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Film: Wings of Desire (Cert. 12) (4k re-release)

18 November 2022

Stephen Brown rejoices at a film’s 4k restoration

Curzon Artificial Eye

A still from Wings of Desire

A still from Wings of Desire

WIM WENDERS’s Wings of Desire (Cert. 12) has received the 4k treatment, unavailable in 1987 technology. It compromised the makers’ intentions. Audiences watched images six generations removed from the original negative. Now we’re presented with a pin-sharp black-and-white world, as seen by its angels. The colour sequences indicate the more nuanced perceptions of human beings.

Reflecting God’s loving concern, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) watch over a Berlin split asunder by its Wall, erected by the communist GDR. The city’s divisions typify via the Fall and the Wall, the general state of the wider world. The original title, Der Himmel über Berlin (The Heavens over Berlin), suggests God’s seeing all peoples only as one.

A variation on Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the film contrasts our limited perception with the perfection of angels. By always looking in rather than looking out at the bigger picture, we fall short. Meanwhile those watchers and holy ones move invisibly among us. Essentially non-interventionist, they nevertheless place reassuring hands on those suffering: passengers, anxious parents, a prostitute desperate to move on, and, pivotal to the film, Marion (Solveig Dommartin) a lissome trapeze artist beset by loneliness and self-doubt. She may don angel wings for her high-wire act, but, unlike our beatific observers, she risks fatality each night.

Damiel is fascinated. Rather than lament humanity’s limitations, he falls (note the word) in love with hers. Telling Cassiel, he decides to “take the plunge” into humankind’s messy world and know how it would feel to be able to feed a cat or to get ink from a newspaper on your fingers. Abandoning “Forever”, he desires “at last to guess instead of always knowing” what the future brings: to pose questions, as do the film’s other characters: “Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?” As Rilke once said, “Try to love the questions. . . Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

People are bidden to move from observation — valuable though that is — and engage with their world. Peter Falk (Columbo) plays a version of himself directing a film recalling Nazi horrors. We are haunted but not to be daunted by the memories.

Wenders, a former Roman Catholic, now Protestant, who made Pope Francis: A man of his word (Arts, 24 August 2018), reminds us that Homo sapiens has understandings of the mystery of time denied to other species. He meditates on the relationship of time present and time past to eternity.

Falk personifies this; for it emerges that he is a fallen angel, aware of Damiel and Cassiel where others aren’t. His fall, though, wasn’t through sinful rebellion, but a self-emptying of his ethereal powers, as is Damiel’s. Wings of Desire is a paean to incarnation not dissimilar from St Irenaeus’s insistence that God intends immature humanity to enter into the full stature of Christ, no matter how long that takes.

Streaming on Curzon, and available as a 4K Ultra HD Steelbook.

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