Wings of Desire (1987)

When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? … Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? … 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 in Wings of Desire

The Criterion Collection has just polished up Wings of Desire — my favorite film — and presented it in a package that it would be difficult to improve. You can read about this extravagant package here.

As I revisit moment after beautiful moment, I’m moved to ponder how cinema has taught me to look closer at the world around me. I’m reminded that this movie helped me become a better moviegoer… and a better human being.

I’m also reminded of so many previous experiences of this film. For example:

In early 2002, my wife and I had some friends over late one night to have large bowls of ice cream with chocolate syrup. We also fixed strong coffee, and found ourselves pouring the coffee over the ice cream, just to do something a little different. While we ate, we watched Wings of Desire.

It was February, five months after the terrorists taught Americans what hatred can accomplish, what kind of fear so many people in the world suffer every day.

Watching this vision of a persecuted Berlin, we savored the ice cream, talked about the beauty of Wenders’ black-and-white composition, and enjoyed each others’ company. I felt my spirit more uplifted and rejuvenated than I had since before the attacks.

Director Wim Wenders and the screenwriter Peter Handke (a German playwright, novelist, and poet) have given the world a gift with this film. He carries us down into a divided society—the film was made before the Berlin Wall came down — and then he opens our eyes to such wonders that we’re drawn out of our current anxieties and taught to appreciate something we have forgotten — how to live with one foot fully in the moment, one foot firmly planted in eternity.

Longing. Longing for a wave of love that would stir in me. That’s what makes me clumsy. The absence of pleasure. Desire for love.

- Marion in Wings of Desire

I’ve watched friends of mine fall asleep during Wings of Desire. It’s something I’ve never understood. Yeah, it’s long. Sure, it’s slow-moving. Some people have no patience for a movie unless it’s all in color. And then there are those subtitles.

But Wings of Desire also offers pleasures and privileges viewers experience in very few other films. We get to see with the eyes of angels. That sounds very sentimental and sweet, but Wim Wenders takes this very seriously. Angels are questioners, guardians, messengers, soldiers. They are agents on important missions, invisible to people but busy working right there in the world. Through their eyes we observe people when they don’t know they’re being watched.

I don’t mean to imply the film is about voyeurism. It’s not. Voyeurism suggests that the one is indulging inappropriately in something that should remain private, the thrill enhanced by one’s secrecy, without any care to become involved in what is going on. These angels do not look at others out of self-interest. Nor do they behave with mischievous motives, like the heroine of Amelie, or the meddling agents in “Touched by an Angel.” These angels, like Biblical angels, are assigned to “bear witness.” And they long to understand what they are witnessing. Loving God, they look with love upon the people around them, and that means they also are pained by what they see. And occasionally, with what powers they are allowed, they attempt to guide people like you and me to remember evidences of God, evidences of meaning and delight.

Remember (if you’re like me, you can’t) being a child. You were small and went largely unnoticed by the grownups rushing around you. You had a somewhat insulated world; you could pretend you were invisible, investigating your surroundings incognito. You could listen to grownups talking to each other or themselves, while they were either oblivious or foolishly convinced that you were too young to understand what they were talking about (when you probably understood some things even better than they.)

That is the way the central characters of Wings of Desire see.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sanders) are two angels that have been chronicling moments of grace and miracle on earth since time began. They seem to have a particular geographical assignment, as they can recall details that have taken place in one particular area, the area next to the Berlin Wall. They wander the streets invisible in long black overcoats, listening in on people’s thoughts as they rush to and fro.

The movie’s leisurely, telepathic stroll takes us out of our pell-mell experience of life and all its worries, and it restores to us the balanced view of each moment, reacquainting us with the childlike joy of physical sensation and the holy contemplation of meaning in each tactile detail. When the philosophical friends in Waking Life discuss how the movies can capture life’s “holy moments”, these are just the kind of moments they’re describing.

Children play word games, but one stands off to the side, lonely and worried. A crazed woman on a bicycle charges forward without a destination, murmuring, “At last mad, at last redeemed.” A man on the subway stares down into his hands, having lost everything, despairing. A man injured in a car accident is fraught with panic and worry until Damiel places a hand on his shoulder and guides his thoughts back through his life to all of the wonderful things he has seen and experienced.

By attending to a person’s thoughts the way doctors listen with stethoscopes to a patient’s heart, Damiel and Cassiel learn about their fears and wounds, their curiosities and questions. They see life and history through the eyes of old men, and then again through the eyes of children.

One old man—the credits call him “Homer”—is a philosopher and perhaps an author. He can hardly walk, no one stops to notice him, but his thoughts are so profound that the angels are drawn to him. He labors up the stairs of the library, the angels’ favorite hangout, and sits down before a 3-d model of the solar system. As he watches the globes in orbit, he thinks back to days when people gathered around to hear him tell stories. Now, people ignore the storyteller, go on their own way, encountering things in isolation, and one does not speak with other. Homer is lonely and deeply saddened, but wide awake, ready to share his wisdom if only someone will listen. He shakes his head: “When mankind loses its storyteller, it will have lost its childhood.”

These thoughts burden the angels, as they do not understand loss. But neither do they know the thrill of choice, of decision, of physical sensation. Wenders represents this ignorance by showing us the world through the angels’ eyes in black and white, and the world through human beings’ eyes in vibrant color.

Damiel is the optimistic angel, but he’s also more impulsive. Tired of merely chronicling God’s grace through the centuries, he vows: “I’ll conquer a history for myself … if only to hold one apple in my hand.”

Truth is, Damiel desires more than to hold an apple.

There is a woman, a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a traveling circus, who captures his attention. But this infatuation is more than most you’ll see in onscreen romances. Damiel is truly moved by her entire person: her innermost thoughts, doubts, struggles, and courage. But it’s not merely platonic appeal: she’s a beauty, no doubt about it. As she changes her costume, the line of her bare shoulder that brings all of his desire to a painful focus. Perhaps the most powerful draw of all is that she instinctively phrases her thoughts as though talking to someone invisible, as though she sense he is there. Damiel winces when she looks right through him and thinks, “I often think in a wrong way because I think as if I were talking to someone else.”

Damiel is edging to a decision that will break up his partnership with Cassiel. That is emphasized by just how different the two angels are. Damiel’s tendency is toward awe and delight, while Cassiel tends to be impatient, preoccupied with suffering. Damiel is always drawn to children, but Cassiel keeps his distance. At the circus, Damiel is wide-eyed, engaged, transfixed by the drama and the grace of physicality, unable to take his eyes off the lady hanging from the trapeze. Cassiel would rather sit next to the Middle Eastern woman in the Laundromat and sigh heavily while the spin cycle turns.

These two ways of looking at life seem to be Wenders’ chief concern.

Those who focus on themselves seem to spiral downward and inward, while those who look about in expectation of blessing are lifted up and thrilled. While Damiel and Cassiel take a time out to compare notes, they happen to be seated inside a car that’s on display in a showroom. Two customers approach the car and discuss it. It’s an incidental moment, but their differing responses to the car are worth noting: One thinks about the exhilaration of driving with the top down. The other remarks, “It looks like a pimp’s jalopy!” One perceives possibility and joy, the other’s pride and cynicism could ruin that possibility.

As I follow Damiel in his quest to understand human experience, I am reminded of that annoying Corn Flakes advertising slogan: “Taste them again, for the first time.” That sums up what happens to me as I watch the movie: I am reawakened to the simple but rich pleasures of a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, of running and whistling, of picking out a good jacket, of having newspaper ink on your fingers. Strangely, I also come to value and appreciate life’s lows, as Damiel feels the ache of showing up too late to find the girl he wants to meet, as he learns the hard way about the color and taste of blood.

What a dear face! Interesting. What a nostril. A dramatic nostril. These people are extras. Extra people. Extras are so patient. They just sit. Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans.

- Peter Falk in Wings of Desire

Yes, it’s true that the movie takes us to a Nick Cave concert, and that itself is worth the price of admission. (Isn’t it good to know that guardian angels have such fantastic taste in music?)

But Wenders’ masterstroke is the casting of Peter Falk… as himself.

Falk is Falk, visiting Berlin to play a part in a thriller about Nazis. He becomes an almost ideal human being, savoring the moment… every moment of every day. Some seize the day out of a hedonist desire to consume life for themselves; Falk’s aggressive enthusiasm is portrayed instead as a sincere, childlike, joyful appreciation of everything. He pays close attention to details, like which hat to wear in the movie. And he has a sixth sense about angels, suspicious of moments when he’s being watched.

Falk’s character in this film has made me more aware of the powers and mysteries that surround me, provoked me to glance over my shoulder now and then.

The film culminates in a monologue that can seem ludicrous, overly melodramatic, and even off-putting.

But the more I watch this movie and become acquainted with the woman who delivers the speech, the more I realize why Wenders concludes the film this way. The woman speaking has, in a sense, met her guardian angel halfway. He is choosing to step into the world of experience to share it with her. But she is finally speaking out loud those things she has long kept inside — she is ignoring the passage of time to appreciate things from a higher perspective, to speak, if you will, with the tongues of angels.

Damiel smiles. She’s speaking the language he knows best.

The speech, and other portions of the film, will probably seem long and difficult the first time you watch it. But be patient. Don’t give up. Watch it, wait six months, and watch it again.

I have found Wings of Desire to pass the test of great art: it is better, richer, more revealing every time you visit it. It enthralls me, and it sends me back to my life a richer person, glad to be alive, looking about at the mundane and the everyday with new appreciation.

Tell me, muse, of the storyteller who has been thrust to the edge of the world, both an infant and an ancient, and through him reveal everyman. With time, those who listened to me became my readers. They no longer sit in a circle, bur rather sit apart. And one doesn’t know anything about the other. I’m an old man with a broken voice, but the tale still rises from the depths, and the mouth, slightly opened, repeats it as clearly, as powerfully. A liturgy for which no one needs to be initiated to the meaning of words and sentences.

- Homer the Storyteller in Wings of Desire

Wenders once wrote: “Film can reveal the invisible, but you must be willing to let it show.” In a 2002 interview, I asked him what he meant by that.

“One of the amazing achievements of films is that they can reveal something that you can’t actually see,” he said. “When I started out as a painter, I strictly believed in the visible, and that the visible was it. And in the course of making movies, I realized that something I hadn’t actually seen in front of my camera was then there in the movie.”

Such was the case when filming Wings of Desire. Wenders, who had wandered away from his Catholic upbringing, found that filming from the perspective of imaginary angels caused him to discover, and capture on film, wondrous things he had never planned.

“I never really thought that a film could deal with anything metaphysical,” he said. “When we finished it, I thought, How much help can I possibly get? It felt like I had almost made the film completely unconsciously, and that the angels that I had sort of ‘called’ had actually been there to help me.

“What I had taken for a metaphor had, sort of miraculously, materialized. So I came to terms with the fact that the invisible was powerfully working in movies. I don’t think you can consciously evoke that. At least, I didn’t.”

[This is a revision of a review published previously at LookingCloser.org, with additional material drawn from a survey of Wenders’ films published at Christianity Today.)

Director – Wim Wenders; writers – Wim Wenders and Peter Handke; director of photography – Henri Alekan; editor – Peter Przygodda; music – Jurgen Knieper; production designer – Heidi Ludi; producers – Wim Wenders and Anatole Dauman. Starring – Bruno Ganz (Damiel), Solveig Dommartin (Marion), Otto Sander (Cassiel), Curt Bois (Homer), Peter Falk (Peter Falk) Orion Classics. 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.
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