Two years before the fall of the Wall, two angels yes, real angels, with wings and ponytails listen keenly to every wounded soul in Berlin. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) patrol the city’s streets, libraries, offices, homes. Their job is to “observe, collect, testify, preserve,” to offer the unseen hand of consolation to lonely old men, restless scholars, frustrated workers, angry wives. In Wim Wenders’ gorgeous, dead-serious fairy tale, chosen for the all-TIME Movies list, the Berliners’ voices rise like the choral symphony of a great city. All these creatures are angels, too, Damiel decides, but most important they are human. They can bleed and see colors. They can feel warmth and pain. Damiel hopes to enter their world, “if only to hold an apple in my hand.” He wants to say “Ah!” instead of “Amen” to create his own story in his own voice.
In their earlier work, Wenders (An American Friend) and novelist Peter Handke (The Left-Handed Woman) charted some pretty bleak terrain. In Wings of Desire, whose original title translates as Heaven Over Berlin, they boldly go where just about everyone has gone before, into the realm of romantic fantasy. You could say this film is It’s a Wonderful Life as told by an angel tired of earning his wings. But it’s lots else: a fable about the common yearnings of people on both sides of any border, and about the search to reconcile wisdom with feeling, purity with experience. Who knows what Fate has in store? Nobody, for sure. And that is the risk held out, like an apple in Eden, by life, art and political dreams.
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