LIKE many other European filmmakers, West German director Wim Wenders has a strong affection for the United States and its busy movie industry. He worked here for several years on such movies as ``Hammett'' and ``Paris, Texas.'' Now he's returned to his German roots in a prizewinning film called ``Wings of Desire,'' starring Bruno Ganz and Peter Falk. At last year's Cannes Film Festival, it earned Mr. Wenders the ``best director'' award. It has just opened in the US to some of the strongest critical acclaim Wenders has received in a long while.
The movie's unusual hero is a guardian angel named Damiel, who spends his time invisibly roaming West Berlin and giving silent comfort to the people he encounters.
When Wenders visited New York recently, I asked him about the movie's offbeat subject. He said he's been fascinated by the idea of angels since childhood.
``I remember what I thought about angels as a kid,'' he began. ``I really believed in them, and my favorite prayer was about angels. It involved seven angels, every night, that were supposed to be around me - next to me, above and below, left and right, and everywhere.
``I also remember that, as a kid, I sort of felt pity for them,'' Wenders added. ``I thought, how boring this must be. I thought they had to sing all the time. And they'd be watching me. I felt they couldn't really have much fun!''
The angel in ``Wings of Desire'' isn't exactly bored. But he loves human beings so much that his secret ambition is to be one of them. His decision becomes final when he falls in love with a woman. This indicates the high value that filmmaker Wenders puts on romantic love - which he feels is treated much too negatively by most movies today.
``I had this in mind when I went to make this film,'' he reports. ``I was really sick and tired of a certain notion - that there's no future, that nothing works anymore between men and women - which we've been fed now for a long time. So in a way, I wanted to make a very positive love story, and very optimistic, to give a counterimage to a current one that I really think is totally unproductive.''
An optimistic view of life - and especially of love - is a key ingredient in ``Wings of Desire.'' In some of Wenders's earlier films, from ``The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick'' to ``The American Friend,'' his attitude was less positive. But this changed when he decided to give his last movie - the family drama ``Paris, Texas'' - an ending with upbeat, family-reunion elements. Wenders says he was inspired by the positive energy this decision gave him. ``I felt encouraged to try out this positive, optimistic energy,'' he says. ``So in a strange way, I adopted optimism almost like a method - with the most amazing result for myself and for my life. The method turned out to become much more than that. I really can say now that I'm one of the great optimists I know!
``So it wasn't a method anymore. It became something fundamental and structural. I can work with that, and I certainly do believe in it.''
Another mark of the positive energy in ``Wings of Desire'' is its strong element of humor. Much of this focuses on the American actor Peter Falk, who's best known for starring in the TV series ``Columbo'' and some of John Cassavetes's films. Falk appears to be playing himself in ``Wings of Desire'' - according to the plot, he's making a movie in Berlin, where he meets Damiel. But it turns out in the story that Falk is a former angel himself. Wenders chose him for this role because his movie and TV work is so well known throughout the world.
``I found Peter Falk by deduction,'' the filmmaker says. ``The part demanded somebody who'd be known to a lot of people, and would have an authority. You very soon find out that the persons known to everybody in the world are actors. Not so much artists, or painters - or politicians, who are certainly not former angels! People in China and in Iceland really have one thing in common, which is American movies and especially American TV series. So you realize you have to look among American actors for a former angel.
``I really liked `Columbo' very much,'' Wenders adds. ``He had this very human, very warm, friendly, and strange presence. That was the only thing I watched with my parents and my brother, and that we all liked really a lot. So I called [Falk] up. Luckily he had seen `Paris, Texas,' so he knew who I was. I said, `We're making a movie. We're shooting already. I have the part of a former angel....' And two weeks later, he was there!''
``Wings of Desire'' ends when Damiel and his new human friend declare their love for each other. It's the kind of moment that would begin most romantic stories, and ``Wings of Desire'' concludes with the words ``to be continued.''
``Now that I've started this love story, I think I'm going to go on,'' Wenders says. ``I think I'm going to try and define something really optimistic, or at least an optimistic view of what the future can become. Even though it might not seem so likely that it's going to be all that great, I think it's still more productive - and more interesting - to imagine it better.''
Wenders sees ``Wings of Desire'' as the start of a new phase in his career. In his English-language films, he says, he dealt with a kind of mood (restlessness) and subject matter (rootlessness) that had specifically American connotations for him. Now he feels he has exorcised his fascination with those issues, and wants to deal with characters who have (or sincerely want) strong relationships with particular places.
Yet, he points out, his Berlin-based production company is still called ``Road Movies,'' and he still loves to explore the endless possibilities in the wide world around him.
His next movie is already well under way: ``Till the End of the World,'' a science-fiction epic to be shot on five continents in 17 countries and 25 cities. Clearly, this is one filmmaker with ``wings of desire'' of his own.