WINGS OF DESIRE (Der Himmel über Berlin) A-
Germany France (127 mi) 1987 d: Wim Wenders
For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1929
When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me and not you? Why am I here and not there? When did time begin and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell only the illusion of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who am I, wasn’t before I was, and that sometime I, the one I am, no longer will be the one I am?
–—Damiel (Bruno Ganz)
One of the remarkable aspects of this film is that it was made “prior to” the fall of the Berlin Wall, which came two years after the film’s release, yet it also feels so relevant to the aftermath of 9/11, a time when turmoil, authoritarianism, and terrorism had such a significant impact in our lives and we were trying to “see” the world in a different light. For the Düsseldorf-born Wenders, a specialist in existential road movies like Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) Road Trilogy Pt. 3 (1976), this highly acclaimed fantasy love story was a sort of homecoming after eight years in the United States. Winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes, enter Wim Wenders and this film offering the aerial vantage point of two angels hovering over the city of West Berlin, Bruno Ganz as Damiel and Otto Sander as Cassiel, who existed before Berlin was even a city, before the presence of humans, men in dark overcoats and pony tails with no visible wings, yet they’re perched atop cathedrals, sitting on statues or on the ledges of skyscrapers high above the city, like gargoyles observing the citizenry below. Invisible to the naked eye, seen only through the innocence and naïveté of children, their presence sensed by the blind, they freely move about the city at will, eavesdropping on the inner thoughts of humans, but excluded from matters of the flesh or mortality, offering comfort, like a light touch on the shoulder or putting their arms around someone in need, though whatever grace they can offer is only momentary, as they can’t prevent fate from happening, as evidenced by a man intent on jumping off a roof to his death. Witness to the most tragic human events since the beginning of time, there is a meditative somberness and pervasive melancholy felt throughout, as death and misery is their constant companion, where they see and hear everything, perhaps the answer to silent prayers, as the angels lend a glimmer of hope where before there was only darkness, Motorcycle Accident--"Wings of Desire"-HQ with English subtitles YouTube (2:58). As they meet periodically and recall the events of the day, pointing out particularly elevated moments that stand out, according to Cassiel their job is to “observe, collect, testify, preserve,” where they are God’s witness to the events that transpire below.
As evidenced by the documentary style cinematography of Henri Alekan, who much earlier shot Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND HE BEAST (1946), this is an abstract travelogue of Berlin, a near plotless, highly stylized, avant-garde film that seems to meander through the voices of the living, as random thoughts race across the screen, from strangers populating an airplane to residents inside apartment buildings, even those sitting inside the same room, or passengers in cars or busses to passing trains, including pedestrians on the street, all given a collective stream-of-conscious voice that provides the internal poetry of the film. The movement of the camera seems to signify the constant movement of the two angels, from aerial shots on high, to the tops of tenement buildings, with a view of children playing in the courtyards below, where vast industrial landscapes reveal a wasteland of emptiness and unused space, traversed by the bearers and collectors of lost souls, a mentally anguishing job that has no beginning and no end, though as we see in their repeated visits to public libraries, there appear to be many more just like them, as there are others that show signs of recognition, while also hanging around after hours when only the cleaning crew is present. The ambitious scope of this film is highly unusual, where the length plays into a kind of testament of time, where the filmmaker establishes a unique rhythm that moves throughout the infinite scope of history, including images of bombs dropping in World War II as we watch the city burning while Nazi officers talk back and forth among themselves, where we also see Jews identified by the emblematic star, as Damiel reveals some of them stole food from the dogs in the camps. While expressed in a visually impressionistic mosaic, the film itself becomes an experiment in perception, more like a dreamlike reverie, given an equally eclectic musical design from Jürgen Knieper (some of which can be heard here: wings of desire soundtrack), the two angels meet every day to compare notes, where the largesse of history stands in stark contrast to the smaller more intimate moments of ordinary life, where they’ll pick out distinguishing fragments of humanity.
The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken, 1993
Perhaps it is a sign of Wenders’ discomfort with the class-determined particularities of everyday life that leads him to fantasize a heavenly perspective in Wings of Desire. Providing the angelic point of view, the camera descends; it does not observe its subjects as they see themselves, but rather as they are themselves subject to an extraterrestrial force. Wenders’ “symphony of a great city” is conducted from on high. His angels are caring but inescapably condescending. When he plies the angels’ perspective, he creates a well-imagined, even moving trope of a city battered by history, torn by politics, and guarded by fantastic figures, who see and hear everyone’s distress. In these sequences, his camera is more supple and sinuous than it has been, swooping from great heights, entering apartment rooms, wandering and drifting through the city, making divine cinema. But in the end, neither the city nor its inhabitants remain the central object of his gaze. The film is diverted by a quasi-mystical meditation on romantic love, constructed through the conceit of a male angel who desires to slip out of eternity, into time, sexuality, and domestic love.
As Damiel and Cassiel traverse the city, the ease of their friendship is apparent as they discuss being there for the creation of the earth, describing ancient events like they just happened yesterday, where they have literally seen and heard it all, where one might think they’d remain detached and aloof, yet they’re like spiritually advanced monks, sentient creatures themselves, perhaps best expressed by extraordinary feelings of empathy, where they are grief-stricken by a man haunted by the atrocious things witnessed during the war, or emotionally devastated when the man ultimately throws himself off a roof. To this end, Damiel has second thoughts about living an eternal existence, “Sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, I’d like to feel some weight to me, to end my eternity, and bind me to earth.” Their perception is expressed in black-and-white, but as they are constantly making intimate contact with the living, the screen quickly moves to color to identify their world, which distinguishes the angel’s reality from the human point of view, a change that occurs throughout the film, reminiscent of a similar tactic used in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946). However, as angels are privy to human thoughts, this leads to an additional shifting perception that occurs when their thoughts merge, as Damiel becomes fascinated with the dreams of a trapeze artist named Marion, none other than Solveig Dommartin, the film’s real discovery, a unique presence who happened to be the director’s girlfriend at the time, who seamlessly moves from French to English to German in the film, literally diminishing any need for established boundaries, becoming a living personification of a European ideal of merging cultures. While she soars above the ground as he does, even wearing a pair of feathery wings, she expresses her fears and desires, including a palpable fear of falling, while also lamenting her continued isolation, easily befriending or socializing with others, yet remaining uniquely alone. Damiel’s fascination with her can be seen at an underground dance club, Wings of Desire - Crime & The City Solution - Six Bells Chime YouTube (4:21), where her existential anguish is a key to understanding the film, confessing “I waited an eternity to hear a loving word.” Interspersed throughout the entire film is a recurring poem from co-writer Peter Handke that opens with the familiar refrain, “When the child was a child” from “Song of Childhood,” each time representing the exuberant curiosity of a young mind, introducing a theme on becoming, offering clever variations on that theme that runs throughout the picture.
Equally curious is the use of American actor Peter Falk, playing himself, famous at the time for his role as a deviously persistent detective in the long-running television show Columbo (1971 – 2003), where he’s humorously identified on several occasions, even by Marion, where Wenders uses the comedy to alter the seriousness of tone, adding levity to what amounts to a metaphysical experience. Falk is in rare form as an actor brought to Berlin for a historical return to the concentration camps of World War II, with extras standing around wearing Nazi uniforms and actors playing Jewish prisoners, adding old newsreel footage, resurrecting the ghosts of forgotten memories, showing a vivid connection with the present and the past, but also the clever use of a film within a film. Falk is mostly seen standing around waiting for his scenes, where he’s prone to taking long walks through a graffiti-laden industrial wasteland, where off to the side is food hut selling coffee. Falk surprises Damiel by being able to sense his presence, offering his hand in friendship, even though there’s no one there, yet assuredly adding, “I’m a friend. Compañero.” It’s the plain-speaking, folksy style of Falk that eventually compels Damiel to trade in his wings for mortality, describing how great it is to smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of coffee, or slap your hands together when they are cold. Once descended to earth, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever find his ethereal aerialist, especially after the circus disbands and moves on for the season, leaving each of them as disconnected souls in the heart of a thriving city. With the tug of romanticism in the air, and the suddenly upbeat spirits of Damiel who’s experiencing the joys of being alive, seeing colors for the first time, he initially runs into Falk on the set, sharing a revelatory moment, sending Damiel off on his own to discover his own adventures. Of all places, the two (Damiel and Marion) finally meet in the Berlin underground, listening to the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an Australian artist who lived in Berlin during the 80’s, both drifting to the bar, literally sensing the presence of one another as if they’ve known each other all their lives. At the time a divided city, the film is a meditation on Berlin’s past, present, and future, a dream of unification, made with a minimalist script, where it’s ultimately an atmospheric mood piece about experiencing a yearning for a deep-seeded connection with life and love, where the world takes on a magical and hypnotic allure, where life is literally an awakening. Marion has an exhilarating soliloquy at the end that feels like a mad rush of a dream just before one awakes.
Now it’s serious. At last it’s becoming serious. So I’ve grown older. Was I the only one who wasn’t serious? Is it our times that are not serious? I was never lonely neither when I was alone, nor with others. But I would have liked to be alone at last. Loneliness means I’m finally whole. Now I can say it as tonight, I’m at last alone. I must put an end to coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if there’s destiny but there’s a decision. Decide! We are now the times. Not only the whole town—the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. Now or never. You need me. You will need me. There’s no greater story than ours, that of man and woman. It will be a story of giants... invisible... transposable... a story of new ancestors. Look. My eyes. They are the picture of necessity, of the future of everyone in the place. Last night I dreamt of a stranger... of my man. Only with him could I be alone, open up to him, wholly open, wholly for him. Welcome him wholly into me. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know... it’s you.
With Claire Denis working for the final time as Wenders’ assistant director, the closing title reads, “Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujirō, François, and Andrei.” That would be Ozu, Truffaut, and Tarkovsky.