When Columbo got his Wings

Peter Falk Wings of Desire

Of all his 100+ non-Columbo film and TV roles, Peter Falk’s appearance as himself in Wim Wenders’ 1987 fantasy romance motion picture Wings of Desire may count as the most unexpected and joyous of them all.

With this month marking the 35th anniversary of the film’s US release, Columbophile blog contributor Glenn Stewart shines a light on Peter’s involvement in the seminal cinematic masterpiece, what he brought to proceedings and how it may have helped get him back in the crumpled mac just a couple of years later.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, this is essential reading about one of Peter’s most intriguing and rewarding roles.

It’s been hailed as one of the best films of the 80s, one of the Top 1000 movies of all time, and one of the greatest 100 foreign language pictures ever made. It’s been described as a “quintessential arthouse film”, “a postmodern masterpiece”, “a singular cinema souvenir of a moment in culture and Western history”, and “a cinematic experience unequalled in its originality and beauty.”

The film is Wings of Desire, which this year celebrates the 35th anniversary of its American release in May 1988. And as unlikely as it might seem, Columbo – both Peter Falk and his iconic detective character – was integral to its success. But what in the world is Columbo doing in a largely black-and-white German-language film fantasy about invisible angels in Berlin at the end of the Cold War? 

To be clear, there is no crime-solving at the Berlin Wall, no “One more thing” (or “ich hätte nur eine Frage” auf Deutsch), no search for a pencil, no Peugeot, no hard-boiled eggs. Wings of Desire chronicles two eternal observer angels, Damiel and Cassiel, who watch over the city of Berlin, hearing the thoughts of its lonesome and isolated human souls, providing a palliative comfort of hope to the despairing.

As invisible witness to humanity without ever being able to experience being human, angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) decides to shed his immortality for corporal existence after observing a lonely trapeze artist and falling in love. Peter Falk appears as… himself, but notably, as an ex-angel himself. In the film, Falk has discarded his own immortality to become an actor – recognized and referred to as “Columbo” and “Lieutenant”. Wings of Desire plays with this intersection of Falk the person and Columbo the persona, capitalizing on the global recognition of each, as “Der Filmstar” helps Damiel through his transition.

Peter Falk Wings of Desire
Ex-angel Peter Falk meets wannabe ex-angel Damiel in Wings of Desire

Wim Wenders wrote and directed Wings of Desire, one of several acclaimed films of his career, noted for a mix of both narrative and documentary features. For the latter, he has been nominated for three Academy Awards, and won Best Director for Wings at 1987’s Cannes Film Festival. Wenders is not a hired hand – he is considered an auteur filmmaker of the “New German” wave of directors, with a unique and personal cinematic style and thematic focus for his pictures. 

On his inspiration for Wings of Desire, Wenders said: “As I walked around Berlin, I saw angels all over, as monuments or sculptures or reliefs in public places, more than in any other city. I was really looking for a story that could help me tell the city’s story. Eventually, my night reading being populated by angels, and the angels I photographed and encountered all over the city, led me to the realization that I wouldn’t find any better characters for my project. So I started to come up with a story that had guardian angels as protagonists.

“The more I thought about it, the more I thought I was crazy. But the idea opened so many possibilities to look into so many different lives, because these angels could be anywhere. They could cross the Wall. They could meet anybody and be perfect witnesses of life in Berlin. I finally had a point of view that was all-encompassing. Not that I really believed in angels, but I liked them as a metaphor.”

A perfect role for Peter Falk

Without a full-blown analysis of Wings of Desire, let’s just note that the film touches upon a number of possible themes identified by critics: love and loneliness, the progression and blessings of life, a celebration of humanity, idealization of childhood, and a call for German reunification. Certainly not for all tastes, the movie nonetheless has been able to strike a chord of melancholy reflection about life’s significance with many filmgoers. 

Falk has a relatively small but recurring appearance. As himself, he is an actor making a movie near the Berlin Wall about an American detective in WWII Germany, searching for a client’s brother’s missing son. This is barely established in Falk’s throwaway dialogue: “The brother’s dead, the family’s lost, find the kid.” The fiction of Falk interacting with fellow actors portraying Nazi officers allows Wenders to arouse the unpleasant memories of Germany’s past, an overt act by the director, who intended Wings of Desire to use the geography and history of Berlin to model the human experience. 

Peter Falk Wings of Desire
Peter Falk intuits Damiel’s presence

Roaming Berlin in his preparation for the detective role, the Falk character encounters Damiel and intuits the angel’s presence. This is the first hint that Falk may not be all that he appears. Wenders has described Falk’s role as being one who “seduces” the angel into crossing over to flesh-and-blood humanity. 

The Falk character speaks to the invisible Damiel (“I can’t see you but I know you’re here”) and offers his hand in friendship as a “companero”. Sensing Damiel’s desire for human existence, Falk describes some simple earthly pleasures – “there’s so many good things” – such as warming one’s hands, drawing, and “to smoke and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.” 

Falk’s role as conduit between angels and humans is now regarded as an essential element of Wenders’ narrative. And yet the character, and who would play it, were never considered part of the original story conception. 

Rarely a shoot was so much fun as those days with Peter Falk.

Wim Wenders

Said Wenders: “Peter’s part was never scripted and came as an afterthought. We were already shooting for two weeks, when my assistant Claire Denis and I were brooding again one night in front of our walls with photographs and scene ideas. I said to Claire: “Don’t you think these angels take themselves too seriously? Don’t you think we’re lacking some humor in this production?” She nodded.

“That night, we came up with the idea of an “ex-angel” who would have gone through the exact experience that Damiel was going through, a man with a “sixth sense” for any angel who’d be tempted to make the leap. And that night, we came to the conclusion that Peter Falk was the ideal cast. 

“We needed a figure who wouldn’t take themselves too seriously. We wanted someone known – we thought, wouldn’t it be great if it was somebody everyone would recognize? The idea of a former angel would be so much more thrilling if it was someone we all know,” he explained. “There was some tenderness in Peter Falk, and something very convincing, a friendliness and gentleness in his whole persona, and I figured it would translate into him being a former angel really well.”

Peter Falk Wim Wenders
Wenders and Falk revelled in one another’s company

The team-up was a joyous experience for Wenders, who recalled: “Rarely a shoot was so much fun as those days with Peter Falk. Everybody recognized him, of course. As soon as you stood in the street with him, people showed up from everywhere. Pizza bakers came running out of their pizzerias, their hands still full of flour! Buses stopped!

“I never saw anybody deal with his fame so generously and kindly. Peter Falk shook everybody’s hands, smiled at everybody, gave everybody an autograph, had everybody spell their funny German names, had his picture taken with everybody, no exception. And everybody walked away happily: “I met Columbo!” We really had found an ex-angel!”

I never saw anybody deal with his fame so generously and kindly.

Wim Wenders on Peter Falk

In the movie-within-the-movie, the search for truth by an American detective played by Peter Falk certainly evokes – purposely – his universally recognized television counterpart. Although Wenders commented on the warm and gentle nature of Peter Falk, the description could just as easily apply to his signature Columbo character. The director knew that the commingling of Peter Falk the person, Peter Falk the character, and the role and popularity of the fictional Columbo were all key to Wings of Desire’s success.

For his part, Falk enjoyed the experience as much as his director. “Columbo, everybody knew him – it was fantastic! The German people connect with that character, and maybe that’s why Wim even thought of it. I guess they have such an affection for that character, that he would be a good ex-angel.”

Falk’s function in the film

Wings of Desire’s 1986 production capitalizes on Columbo’s world-wide everyman appeal, even as the classic series run had petered out in 1978 and the revival was still over two years away. In the movie, teens passing Falk wonder if he’s the famous TV detective (“Isn’t that Columbo?” “Don’t think so… He wouldn’t be out here in this muck.”). Later, the trapeze artist who Damiel falls in love with meets Falk and addresses him, twice, as “Lieutenant”.  

Falk’s function, as a former angel, is to bridge two worlds, the spiritual and the physical. The value in giving up angelic existence for human existence must be convincing to both Damiel and the viewing audience. As critic/professor/short-film creator Richard Raskin notes: “Falk is also – in our eyes – the guarantor of the rightness of Damiel’s plan. And this is what tips the balance for us, in favor of Damiel’s becoming a mortal.

“Falk can do this because he has a special status for us. He enjoys our confidence because we know him as Columbo and as the actor, Peter Falk. For the first time, we can feel, without reserve, that what Damiel is giving up to become a mortal is more than counterbalanced by what he will gain… Damiel will never regret becoming a mortal, since Falk – 30 years after his own transformation – radiates fulfilment and well-being.”

Peter Falk Wings of Desire
Wenders’ directing style freed Falk from conventional acting shackles

On set, Falk’s acting style perfectly matched Wenders’ directorial style, which for Wings of Desire meant working without a script. “Peter understood exactly what he was supposed to do,” recounted Wenders. “The part wasn’t written. And that’s why he accepted the role. I got him on the phone in the middle of the night… Peter laughed for a while and said, ‘You are making a movie and you’re calling me to tell me that I should join you because there is an unwritten part? What is it?’ I said ‘An ex-angel.’ He laughed for another long while and then he said, ‘I’ll do it. I do my best work this way’.”   

Falk himself added: “There’s an eternal tension between freedom and order… That feeling is something that affects me all the time too, where you want to break out of the lines, but you have to be very wary. I love Wim. He’s wide open. He’s not anxious, not fearful. If something tickles or interests him, he’ll go for it. Real loose.”

Columbo viewers familiar with the stories of Falk’s on-set script changes and dialogue-tinkering will no doubt nod in recognition. Wenders’ wish to incorporate his star’s real personality into the film allowed for scenes created around Falk’s penchant for sketching, his search for the proper hat to wear in his detective role, and improvising the inner monologues of his ex-angel character. Falk truly inhabits the ex-spirit persona, which means that Columbo does too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Falk wandered away from the Wings of Desire film set one day, only to get lost and need Berlin police to fetch him to return to work. 

After its debut at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and subsequent European release, Wings of Desire won sufficient critical acclaim to tempt Orion Classics to act as its US distributor. The film opened nationwide in May 1989 – a move that both surprised and pleased Falk. “It never occurred to me that Wings of Desire would play in the US,” he said. “I was wrong, and thank the Lord for it. It not only played here, it was immensely successful. I can’t tell you how many people were affected and delighted by it.”

Peter Falk Wings of Desire
Right on, Pete. Right on…

The acclaim for the film and Falk’s contribution to it may have had an added bonus. Veteran Hollywood scribe Dominic Patten of Deadline firmly believes that it was “thanks in no small part to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire” that the Columbo revival was green-lit by ABC. Since last appearing in first-run U.S. television episodes on May 13, 1978 (The Conspirators), it would be almost 10 years until anyone in America would hear the name “Columbo” uttered again by any new screen characters. The resonance of the role had proved enduring, and, like an angel given a chance at another life, Columbo would return to the TV screen in 1989.

In Wings of Desire, Falk offers a final piece of advice to his angel counterpart that sounds as if it could have come directly from the lips of his most famous character. When Damiel claims “I want to know everything,” Falk simply replies: “You need to figure that out for yourself. That’s the fun of it.”

Glenn Stewart spent 25 years in the music radio business across the United States specializing in classic rock. For the past 15 years he has been working in History, English, Education Assessment, and writing Social Studies curriculum for the juvenile justice system. He has also taught “Issues In Media Industries” as adjunct faculty at a New England university. His favorite pre-1980 TV rewatchables are Columbo, Mission: Impossible, Batman, The Prisoner, and The Twilight Zone. You can access Glenn’s other Columbophile Blog contributions here.

Interview resources

My thanks to Glenn for another sterling contribution, and we’d be most interested to find out your views on Peter’s role in Wings of Desire. How aware were you of the film? And if you’ve seen it, how did you enjoy it and Peter’s contribution to its success? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Until next time, dear friends, may guardian angels watch over you and ensure that Columbo comes on the TV the moment you switch on…

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Peter Falk Wim Wenders 2002
You can’t fake happiness like this! Peter and Wim reunited in 2002
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