Hollywood Flashback: Wenders' 'Wings of Desire' Soared at Cannes in 1987

AP PHOTO/GILBERT TOURTE
Solveig Dommartin and Bruno Ganz flank director Wim Wenders at Cannes.

Though the film did not win the Palme d'Or and had a "somewhat mixed" response from audiences, it played for more than a year after opening in the U.S: "It's one of those movies that has a long tail."

Wim Wenders did not win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1987 for Wings of Desire. Nor did he have the most famous quote to emerge that year from the festival. Those honors went to Maurice Pialat, who won the top prize for the French film Sous le Soleil de Satan (Under the Sun of Satan). When the director was given the award by Catherine Deneuve, the crowd booed. "If you can say you don’t like me," responded Pialat, "then I can say that I don’t like you either." (Why the film was so unpopular is difficult to pin down. Satan was a deadly serious look at a small-town priest, played by Gérard Depardieu, who gets involved with a murderess.)

But Wenders’ film has survived better as an art house favorite. "The response from audiences in Cannes was somewhat mixed," says Michael Barker, then co-president of Orion Classics. "But when it opened in America, it played for more than a year. It’s one of those movies that has a long tail. It is still a very popular movie." The Hollywood Reporter was so impressed by the business Wings of Desire was doing in Helsinki that it published an entire story on how it was outgrossing Rambo III and Good Morning, Vietnam. Wenders’ pic tells the romantic story of an angel named Damiel — portrayed by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz — who comes to Earth to experience what it means to be human, and features Peter Falk, who plays himself in a key role, a character billed as Der Filmstar. Wings of Desire was shot in black and white by Henri Alekan, the camera legend who lensed Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and was enticed at 78 to come out of retirement to work on the Wenders film.

When Wings of Desire opened in the U.S. in 1988, THR said it "soars with the grace of a filmmaker in complete command of his medium … a groundbreaking tour de force — an intoxicating blend of image, sound and language." And while Wenders didn’t get the Palme d’Or, he did receive the best director award. Ganz, who died Feb. 16 at 77, reappears at Cannes this year in one of his final movie roles, as a judge in A Hidden Life, the latest film from Terrence Malick, which screens in competition Sunday. It’s the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who was executed for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 19 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.