Wings of Desire (1987)
Written by Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, & Richard Reitinger
Directed by Wim Wenders
In the late 1980s, the city of Berlin was divided, split down the center by the construction of the Berlin Wall by the Soviets in 1961. This wall served as a physical representation of the ideological rift that existed in the world during the Cold War. While Wings of Desire is not about this wall, it is ever-present in the background, a reminder that West Berlin was once part of a whole and in 1987 a fragment. Our first scene puts the audience above the city, through the eyes of the angel, that is the film’s protagonist. We see the complexity and beauty of this place through the perspective of one who loves it and the people dearly.
Damiel is an angel who invisibly watches the people of Berlin go about their lives. He has a deep love of humanity, and his charge is to observe and preserve the memory of these beings. He, his friend Cassiel, and countless other angels have existed since before this planet and before humans came into being. But there is some special about humans that have drawn these angels closer. During his observations, Damiel discovers a trapeze artist, Marion, who works for a struggling circus. Marion is heartbroken because her dreams were centered around the freedom of working the trapeze, flying through the air, unhindered by the ground below. It becomes evident to Damiel that he must renounce his angelic nature and become one of the humans so that he can be with Marion and truly experience life.
While these beings are called angels, Wenders does not intend them to be Judeo-Christian. He uses the symbolism of the wings seen in popular media, but neither God or the dogma of the Church come up throughout the picture. These are beings that exist in a humanist sphere; they admire humanity not for its perfection but for the beautiful imperfections, failures, and triumphs of the mundane. Wenders was brought up in the Church and has taken what was taught to him and reinterpreted it, transforming the guilt of sin into the pleasure of existence. There is much care to contrast Damiel enamored thoughts of humans with Cassiel’s exploration of decay and destruction. An elderly author named Homer wanders the city, followed by Cassiel, unable to discover his old neighborhood, the ravages of war and time erasing that place.
There is a strong throughline that ties angels to the idea of artists. One of the common places to congregate is in a massive public library. Cassiel has a deep interest in the turmoil of the writer Homer, who seeks to pen “an epic of peace” to reverse how much emphasis has been put on the importance of war. Peter Falk appears as himself, acting in a film about the Holocaust, and reveals that he too was an angel before choosing to walk among humans. Wings of Desire is dedicated to “all the former angels,” which include Ozu, Truffaut, and Tarkovsky, three of the great human-centered filmmakers of the 20th century. Wenders has said that the idea of the movie was inspired by a re-reading of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Permeating the film is the thought that those who chronicle the lives of humanity are performing the work of angels.
Like Wenders’ previous film Paris, Texas, the director is very comfortable letting his work move at its own pace. He’s not afraid to be stylistic but only in a way that elevates the characters and emotion of the picture. The cinematography and choice of how color is used in the film are intended to transform the everyday into something profoundly romantic and beautiful. The plot is so basic (a simple love story) yet is speaking volumes about so much that it is universal to life. There are few movies, so in love with humanity and unafraid to allow life to be everything along the spectrum of existence.