Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987)

by Michael S. Smith

22 September 2003


Epic of Peace

“Sunrise at 7:22, sunset at 4:28.” So the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) tells fellow angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) as they sit in a convertible roadster at a Berlin auto dealer. He continues, “Twenty years ago today, a Soviet jet fighter crashed in Spandau Lake. Fifty years ago, there were the Olympic Games. Two hundred years ago, Blanchard flew over the city in a balloon.” Cassiel then asks Damiel, “and what do you have to tell?” Damiel can only offer something far more mundane: “A passer-by, in the rain, folded her umbrella and was drenched.”

As this exchange suggests, Cassiel and Damiel are not stereotypical angels. They talk only about earthly matters and never refer to God. They don’t wear wings. They have long hair, which they tie neatly back in ponytails. They wear black trench coats and assemble in a library (the cavernous Staatsbibliothek). They neither guard humans nor intervene on their behalf. Forget the Archangel Michael with his sword; the raison d’être of these celestial beings is, as Cassiel says, to “assemble, testify, preserve.” The two meander from one end of Berlin to the other, along rooftops, in trains, on streets, eavesdropping (as they do in the film’s prolonged opening sequence) on the thoughts of diverse Berliners: a man carrying a baby, a pregnant woman, a painter, a man who thinks his girlfriend no longer loves him.

cover art

Wings of Desire (der Himmel über Berlin)

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander

(Road Movies Filmproduktion)
US DVD: 1 Jul 2003

Originally, Wim Wenders did not envision Wings of Desire as a film about angels. After eight years in the United States, where he made four films (including Paris, Texas [1984]), he decided to return to his native Germany to make a film about Berlin. In the highly episodic but minimally exegetic audio commentary on the DVD, Wenders recounts his personal quest, how he walked the streets hoping that the city would “suggest” a story. The skies offered something; they were the one element common to the diverse parts of the city (“Der Himmel über Berlin,” literally translated, means “The heavens over Berlin”). Then, with Rainer Marie Rilke’s poetry in his head, and finding numerous images of angels throughout the city’s landscape, Wenders brought something out of the skies, forging a meditation on Berlin’s history.

This haphazard process of developing the story carried over into filming. Wenders employed the skills of Peter Handke, who wrote much of the dialogue and the poetic voice-overs, and the celebrated cinematographer Henri Alekan, known most famously for his work in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1947). But Wenders had no “real” script. Rather, he directed the film extemporaneously, stringing together one image or incident after another. He imagined and then enlisted Peter Falk to play the unwritten part of a former angel and put Falk’s real-life idiosyncrasies—his indecisiveness about which hat to wear, his impulsive desire to draw—into the film.

In narrative terms, this impromptu approach works; Wings of Desire is less of a story, more of a visual poem. Like the angels, it accumulates Berlin’s past, present and future in fragments: images of water and land and at another point, documentary footage of the Nazi past. Back in the present, Cassiel follows an old man (Curt Bois) named Homer who charts one of Berlin’s struggles. The name is ironic; while the same as the famous Greek poet of war, this Homer dreams of an “epic of peace.” He looks for the Potsdamer Platz in an open field, but all he finds is the graffiti-covered Wall. Berlin, near the close of the Cold War, is a resolutely divided city, struggling with its place in space and time.

The city’s inhabitants feel this acute division and lack of a center. Damiel’s wanderings lead him to a small circus, where he meets Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist. Talented and lovely, Marion is also angst-ridden and profoundly lonely. She confines herself to her trailer after performances, dances alone to the live music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and drifts through the city, trying to fulfill her “desire for love, desire to love.” Yet she fails to connect with anyone.

Apparently, angels have similar existential problems. Being eternal, Damiel has neither a beginning nor an end, and therefore lacks definition. He wants the simple pleasures of a finite existence: to feed a cat, enjoy a meal, tell a lie, or even, as Cassiel tells him with a smirk, “enthuse for evil.” Damiel proclaims, “It’s great to live by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, only what’s spiritual in people’s mind. But sometimes I’m fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, I’d like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth. I’d like, at each step, each gust of wind, to be able to say ‘now’.”

Damiel is the heavenly equivalent of Marion’s circus performer: he’s a wanderer with no roots; he needs a “history of myself.” Most of all, he needs corporeal form. Wings of Desire is, partly, about physical being, about weight: the buildings, rivers, trains, passers-by, and roads provide a formidable sense of physicality. To underscore this, Wenders’ camera is constantly moving, from the sky to the earth, emphasizing gravity, and from side to side, providing a semblance of physical space and motion. Wenders is in love with the panning shot, but unfortunately he uses it far too much. In a film that takes a leisurely amount of time to tell its own story, the ceaselessly moving images become cumbersome.

Nevertheless, Damiel longs for physicality, and when he finally sheds his immortal existence, he bleeds, feels cold, runs into walls, and sees in color (most of the film is black and white because, as Wenders explains on the DVD, angels see the “essence of things”). When he finally meets Marion at a bar, she greets him with familiarity, espousing a poetic monologue about loneliness, necessity, and “man and woman” that resembles a parable about creation.

Most of all, their encounter underscores the film’s discreet notions about human freedom, which can be achieved, partly, by a reconciliation of opposites. In contrast to earlier musings about every individual being a state and everything having a border, the film finds freedom in Damiel and Marion’s deconstruction of the barriers that kept them apart: his incorporeal nature, her resistance to social interaction. Wings of Desire suggests that Cold War Germany needs to deconstruct it barriers as well. In the midst of urban decay, a burdensome history, and a divisive present, Wings of Desire is the most optimistic of films, finding freedom and potential in the quotidian privileges most of us take for granted.

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