Wings of Desire

I’m ready
Ready for the laughing gas
I’m ready
Ready for what’s next
Ready to duck
Ready to dive
Ready to say
I’m glad to be alive
I’m ready
Ready for the push…

-U2, ‘Zoo Station’

Berlin on TV tonight  – the 20th-anniversary celebrations.  I made my own in the company of two magnificent works inspired by the city in the period just before and just after the Wall came down: U2’s Achtung Baby and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.

In October 1990, U2 travelled to Berlin’s Hansa Studios, located near a section of the Wall, seeking renewal and inspiration on the eve of German reunification, and at a moment of great personal turmoil for members of the band. From this emerged their greatest album, Achtung Baby:

‘Berlin became a conceptual backdrop for the record. The Berlin of the Thirties—decadent, sexual and dark—resonating against the Berlin of the Nineties—reborn, chaotic and optimistic…’
—Brian Eno, producer of Achtung Baby

The album’s opening track, ‘Zoo Station’  commands instant attention: with slashing guitar chords, distorted vocals and clattering industrial percussion, the lyrics capture a momemt of urgent desire and anticipation.

The album contains what for me is the greatest rock song, ‘One’; the lyric moves from personal pain and bitterness to the closing assertion of commitment to each other – despite our imperfections and our histories of  hurting each other it’s  one love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.  The song resonates with layers of meaning – from  wounded lovers, to two Germanies suspiciously uniting, and out to a wider common humanity.

We’re one, but we’re not the same.
Well, we hurt each other, then we do it again…
One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.

…When the child was a child, it didn’t know that it was a child, everything was soulful, and all souls were one.
Song of Childhood, by Peter Handke, from Wings of Desire

I’m ready/Ready to dive/Ready to say/I’m glad to be alive could be the epigraph for Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin), Wender’s hymn to life and self-actualization. It was filmed three years earlier, in a still-divided Berlin, and like Achtung Baby, it concerns the deeply personal whilst also resonating with the city and its history. It is Wim Wenders’ masterpiece,  a film that comes close to pure poetry. It seems to float and drift, soar and swoop into the lives of Berliners,  like its angel protagonists.

Though there is very little mention of the political situation in Berlin at the time, the division of the city is a constantly-recurring subtext. Wings of Desire is about a world divided, about the line between the spiritual and the physical, the fanciful and the practical: between the poetry of words and thought and the true poetry of life.

For Wenders, the initial inspiration for the film came from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the first of which opens with the line, ‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?’ In particular the Eighth Elegy provides an opening to the film, as these extracts suggest:

All other creatures look into the Open
with their whole eyes. But our eyes,
turned inward, are set all around it like snares,
trapping its way out to freedom.
We know what’s out there only from the animal’s
face; for we take even the youngest child,
turn him around and force him to look
At the past as formation, not that openness
so deep within an animal’s face […]

Not for a single day, no, never have we had
that pure space ahead of us, in which flowers
endlessly open. It is always World
and never Nowhere without No:
that pure, unguarded space we breathe,
always know, and never crave […]

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
Looking at everything and never from!
It floods us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and we decay.

Who’s turned us around like this,
so that whatever we do, we always have
the look of someone going away? Just as a man
on the last hill showing him his whole valley
one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers –
so we live, and are forever leaving.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is an angel hovering above the city of Berlin who can sense the thoughts – the fears, hopes, and dreams – of all the people living below. But when he falls in love with Marion, a beautiful trapeze artist, he is willing to give up his immortality to feel the full ‘weight’ of human experience, of life:

It’s great to live by the spirit, to testify day by day for eternity, only what’s spiritual in people’s minds. 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.” Now and now” and no longer “forever” and “for eternity.” To sit at an empty place at a card table and be greeted, even by a nod. … No, I don’t have to beget a child or plant a tree but it would be rather nice coming home after a long day to feed the cat, like Philip Marlowe, to have a fever and blackended fingers from the newspaper, to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck by an ear. To lie! Through one’s teeth. As you’re walking, to feel your bones moving along. At last to guess, instead of always knowing. To be able to say “ah” and “oh” and “hey” instead of “yes” and “amen.”

There is an excellent essay by Eric Mader-Lin which discusses the film’s themes in great depth.  Here, he explores how Wenders develops the contrast between the angels’ and the human perspective:

Wings of Desire generates its dramatic tension by exploiting the tension that holds between angels and humans, between the two overlapping realms in which they live. .. Besides which Wenders’ angelic realm doesn’t exactly conform to traditional ideas of angels. Beyond time and death, the angels here hover over Berlin and can move in and around it at will. This, so far, is familiar enough. They can enter any room or office and observe the people there, even overhearing the thoughts that run through their heads. (The viewer too can hear these thoughts as voiceovers.) We then learn that the angels have been preparing for this job since the beginning of time. The two angels we know as characters in this film have in fact been present over this same plot of ground since well before human history. At first they merely awaited the arrival of “the one created in our image,” i.e. man. Then, after the earliest humans arrived on the scene, their waiting took on a different character…

Having carefully watched human beings from the beginning, the angels in some ways understand us better than we understand ourselves. In particular they understand how we reach for what is spiritual, how we sense but can’t quite enter into the spiritual realm just beyond us. This understanding, however, doesn’t necessarily imply an intellectual superiority. Although their realm overlaps with ours, and although they can read our thoughts, there remains the barrier, a barrier experienced as such by both sides. As for us, we cannot see the angels, and we cannot normally converse with them. We may even doubt their existence. For their part, they cannot know what life really is for us, what it feels like. The coldness or warmth, the colour, the taste, the texture of things – these are completely alien to angels. Their world is in black and white, and they can never really touch things. Being that the angels transcend time, they cannot really know time either. They cannot know its human meaning. Intellectually they may know that man lives in the present, that man’s present is ever running out, ever dragging him toward death. They ‘know’ this, as a matter of fact, but they don’t know what it feels like to actually live within it.

The angels’ curiosity about the true lives of men leads to desire. Their lack of real life, of the tragic feel of life, eventually leads some of them to want to shake off their eternity and join man in his time-bound state. The desire of the angels to fall is Wenders’ brilliant twist. Not to fall like Lucifer, by a denial of God, but to fall through a need for human warmth, through a curiosity or empathy for human life. The angels, in their perfection, can fall in love with man, with his compelling imperfection. Wenders makes of this possibility a beautiful meditation on the worldly and the divine, on what it might mean to be mortal and immortal.

It’s through the dialogues of the two angels Damiel and Cassiel (played by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) that we learn of …their current task, their calling: to witness the development in man of ‘spirit’. Damiel and Cassiel watch over the lives of Berliners and keep note of what they see and hear. They must testify to man’s spiritual side, and so they must gather evidence of it.

One of the most telling dialogues as regards Damiel and Cassiel’s work takes place when the two of them meet to relay what each has recently witnessed. It is evident that the two occasionally make reports to each other of their individual observations, things they’ve seen and heard as they each wandered around Berlin. The two are seated in a car on display in a car dealer’s showroom. Cassiel first takes out a small notebook and begins giving the standard readings:

CASSIEL: Sunrise and 7:22 a.m. Sunset at 4:28 p.m. Moonrise at [….] Twenty years ago today a Soviet jet fighter crashed into the lake at Spandau. Fifty years ago there were the Olympic Games. Two-hundred years ago Blanchard flew over the city in a balloon.

DAMIEL: Like the fugitives the other day.

CASSIEL: And today, on the Lilienthaler Chaussee, a man, walking, slowed down, and looked over his shoulder into space. At post office 44, a man who wants to end it all today pasted rare stamps on his farewell letters, a different one on each. He spoke English with an American soldier – the first time since his schooldays – and fluently. A prisoner at Plotzenzee, just before ramming his head against the wall, said: ‘Now!’ At the Zoo U-Bahn station, instead of the station’s name, the conductor suddenly shouted: ‘Tierra del Fuego!’


CASSIEL: In the hills, an old man read the Odyssey to a child. And the young listener stopped blinking his eyes…. And what do you have to tell?

DAMIEL: A woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy who described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and the astonished teacher. A blind woman who groped for her watch, feeling my presence…. It’s great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people. But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Now! Now! and Now!’ And no longer say: ‘Since always’ and ‘Forever.’ To sit in the empty seat at a card table, and be greeted, if only by a nod…. Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence. Wrestling with one of them, we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretence only. We pretended to catch a fish. We pretended to be seated at the tables. And to drink and eat…. Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day, like Philip Marlowe, and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper…. To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to ‘suspect’, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Hey!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’.

This dialogue begins as a lyrical testimony to the ways in which man’s spirit must break through the pragmatic weight of everyday life. The train conductor who shouts “Tierra del Fuego!” and the man who sends his farewell letters each with a rare stamp from his collection are both in some way refusing to recognize the limits of mundane life. But by the dialogue’s end the focus has shifted in the other direction. Damiel’s yearning for the weight of the world brings him to make almost equally lyrical evocations of what he imagines human life to be like. “To have a fever…. Finally to ‘suspect’, instead of forever knowing all.”

Through the film wanders the old poet Homer who asks why no epic ballads have ever been written in tribute to peace:

The world seems to be sinking into dust, but I recount, as in the beginning, in my sing-song voice which sustains me, saved by the tale from present troubles and protected for the future. Finished with the sweeping over the centuries as in the past. Now I can think only day by day.  My heroes are no longer the warriors and kings but the things of peace, one equal to the other…But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure and that its story is hardly told? Must I give up now? If I do give up,then mankind will lose its storyteller. And once mankind loses its storyteller it will also lose its childhood.

But this is what Wenders has created in the film: a visual song celebrating everyday peace. Which is far from being entirely happy – there is suicide, death in a road traffic accident,  bills unpaid, drug addiction. But what the angels observe is the nobility of forging ahead, making your own personal story  – even if no author is ever going to write it down. It’s easy for the angels, they pass through everything unharmed; humans have the ability to touch and hurt and be hurt in turn.

Another significant character is that of the ‘fallen’ angel, who can sense the other angels around him:

I can’t see ya, but I know you’re here. I can feel it. I wish I could see your face. I have so much I want to tell you. I’m a friend. Compañero.

Played by Peter Falk in a superb cameo, this role also connects the film to history. Falk has flown into Berlin to make a movie about a private detective in the Second World War, and extras stand around on the set wearing Nazi uniforms and clothes marked with the Star of David. The past is always present in this city, and this is reinforced by old newsreel footage cut into the film.

It’s the first time that literature and film ever really married for me.  Wim made these long passages of literature work, and within the structure of something that actually talked about the time it was being made in. He made Wings of Desire just before the Berlin Wall came down. It’s like Easy Rider – it could only have been made at that moment.
– Dennis  Hopper

By the end of the film Damiel has made his decision to live life.  He says:

I’m going to enter the river.  Now or never, moment of the ford. But there is no other bank, there is only the river. Into the ford of time, the ford of death. We are not yet born, so let’s descend.  To look is not to look from on high, but at eye-level. First, I’ll take a bath. Then I’ll be shaved by a Turkish barber who will also massage me down to the fingertips. Then I’ll buy a newspaper and read it from the headlines to the horoscope. If someone stumbles over my legs, he’ll apologise.

Damiel searches the city for Marion. He wanders the no-man’s land, the dead zones bordering the  Wall. He discovers colour and the taste of coffee, finds out that blood has got a taste. Finally, in a bar, he finds her and the film concludes with Marion’s monologue, as lyrical and powerful as anything in cinema or literature:

It’s time to get serious…. I was often alone, but I never lived alone. When I was with someone I was often happy. But I also felt it’s all a matter of chance. These people are my parents, but it could have been others. Why was that brown-eyed boy my brother, and not the green-eyed boy on the opposite platform? The taxi driver’s daughter was my friend, but I could just as well have embraced a horse’s head. I was with a man. I was in love. But I could just as well have left him there, and continued on with the stranger who came toward us…. Look at me, or don’t. Give me your hand, or don’t. No, don’t give me your hand, and look the other way…. I think there’s a new moon tonight. No night is more peaceful. No blood will be shed in the whole city…. I never toyed with anyone. And yet, I never opened my eyes and thought: ‘This is it.’… It’s finally getting 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. I would have liked to be alone at last. Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it because today I am finally lonely. No more coincidence…. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if destiny exists, but decision does exist. Decide. Now we are the times. Not only the whole city, but the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are more than just two. We personify something. We are sitting in the People’s Plaza, and the whole plaza is filled with people, who all wish for what we wish for. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You’re holding 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 on the plaza. Last night I dreamt of a stranger. Of my man. Only with him could I be lonely. Open up to him. Completely open, completely for him. Welcome him completely into myself. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know it is you.

The screenplay was written by Peter Handke, Wenders’ collaborator on his first film, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, and features his poem, Song of Childhood, which recurs throughout the film:

When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

When the child was a child,
It was the time for 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?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people.
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

When the child was a child,
It choked on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding,
and on steamed cauliflower,
and eats all of those now, and not just because it has to.

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.
It had visualised a clear image of Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.

When the child was a child,
It played with enthusiasm,
and, now, has just as much excitement as then,
but only when it concerns its work.

When the child was a child,
It was enough for it to eat an apple, … bread,
And so it is even now.
When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
it had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so,
It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees
with an elation it still has today,
has a shyness in front of strangers,
and has that even now.
It awaited the first snow,
And waits that way even now.

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.

I love this film – it’s a stunning blend of sounds and images (take the library sequence, above, as testimony), shot in black and white and colour by Henri Alekan. It’s pure poetry, life-affirming , expressing a love of life and the human existence.

See also

2 thoughts on “Wings of Desire

  1. Thank you for enabling me to relive parts of this great film while I’m here at work. This is a film to watch whenever one wearies of life. It can turn the difficulties of existence into mere challenges, to be enjoyed as anything else.

  2. This is one of my favorite films, one of those I can watch over and over without becoming weary, one which picks me up when I’m down, and provokes reflection. Thanks for your blog.

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