Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire is a film of constant juxtapositions, between light and dark, mortal and immortal, old and new, inner thoughts and outward expressions. It is a film with angels, but not the sort one might picture. They do not sit in the clouds playing harps, nor do they protect and bless people in need of assistance. Quite the opposite, actually: their job is to "assemble, testify, preserve" reality, as one of the angels, Cassiel (Otto Sander)l, says. They can only observe and document like anthropologists studying a dead civilization, for while their subjects are very much alive they cannot interact with them, unseen by all save for children who will lose the ability as they grow older.
Is that a sign of a loss of heavenly purity, a visualization of "Let the children come unto me"? Probably, but it's also a reflection of the angels' own infancy. They existed before the Earth, yet their inability to connect to the world they document leaves them stunted, like a child able to process and retain information but incapable of applying it. Cassiel and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over Berlin, still separated by the Wall; every day they meet with notes of the most extraordinary things they saw that day, always some simple display of emotional freedom that stunned them (for example, Damiel marvels at a woman who closed her umbrella in a storm and allowed herself to get wet, Cassiel at a child who sat transfixed to his grandfather reading The Odyssey). They have seen it all, yet each day, in a single city, they see something that excites their child-like wonder.
Wenders reflects the dichotomy of the angels' existence with juxtapositions between sharp, static shots of Berlin's culturally significant landmarks (the Wall, the Berlin State Library) and soaring views of modenization (skyscrapers, graffiti). Even the music reflects this, with Jürgen Knieper's orchestral score rubbing up against the gothic post-punk of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. With these contrasts, he makes Berlin as much a character as any of the humans, and one of the reasons that Damiel so desperately pines to be human.
He resolves to shed his wings and become human upon observing Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist dressed as an angel in a failing circus. Her graceful acrobatics inspire more reverence in the angel than, judging from what we see, God, yet she is also hopelessly alone, a French woman trapped in Berlin forced to hamper her talents with silly costumes for crowds that never come. She has no friends, no lover, and she wiles away the time by dancing morosely to Nick Cave's more somber tunes. He understands her disconnect and marvels at her beauty, until he finally approaches his partner, whose drive to study the darker side of humanity traumatized him, causing a certain hostility with his decision.
A subplot of the film involves the actor Peter Falk, playing himself. He's come to Berlin to film a Nazi movie, and his presence causes a stir, one that seems less a script choice than the actual excitement of the actors (Dommartin is clearly so giddy in her scene with him that any other director would have done another take, yet somehow it works here). He cannot see Damiel but feels the angel's presence; so, he holds one-sided conversations with Damiel and reveals that he was once an angel who became human for all the reasons Damiel wishes to do the same. The kids on the set and in the streets call him Columbo, and suddenly I wonder if Falk was so convincing a detective because he spent millennia observing mankind. More than that, is acting the perfect profession for an angel who would renounce immortality to experience humanity, as it allows one to imbibe multiple personalities?
Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan (who also had a hand in crafting the floating beauty of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast) film the first two acts in sharp black and white, but they switch to color when Damiel becomes human, signifying the sharp contrast in perception between the two species(?). The angels see everything in black and white because theirs is a world filled with absolute good and evil, and they even though they envy the humans they simply cannot fathom the whole spectrum of opportunity of human existence. Wings of Desire is often a paean to the senses, be it the bitter sweetness and warmth of a cup of coffee or that almost exciting way that the blood from a minor wound flows slowly enough for it to oxygenate and turn bright red.
When the now-human Damiel meets Marion, she recognizes him as much as he does her. That is because we first identified them as kindred spirits, divided just as the equally German residents of Berlin: the dimensional wall between them is no different than the physical one that would crumble before the end of the decade. Wenders of course could not have conceived of just how imminent the Wall's fall was, but that doesn't diminish the symbolic power of the story. "There is no greater story than ours," says Marion, "that of a man and woman." She's right: for all the film's symbolism and multi-layered meaning, this is a love story, one of the finest of its kind ever told.