By Afra Nariman
Wings of Desire (1987)
Directed by: Wim Wenders
Stars: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Otto Sander
Two angels named Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (played by Otto Sander), hover over the streets of Berlin, observing people, as they have throughout history, and providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed, but never physically interacting with them. Damiel falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist named Marion (played by Solveig Dommartin), causing him to crave the experiences of life in the physical world. He finds out — with the help of Peter Falk (played by himself) — that it may be plausible for him to take human form.
In this deeply philosophical and reflective masterpiece by Wim Wenders, we are presented with a poetic illustration of existence and humanity, in terms of time, space and love. The film is utterly hypnotizing; it captivates you visually, audibly and opens your mind up to life’s incomparable possibilities. The very first moment of the film sets the stage, as it inspires in our minds, a phenomena of reflection and contemplation. We hear the first instillation of a poetic prose that returns numerous times throughout the film, each time evolving in its message:
“When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits.”
Ideas immediately begin percolating in our minds; memories of our childhood surface — not just memories of moments, but memories of feelings, thoughts and the overall essence of childhood all together. Childhood represents an innocence to existence, a time in our lives where labels didn’t matter, the world’s flaws, anxieties and sufferings are not yet apparent. Children dream; they don’t think themselves separate from the world. They do not think that the world has any limitations. Nothing seemed impossible when you were a child. Children just exist; they don’t have any predeterminations about the world that they live in. They can see the wonder, the hope and the beauty in all things — things that begin to seem mundane and ordinary as we grow older. We grow up and we label things, overthink, become hopeless, habitual and create preconceptions about everything around us. This broad sentiment — this reflective idea of childhood and the fleeting wonder that it provided — serves as the basis for Wings of Desire, and its existential exploration of the human experience, and all that it entails, in terms of space and time.
The story begins moments after the opening poetic monologue outlined above, as we see a view of the city of Berlin from above, from the point of view of an angel perched atop the highest structure in the skyline. This view of the city from the sky is a recurring shot throughout the film. The story follows two angelic spirits, who have spent much of history observing the people in Berlin, and providing ‘invisible rays of hope’ to the distressed and distraught people who need them — but they never physically interact with them. People cannot see them, as they are spirits and not of the physical realm; although it seems early on that children may be able to do so, or at the very least, are aware of their presence — supporting the sentiment of the opening monologue, in that children are able to notice and realize the wonder. Throughout the beginning parts of the film, we follow the two angels as they roam the city and observe the thoughts of the ailing population. We hear a lot of random thinking, related to the everyday, mundane events of life; people just thinking to think, worrying or wondering. From time to time, the angels step in and provide hope to those who need it.
The first instance of the film’s mantra returning with an evolved message comes early on. We hear:
“When the child was a child, it was the time of 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? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just an illusion of a world in front of the world? Does evil actually exist, and people who are really evil? How can it be that this ‘me’ that I am wasn’t ‘me’ before I existed, and that someday this ‘me’ that I am will no longer be ‘me’?”
Here, we are given a conception of the child as a philosopher, in that as children, our ability to notice the wonder, leads us to naturally be curious about the world around us, our existence and how the two are related. Whether or not you realize it, the inherent philosophical curiosities that arise in us as children, are slowly realized and solved as we grow older, as we come to grips with our existence in time and space; only, we often forget the curiosity that existed in us in childhood, and the wonder that came with it, as this evolution happens. When you grow older, all you think about is trivial things. You no longer wonder, you rarely dream, and most people are no longer curious. Those who remain embracing those qualities, are our philosophers, artists, thinkers and anyone who can still find joy and notice the wonder in life’s seemingly trivial moments.
The plot of the story becomes apparent during a conversation that the two angels have inside a parked showroom car, as they divulge their day’s observations to each other. In particular, one of them, Damiel, expresses his deep-rooted desire to experience life as a part of the physical world, as a human. His words illuminate the ideas expressed in the reflections of childhood. Damiel knows that if he were granted the opportunity to live the life of a human, he would not take the wonder of life for granted. He would approach life as a child does, and not dwell in the hopelessness that so many grown-ups are overwhelmed by. He expresses these thoughts:
“… Sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence… I’d rather feel a weight within casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth. At every step, a gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say, `Now’ … No longer, `forever’ and `eternity.’ To take the empty seat at a card game and be greeted by the others… to have a fever, or get your fingers black from the newspaper. To be excited not just by the mind, but by a meal…”
There is an inherent meaning to living a mortal life. When your time is limited and you have the incomparable opportunity to partake in all of human life, there is purpose in that. Even in the smallest things, that are overlooked by most, there is wonder. Damiel simply wants to experience what it is to be human.
The film goes on, and as he is drifting around the city yet again, he comes across Marion, a lonely trapeze artist who is performing in the traveling circus. He is immediately captivated by her beauty and talent. He listens to her thoughts; her self-expressions of loneliness and feelings of being lost. The scenes of Marion performing her act are simply enchanting. Although the film is primarily shot in black and white, a few of her scenes are elegantly transitioned into color, signifying the hope and wonder that surrounds her. Damiel, who has expressed how much he wished to partake in the human experience, soon experiences perhaps the most human thing of all — he falls in love.
While Damiel spends much of his time at the circus, observing Marion and listening in on her inner-existential thoughts, the other angel, Cassiel, follows an old man, who represents the great writer, Homer; who reflects on his life experiences, World War II in Nazi occupied Germany, the countless never-ending wars of humanity all together, his desire for there to be an enduring time of peace that overcomes the centuries of war, and his strong-held belief in the importance of storytelling. He reflects:
“What is it about peace that its inspiration is not enduring? Why is its story so hard to tell?”
So many stories are told of war, he “says,” but none of peace… What does that say about humanity?, we think. More so, he reflects on the overarching importance of storytelling in the realm of humanity.
“Once mankind loses its storyteller, it will also lose its childhood.”
As I mentioned, and the film conveys in many ways, as we grow older, we forget what it is to be a child, to be curious, to be in awe of life’s wonder — we all forget, except for the few: the philosophers, artists, and thinkers — the storytellers, who make stories so that we can still be reminded from time to time. In a couple very short-lived moments, the old man seems to be curiously and suspiciously aware of the angel’s presence (just barely), insinuating that perhaps in old age, a time of reflection, as we close in on the end of our lives, we may be able to revert back, at least partly, into the awareness of wonder that is inherent as a child; or perhaps, and more likely, it is due to the old man being a storyteller, that he never lost his capacity for noticing the wonder. In another moment of reflection, the old man thinks:
“Why doesn’t everyone see from earliest childhood, the passes, portals and crevices down on the earth and up in the sky? If everyone saw them, history would continue without killing and war.”
The history of humanity overwhelmingly includes violence, hate and war; but it is not the children, or even the thinkers and artists; but the grown ups who forgot about the world’s beauty and wonder, who are the perpetrators of this violence. The old man simply notes, that if more people were to be like children, to not forget what we inherently notice through the curiosity of childhood, then the world would be a much more peaceful place.
Both Damiel and Cassiel spend some of their time observing the set of a film in production, starring Peter Falk, who plays himself in a minor, yet very significant role in Wings of Desire. His words and his advice ultimately lead to Damiel’s realization that his dream of being human is in fact possible. The last segment of the film features Damiel’s transition into taking human form — into existing in the physical world — and with it, the rest of the film is presented in bright, vibrant color. Damiel takes pleasure in the most trivial human activities, taking none for granted, embracing each with a profound level of wonder and appreciation — as we all should. He bleeds, he drinks coffee, he greets strangers, he feels cold, he visits an antique shop, and of course, he pursues love — he pursues Marion. After taking human form, the mantra evolves again:
“When the child was a child, it lived on apples and bread, and that was enough, and it’s still that way…”
In other words, if we approach life just as we did as children, life doesn’t have to be as complicated and anxiety-inducing as many experience it as. There can be bliss and happiness in simplicity. The film could have ended here, with a powerful message that reverberates throughout the film’s entirety and is emphasized poetically in it’s potential end; but Wenders had one final message: Yes, noticing the wonder in every ordinary moment of life, taking each instance for its own rarity and beauty, is necessary, and should be enough — but to be human entails one more thing: love. Damiel realizes this when at first he cannot find Marion: something is missing for him. Love is ultimately a natural part of the human experience, and can many times prove to be amongst the most important. Marion expresses this sentiment by later saying to Damiel;
“Only my amazement at the two of us, my amazement at man and woman, has made me a human being.”
In each other, they find serenity. Love is the greatest story of life — and of the world — and ultimately, of existence. Life becomes serious as we grow older, resulting in many people forgetting what is most important. Our lives, and our perceptions of it, are the result of our experiences — many of which are due to chance — but in important moments, we have the ability to decide; to choose. The way we approach life in general, can sway our perception of life from distressed and overwhelmingly worrisome, to hopeful and happy.
The film makes you think about existence and your relationship with your own existence. Many philosophical discussions will arise in your mind after watching this film. It illustrates to us that by remembering what it is to be a child, we can achieve peace and alleviate our worrying minds, by bringing to light the wonder of life. The film also shows us the conversations that we have with ourselves every day, and how some are existential and some are just arbitrary, and plainly unimportant. Wings of Desire is about time and space, and about our minuscule place in it as individuals, and about how we can make the most of our lives.
The production of the film is amongst the best that I have watched. The enchanting music throughout the film, along with the couple of concert-scenes featuring Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, completely absorbs us into the story in every moment. The unique camera shots, highlighted by the shots from the sky, overlooking the city from the point of view of angels, creates a perspective viewing experience, that matches the film and its overarching messages. Additionally, the parts in which the film transitions from black and white, to vibrant color, is done so with dignified and elegant fluidity. Just as it expresses through story and message, the production of the film makes the mundane and normal, enchanting and wondrous.
Wings of Desire is utterly captivating and enchanting through its combination of music, cinematography, visuals, poetic dialogue, pace and story. It is about love and life, and everything that those things constitute of, with an emphasis on the things that we often take for granted.