films "Paris, Texas" and "Kings of the Road."

And it's only natural that Damiel would fall in love with Marion, who flies under the big top with her chicken feather wings. What spiritual joy she takes in her flight. Alas, Marion loses her audience when the circus folds, and she finds herself miserably unemployed. Though she can't see Damiel, Marion senses his presence and takes comfort from the brush of his invisible wings.

Misery loves company, but everyone is alone. Even the city is lonely, with its bisected center, families and philosophies divided by the Wall. It is a vision as chilly as it is ecclesiastical, and yet it seduces an angel. "It would be quite something to come home after a long day like Philip Marlowe, to feed the cat," says Damiel, who like so many immortals before him wants to become human "if only to hold an apple." He is a new wave Adam, and Wenders celebrates his Fall.

One day the angels, who usually spend most of their time listening to people think in the library, start hanging around a movie set. And though love is a contributing factor, it is not Marion but movie star Peter Falk who tempts Damiel. He tells Damiel about cigarettes and coffee (which gets them every time). Falk, who's in Germany to play a detective in a Nazi movie, is the center, the fulcrum, the perfect combination of material and spiritual, as it turns out.

They're fascinated by this ebullient fellow, who enjoys the fit of his hat, that woman's face, rubbing his hands together to warm them in the cold. He's got his audience and he knows his story. And he is having a good time, an easygoing American set against the German national personality, burdened with guilt and bred on bratwurst.

Falk is just plain folks, the Capra component of this twist on angel iconography. Isn't it a wonderful life, he seems to be saying to Damiel. But Wenders has taken all the cinematic seraphim and made them novel again. He and cowriter Peter Handke created a whimsical realm of myth and philosophical pretense, dense with imagery and sweetened by Ganz's performance.

Henri Alekan, the cinematographer of Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," brings a legendary look to the angels' monochromatic realm. The images, luminous, grand, eternal as the vault of heaven, are not simply black and white, but light and shadow. The mortals' vantage is garish as the Alekan Circus, named for the cinematographer himself. We're almost shocked by the gaudy look of mortality, but Damiel is enchanted. He invites us to celebrate the everyday.

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

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