Even as he entered the postproduction phase for Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders wondered what he was doing. Two years earlier he had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Paris, Texas, a road movie scripted by the playwright Sam Shepard. But Wings of Desire had been a leap of intuition. After eight years in Los Angeles and New York, the German director had returned to Berlin in 1985. Although enamored with the American landscape, Wenders did not take well to American studios and feared that “the Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” So he set out to make a “homecoming movie,” full of bittersweet images of Berlin, that “island of a city” still haunted by World War II and its infamous Wall.
Then the wildest idea struck. Inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Wenders decided to make his main characters guardian angels, visible only to children. With an impressive team of collaborators—including the poet Peter Handke and the cinematographer Henri Alekan—he began to shoot scenes without a script. It was Handke who suggested that the story could hinge on the desire of the angels to become human—to trade their eternal tranquility for the taste, smell and touch of a gritty urban mortality. As usual, Wenders relied more on images than on words and narrative. The plot moves slowly: the director freely admits that he prefers some leisurely “sax and violins” to rapid-fire “sex and violence.” Early drafts of the film were virtually silent, as the angels quietly minister to the sad and fearful, all the while envying the very existence that has caused so many humans pain. Much of the dialogue was improvised. In the editing phase, Wenders added some “interior monologues” to convey characters’ thoughts, most of them written by Handke well after the scenes were shot. One of the most pivotal characters—played by the American Peter Falk—was not added to the story until virtually the last minute. The cinematography was splendid, but mostly a non-commercial black-and-white. The soundtrack was an eerie fusion—soaring violins and an ironic harp, piercing choral strains, a melancholy cello and accordion, and a cacophonic blend of human whispers. Wenders had always been drawn to rock music because it was the “one thing in Germany that had nothing to do with fascism,” and to make his point he turned to the defiant punk-blues of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as a backdrop for the climatic scenes. When Wings of Desire debuted at Cannes in 1987, Wenders thought he had made “a very mysterious, strange, art house movie.”
Love and the Wall
But to his surprise Wings of Desire almost immediately became his best-loved film and a critical favorite, prompting a sequel (Faraway, So Close) and a Hollywood remake (City of Angels). Nearly two decades later Wenders still receives letters from viewers who claim this esoteric tale changed their lives. Released in Germany as Der Himmel über Berlin (literally, Heaven over Berlin), the film was conceived as a nostalgic tribute to an aching city, but it evolved into something more—a meditation on the possibilities for love and hope.
Not everyone, of course, has fallen in love with the film. Some find it lethargic and self-conscious. For me, though, there is an elegiac, strange and inspiring beauty in these scenes—and something akin to the mystery of the Incarnation. The film hints at a divine love that is neither condescending nor self-glorifying; it also conveys the human longing after redemption and transcendence. Part of the complexity—and charm—of the film is that Wenders does not give viewers easy choices. We understand the angels’ desires, but do not necessarily root for them to become human. Their heavenly vision, captured in some vivid aerial shots, and their tenderness toward the suffering are signs of grace. The audience is reassured that Heaven surveys the human condition and is willing to intercede. Most viewers want redemption and release for the lonely characters in the Berlin high rises. On the other hand, by filling his angels with doubts, Wenders underscores humanity’s anxiety about the religious promises of eternity. When the two angels—Damiel and Cassiel—describe the tactile pleasures of human life as an escape from the ethereal monotony of their spiritual realm, it reminds us that love, joy and beauty can thrive in spite of—or even because of—brokenness and dread. After all, the characters must find love beneath the shadow of a Wall that no one, at least in 1986, assumed would come down soon.
The graffiti-splattered Berlin Wall also serves as a metaphor for the gulf between the temporal and the spiritual worlds. The tug-of-war between body and spirit continues throughout the film, often slyly and humorously. At the heart of it all is the love story of Damiel and Marion, a lonely young trapeze artist in a French circus show. Damiel is willing to forgo his wings to achieve the pleasure that he lacks in his spiritual realm. But in Marion’s mind it is the “absence of pleasure” in her earthly life that weighs her down. She takes to the trapeze because she wants to fly above her sadness. The angels look weary and slightly weathered in their drab trenchcoats, thick scarves and ponytails; however, Marion appears elegant, almost otherworldly in her faux wings and wind-tossed hair. Humans see the world in color; the angels see reality in black and white. But it is a gorgeous black and white, a luminous palette of grays shot by the eighty-year-old Alekan, best known for his work on Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. (Wenders called this 1946 French classic the “most beautiful black-and-white film ever made.”) During a visit to the library the angel Cassiel consoles an old man named Homer—a gentle, hunched man who evokes both the immanence of death and the undying voice of the ancient storyteller. Handke’s monologues are elevated and stylized, an effort to convey human aspirations for the eternal and the good. By contrast, we also hear the down-to-earth musings of Peter Falk, the actor best known for his disheveled detective on the Columbo TV series, a big hit in Germany. Falk appears as himself—an actor in town to make a war movie—and he provides some comic relief, at least until he delivers the film’s most telling line. In the end the Wall may still divide Berlin, but Wenders is still striving to transcend the division between body and spirit.
After a few false starts preparing for careers in medicine, art, and the priesthood, Wim Wenders settled into a job in the Düsseldorf office of United Artists. As a young director, he first won attention with The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick, an adaptation of a novel by Peter Handke. In 1977, at the age of 32, his work caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola, who lured him to the United States. Returning to Germany eight years later, Wenders began a long run as the leader of the European Film Academy, and today he and his wife divide their time between Berlin and Los Angeles. The recipient of an honorary doctorate in divinity from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, Wenders fills his works with religious overtones. As film historian Anton Kaes writes, all of Wenders’s movies “revolve around the power of the image, the difficulties of storytelling, and the vicissitudes of perception.” Wings of Desire is a “post-modern text” that “radicalizes tensions present in Wenders’s other films, between space and time, image and narration, aesthetics and ethics, history and identity, desire and action.”