Movie Review – “Wings of Desire” (1987)

Meet the definition of an art house movie, “Wings of Desire.”

Set in 1980s Berlin, we follow two angels (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) who can only observe the world in black-and-white. They cannot be seen or heard, except by children, but they can hear everyone’s thoughts. These two spend their days listening to the many thoughts of the German people of loose, regret, anger and confusion, but not being able to do anything about what they listen to. One of these angels eventually falls in love with a trapeze artist and considers giving up his wings to be with her.

When I think of an art house film, it usually involves a high concept idea with an extremely low budget, while attempting to say something deep and meaningful that the filmmaker believes everyone will understand. The idea of angels observing, but not participating, one of the most depressing cities in the world during one of the most depressing times, while everything being shot in black-and-white until they find someone who enjoys life, and then everything bursts into vibrant color, makes this classic art house.

Does that make “Wings of Desire” a bad film? Not at all. It has more perspectives than any other film I can think of, as we walk around aimlessly through apartment complexes, listening to everyone’s inner monologue. Some are insightful, while others are depressing and over the top, but most of the time they come across as human – empathetic yet selfish. We try to understand the curves life throws at us and get the full picture, but we still only have this one life.

“Wings of Desire” tries to say about a thousand different things, but I feel that was its main point.

The angels say very little throughout the film, mostly because they’re not allowed to feel pain or joy. Which means the first half of “Wings of Desire” is almost nothing but inner monologues, which can get tiresome or laughable depending on how long it goes on. There’s one monologue where it is mostly this old man who had been through the Holocaust and seen the rise and fall of Berlin, and we see how much civilization and him have changed over the years. But then there are scenes where people are talking about their clothes or the weather and how it makes them feel. The longer these scenes go on, the more I lost interest.

There is also a fairly major role played by Peter Falk, playing himself, who is in Berlin to shoot something (it’s never said if it is for an episode of “Columbo” or a commercial), and the angels are fascinated with him and his insights. He finds extras throughout the set and draws them, though he admits that he doesn’t draw very well. His role is a nice change of pace, since he usually has something pleasant or uplifting to say, rather than the depressing thoughts nearly everyone else has to say.

Overall, I respect “Wings of Desire” more than I enjoy it. The idea of angels observing a rapidly decaying city and being unable to help save it is a fascinating idea and the film does everything it can with that in the most minimalistic way, but it felt like more than half the film was about hearing people complain about how much the world sucks which got grating fast. “Wings of Desire” is one movie everyone should check out to see an art house film done right, but also why art house films should be seen sparingly.

Final Grade: B-

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