Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin (a.k.a. Wings of Desire, if you like your titles a bit more on-the-nose, a.k.a. The Film That City Of Angels Is Just Barely Based On) is undoubtedly a beautiful film to look at. Its visuals are a love letter to Berlin as much as to black-and-white cinematography. It’s also a film containing many gems: the image of many, many angels hanging out at the library, watching over us; Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander sitting in a show car, comparing notes; their conversation about the history of the world; almost every scene that Ganz has with Peter Falk, and the conceit of Falk being an ex-angel himself. There are many quietly beautiful, poetic, even funny moments.
And yet, in spite of the accolades the film has garnered, even after two viewings I can’t shake the impression that it tries way too hard to be poetic, to be art. The worst offender is the poem that the film picks up again and again, Peter Handke’s “Lied vom Kindsein”, that interminable bit of pretentious doggerel that begins with “Als das Kind Kind war…”. Not only does it offer the appearance of depth rather than the real thing, Ganz also keeps falling into this childlike singsong, making it wholly insufferable. It’s a series of idealising clichés about the innocence of childhood that make me want to hunt down the poem’s titular child and send it off to boarding school.
What bothered me even more, though, is the trapeze artist that Bruno Ganz’ Damiel gives up his angelhood for. Her lines – both her thoughts and her dialogue late in the film with newly mortal Damiel – are painfully faux-deep, making me think that if I was Damiel and had just given up immortality for her, I’d feel pretty ticked off right now. That whole last dialogue seems to boil down to “The meaning of life lies entirely in man and woman having it off, and that’s what makes life, like, deep, man!”
I guess that’s my main problem: when the film doesn’t try its damnedest to be deep and poetic, it actually becomes these things. When it aims at depth, it comes off as an overly earnest transcript of one of those conversations first-year students have at 2pm in the morning after lots of cheap red wine. I also had these conversations, I enjoyed them, but there’s a difference between being young and drunk, as much on wine as on one’s sense of understanding of the world and all, and having to sit through them as an outside observer.
I’ll probably end up watching the film again, five years or so down the road, because there are so many people who love it dearly. Perhaps Der Himmel über Berlin just isn’t for me, at least not in its entirety, but I keep thinking there’s something I’ve missed. Or perhaps I missed the opportunity of seeing this film first when I was younger. “Als das Kind Kind war” and all that jazz…