Wings of Desire (1987)

Directed by Wim Wenders


The angels of Wings of Desire are predominantly male and all white.  They see the world from above in black and white, they wear ponytails, they can listen to the thoughts of the people below, and they occasionally intervene but aren’t always successful.  The story follows two of them, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) as they mostly silently observe the world and occasionally interact with each other.  Damiel longs to become human, propelled by a fascination with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and a connection with actor Peter Falk, playing himself.

The story is about Damiel’s desire to become human, but it’s only 90 minutes into a two hour film that he actually does become human.  The majority of the film is about observing the human condition, at least as it’s presented within Berlin.  The angels listen in on the inner monologues of struggling, anxious, depressed, even dying souls.  They listen with compassion, and on a couple occasions they put a hand on the person’s shoulder, giving them a sudden relief from their own negative thinking.

In one scene, an angel convinces a man not to commit suicide, and in another he is unable to prevent a man from jumping to his death.  We don’t know the names of these characters or what has led them to this point, but we recognize a universal feeling to their perceived misery.  Everyone feels disconnected, even as we see that they all seem to feel the same way.

This presentation of the human condition is juxtaposed with a city literally divided by the Berlin Wall (this being two years before the wall was to come down).  The wall itself doesn’t show up as a looming figure until further into the film, but it comes into play when Damiel finally becomes human, as he makes the transformation within the no man’s land between East and West Berlin.

Once awake, so to speak, Damiel walks about a gray and grungy Berlin with a childlike sense of wonder.  Everything and everyone is beautiful.  Soon he will run into Peter Falk who before sensed Damiel’s invisible presence and again recognizes him when he shows up.  Peter Falk in this movie is the type of friend we should all have.  He is remarkably self-assured and giving.  He knows Damiel, he reveals, because he himself was once an angel.  It turns out there are many, many angels who have decided to forgo their own immortality and become human.

This suddenly reframes a moment earlier in the film in which Damiel and Cassiel remark how few angels there are.  The winged guardians of Wings of Desire are like the security team of a large theme park going through budget cuts.  They don’t see everything, only what is nearby.  They can’t save everyone, only the people they get to in time.  It’s a somber but somewhat optimistic view of the world, that there are people out there looking over us but not quite enough to watch over all of us.

And maybe that’s just because so many of them have grown tired of this life of observation and decided to become human, to embrace the joys and pains of real life.  As Damiel says, he wants to observe from eye level, not from above.  He wants to be amongst the people they watch over.  He wants to be one of them.

The movie is very poetic, not just in tone but also because each character’s inner monologue is its own poem.  Though these aren’t all poets or artists, they are surprisingly strong wordsmiths across the board.  Even as a character prepares to die (on two separate occasions) they speak with a detached melancholy that allows them to comment on the world in a fashion similar to the angels.

Then there are the words spoken by the trapeze artist, Marion, with whom Damiel falls in love.  In her inner monologues she repeats a poem to which she later returns and speaks aloud (directly into the camera) once Damiel visits her in person.  This is what she says to Damiel and to the camera:

“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.”

In the end, Damiel is happy having found Marion.  They never really meet in any conventional sense, just as he doesn’t meet Peter Falk.  Instead they already know each other once Damiel visits them.  His presence has been felt, and something deeper has drawn them together.

This could all be cheesy, and maybe it is, but it’s presented through a lens of such intense melancholy.  It’s partially the Berlin landscape (gray skies, graffiti) as well as the use of black and white to reflect the way the angels see the world, but it’s also in the tone of voice, the stoic expressions.  The angels are as separate from the world and the humans as they are from each other.

Peter Falk is a sort of angel himself, not just because he once was one but because he watches over and protects Damiel the way Damiel does for the humans.  Falk is an actor working on a World War II film, and like the Berlin Wall this is a depiction of one of the darker stains on Germany’s history.  Granted, the Berlin Wall was very much a present concern at the time of the film, but it’s presented as if with foresight, with director Wim Wenders understanding that not only is this a negative thing but that it won’t last forever.

These images, plus the entire tone of the film, help encourage the theme of separation and of self-inflicted pain.  We’re keeping ourselves separate from each other out of maybe a misguided sense of self-preservation.  Damiel finds his salvation by giving up immortality and accepting death as a part of life.

Up Next: Sideways (2004), You Can Count on Me (2000), Lone Star (1996)

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