RetroReviews #44: Wings of Desire (1987)




Help, I want to like this movie, but I can’t!

That’s the honest reaction I had while screening Wings of Desire. The film has a wonderful concept of an immortal guardian angel falling in love with a human, it’s filmed beautifully in black and white, its lead actor, Bruno Ganz (who ironically went on to play Hitler!) is charming and believable as an angel, and its got some nice offbeat humorous content inserted into the movie – like Peter Falk playing an Humphrey Bogart American film actor (good casting!) working in Berlin and being annoyed by his surroundings. Overall, it has a lot of positive things going for it.

But I can’t like Wings of Desire. In fact, I had a hard time even tolerating it. In a bizarre twist of fate, this is the second movie I screened in a week that had the “unwatchable” factor making it extremely difficult to sit through. (the first was The Science of Sleep). On the plus side, the movie wasn’t annoying to the point where I wanted to choke the actors for continually changing languages in the middle of a scene (as I felt when I watched The Science of Sleep). However, my reaction was still one of perplexity and exasperation, especially while watching the scenes unfold with very little dialogue: little girl starring at middle aged man…. woman on trapeze… two men in a car discussing life… woman on trapeze… Peter Falk complaining in English about all the different hats he’s trying on…. woman on trapeze… a good 45 minutes went by, and I was unaware what the plot of this movie was about, or even that Bruno Ganz was supposed to be an angel (even though the start of the movie briefly showed an outline of wings on him as he watched the city on the ledge of a building).

Wings of Desire is an artsy-fartsy movie. The purpose of film isn’t to tell a story, it’s to set a mood and show the audience just how “artsy” the movie is with its stylistic choices. The dialogue is meant to be poetry. The cinematography is meant to inspire awe than establish a scene or characters. The direction is meant to explore philosophical ideas, not to tell a narrative story. In short, its made for stuffy high-brow critics who like to discuss the meaning of so-and-so symbolic thing in a movie showing at the Cannes Film Festival. The typical person watching this film at home will have a hard time getting through it, as it spends most of its time going nowhere.

I appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do, but I cannot appreciate their movie. After trying to watch Wings of Desire, I couldn’t take anything away from the film aside from the film crew telling me “look how beautifully this movie is shot and the depth we’re trying to show you about human nature and German society”. It actually left me dreading the fact that the movie had an English-language American remake called City of Angels. I realized that if the American remake is anything like Wings of Desire, I wouldn’t be able to connect with the film, and I was not looking forward to another two hours of a movie being “artsy”.

Like the sad little guardian angel in the movie, Wings of Desire loves telling is story dearly. But the problem is we don’t love it back. You may be artsy but you’re just not engaging.

** out of ****


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