Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire is among the most intellectually challenging and potentially rewarding films ever produced. Whether those characteristics will translate into it being an enjoyable film for you is mainly a matter of how you like to use your film-viewing time as well as your preparedness for a taxing mental challenge. Without some background and interest in philosophy and psychology, you will find the cerebral nourishment served up by Wenders largely indigestible. This is a film about profound philosophical issues delivered in a meditative and poetic style, rather than a classic narrative. The sophisticated themes of Wings of Desire touch on several of the most fundamental issues of human existence, while the plot is simplicity itself.
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The Premise: On the most basic level, the plot consists of no more than angel meets girl; angel gets girl. The angels in Wings of Desire are ethereal beings that resemble humans in appearance -- other than sometimes sporting visible wings. These earthbound angels have existed from primordial times. Hovering overhead, perched atop tall buildings, or walking among us, they commingle with human society unnoticed except occasionally by a child. The capacity of some children to see the angels apparently relates to their incomplete development of consciousness of self:
When the child was a child,
It didnt know it was a child.
Everything was full of life,
And all life was one.
The job of these vicarious viewers is to observe, collect, testify, and preserve. They hear excerpts from the interior monologues in the minds of humans the contemplative or spiritual parts of their thought strands but not the mundane segments. They see, in black-and-white, and hear but have no tactile, olfactory, or gustatory sensations. They cannot intervene in the physical universe of humans, but can exert subtle psychological influences such as consoling or stirring feelings of hope or optimism. They dress in gray flannel trench coats and scarves, and wear their hair back in ponytails. Two angels in particular are central to the story: Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander).
Damiel feels a restive dissatisfaction with his lot. Its great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day for eternity only to the spiritual side of people. But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, Id like to feel theres some weight on me, to end my eternity and bind me to earth. At each step, each gust of wind, Id 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 the card table and be greeted, if only by a nod.
Bit by bit, Damiel moves closer to a monumental decision to choose human existence. Two main influences propel him from yearning to action. First, he meets and falls in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist, who soars under the big top with wings of her own and joie de vie. Second, he encounters an American actor, Peter Falk, playing himself (more or less), who relishes every little sensual experience of life, from the fit of a hat to a hot cup of coffee. Ultimately, Damiel chooses to fall literally from grace and to meet Marion face to face as a fellow human being.
The Themes: Wings of Desire manages the extraordinary feat of integrating primal issues pertaining to metaphysics, mental process, history, politics, and cinema. The thread that binds all together is the concept of duality. Wings of Desire is an exploration of opposites. At the metaphysical level, the duality examined is essentially the dualism of Descartes. Descartes postulated two distinct though interactive planes of reality: a spiritual domain, including subjective mental experience, and the physical universe, including the human body. Damiel and Cassiel exist in Descartes spiritual universe, which intersects with only the spiritual side of human existence with the profound thoughts of people. On the other hand, the angels lack most of the modalities of perception touch, taste, smell, and color vision (there is an inconsistency in the angels even possessing the senses of black-and-white vision and hearing, but without this inconsistency there could be no film!) and they cannot impact the physical world. Humans, by contrast have the full range of sensory and motor interaction with the physical universe but are oblivious to the spiritual universe, except for that one isolated chunk of it which is each persons consciousness. Each persons own subjective mind, in this dualism, is an island of the spiritual universe that has been ripped into existential isolation by the gift of sensory perception. Damiel can choose one side of the wall of existence or the other, but not both. If he falls to earth, he can gain individual identity, the full range of sensuality, and a sense of now, but will lose his awareness of the spiritual domain in its fullness, access to the spiritual thoughts of other people, and his existence in eternity. He can choose to observe as an angel or to be as a human being.
The delicacy of insight in Wings of Desire is at its very finest when exploring the duality of mental process. The mind is designed to create an abstract representation of the physical universe. The human mind functions as an observer of the world in which it exists (in largely that same sense that a movie watcher is an observer of the world that was created in film). By the experience of consciousness, we become spectators of the universe. A duality is created in the process, which we recognize as self and not-self -- in the words of Martin Buber. The only thing of which any person has direct experience is their own internal, subjective mental experience. All else is known only by reflection. Unlike the angels, we can never have direct access to the thoughts of another person (except in literature or film by the agency of a narrator, which is part of the beauty of such works of art). We can observe the behavior of others and, from that, try to surmise their feelings or thoughts, but we can never directly touch their internal mental life. This impenetrable wall of separation is what is sometimes referred to as existential isolation (or existential loneliness). I am always amazed when I read a review of Wings of Desire in which a reviewer complains that the scenes in which the angels listen to human thoughts are boring or move too slowly. After living a lifetime never enjoying direct knowledge of another persons thoughts, how could one tire of the experience so quickly?
Marion epitomizes existential isolation and two of its complications: hyperconsciousness and detachment. Faced with the loneliness of existential isolation, she is split within her mind into speaker and listener (or being and observer). This is consciousness of consciousness, also called self-consciousness or, in Dostoevskis terminology, hyperconsciousness. She thinks (and we hear, thanks to Damiel), I often think in a wrong way because I think as if I were talking to someone else -- a poetic description of hyperconsciousness. To overcome existential loneliness, we sometimes create what amounts to a playmate (or a duality) in our minds by watching our own thoughts and feelings. Marion, at least, understands this better than most and even anticipates the cure, Inside closed eyes close the eyes again. Then even the stones come alive. Close the eyes, then close the minds eye by which we observe our own consciousness. Then and only then can one get down to the business of direct, immediate awareness of perceptions even as wonderfully ordinary as the touch or sight of a stone. We can then celebrate the simple sensual pleasures of existence. Sometimes, its our feelings that we look at with the minds eye, instead of thoughts. Marion thinks, Looking at oneself in the mirror, one sees oneself think. Well, what are you thinking? I think I have the right to be afraid, but not to talk about it. Youre not yet blind, your hearts still beating. And now youre crying. What this means is that Marion understands that it is healthy to have feelings like fear but it is unhealthy to watch that fear in ones minds eye to ruminate about it. Think and feel, but dont stand aside and watch yourself think and feel. What is worse than the disease of loneliness? Being two within it is a complication of loneliness. Marion dreams of reaching across the chasm of existential isolation to join hands with the angel in her dreams but she must first become a woman alone, gloriously alone, before she can attach as one being to another. Marion begins to find her way home to oneness when she attends a Nick Cave concert. As Damiel listens, she thinks,
Im glad I came here.
I dont hear everything.
The people arent watching.
Maybe Heaven is watching.
Having given herself over to the music, she doesnt hear or watch her own conscious thoughts and feelings as she usually does. Her hyperconsciousness is, for the moment, quieted. The last line of that above quatrain evokes a bemused smile from Damiel, who is indeed watching and listening. At the end of the film, when Marion conquers her existential isolation by finding her soul mate, she says, Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it, because today I am finally lonely. Being one alone is better than being two together when the two are both inside the same cranium!
Marion longs for a wave of love that will stir her out of detachment that she will feel with certainty to be right and inevitable. The detachment complication of existential loneliness is expressed by Marion when she discusses the sense of arbitrariness that she felt as a child regarding which people happened to be her parents, which boy her brother, and, later, which man her lover. She felt, in each case, that it could just as well have been another. This feeling of randomness even extended to her own self: Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? This is observing and wondering, but not being fully engaged or attached. When she meets Damiel at the end of the film, it is revealing that the first words out of her mouth are, Its finally getting serious. Instead of that sense of whimsy, she has met the man she knows to be the right one, the only possible one! She has that madcap feeling of certain rightness: At last mad, at last no longer alone! At last mad, at last redeemed! At last insane, at last at peace. Observation based on dispassionate detachment may be objectively valid perception, but impassioned commitment to loved ones and ideals is sounder psychologically.
The answer to existential loneliness is, of course, love. One split into two is not good; but two joining together across the wall of existential isolation is the best of goodness. There is no greater story than ours. That of man and woman. Earlier, while he is still an angel, she feels his presence while dancing erotically, Its there again, my feeling of well-being, as if inside my body, a hand were gently tightening. Love is the balm that can sooth existential angst. By the same token, Damiel has also found his way home from his detached, observer status as an angel.
Another duality broached in Wings of Desire relates to human history: the capacity of humans for simple joys on the one hand and for hateful wars on the other. Cassiel describes mankinds joyful side, Do you remember how, one morning out of the savanna its forehead smeared with grass the biped appeared, our long-awaited image, and its first word was a shout: was it Ach, or Ah, or Oh, or was it merely a groan? At last we were able to laugh for the first time. And through this mans shout and the calls of his successor, we learned to speak. Damiel adds, But then, suddenly, he ran zigzag, and stones flew. With his flight began another story. The history of wars. It is still going on. Stories about war are thrilling and epic and cause us to forget the quiet glories of peace. Wings of Desire asks, What is it about peace that keeps its epic from enduring?
One of many consequences of such wars hangs over Wings of Desire like a silent character: the Berlin Wall, that divides East and West into another duality the political duality. The German name for the film, Der Himmel Uber Berlin, which means Heaven over Berlin, emphasizes the importance of the setting in this great city perhaps better than does the American title. This is the Berlin two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, rendered gloomy from decades of neglect. The divided city symbolizes the division between thought and action. Wenders underscores the parallels between Marions psychological duality and the duality of Berlin of 1987 with this double entendre verse, Here I am a foreigner, yet its all so familiar. Anyway, I cant get lost. You always end up at the wall. You cant get lost in Berlin because sooner or later youre at the wall. You cant get lost from your own subjective consciousness because you always end up at the wall of existential isolation. When Marion and Damiel merge in the finale, Marion says, Not only the whole city but the whole world is taking part in our decision. Marion and Damiel can emerge together from their separate isolations as detached observers and Berlin can emerge from its dualism (with the concurrence of the worlds powers) by reunification.
One final dualism inherent in Wings of Desire is the dualism of cinema: the movie and the audience. Tell me, muse, of the story-teller who was thrust to the edge of the world, childlike, ancient, and through him, reveal Everyman. With time, my listeners became my readers. They no longer sit in a circle. Instead they sit apart and one knows nothing about the other. Oral stories, books, movies these are how we teach one another about everyman people and life from all around the world. Yet, the day has largely passed when storyteller and audience sat face to face in direct communication. Now, with mass media books and movies the storytellers (including the movie makers) see little of their audience and vice versa.
Overview: It is unusual, even daring, for a film to attempt to deal with philosophical issues as complex as those enumerated above. Moreover, Wings of Desire attempts to do so poetically -- by language that depends heavily on imagery, metaphor, and analogy. A question must therefore inevitably arise as to the success of the endeavor. Is it possible to address such profound subject matter through such lofty language in the context of film? Or, is film a medium best reserved for delivering a story linearly through dialogue, narrative, pictures, and action? If we are to judge by what has been written about Wings of Desire, it is successful for some but not for all viewers. Those for whom it fails complain that it is too ponderous, too long (i.e., boring), too dense, lacks plot, and lacks simple human dialogue.
One can understand the difficulties posed by Wings of Desire by comparing it with another difficult kind of dramatic production a Shakespearean play. Anyone who has ever read and studied Hamlet for a course in high school or college recognizes that much of the language is complex and multilayered. No person, no matter how intelligent, can get from a Shakespeare passage on one reading or hearing all that is available by analysis from that same passage. There are double- and triple-meanings, allusions, and complex metaphors that require contemplation and, sometimes, even research for full understanding. That might suggest that Shakespeare is best appreciated through reading the plays rather than live performance. Yet, in reading the plays, one is deprived of the stage action and the actors interpretations, which add to one's understanding. The most complete experience of a Shakespeare play comes from seeing the live performance of a play that one has previously read and studied so that one can experience both the immediacy of the performance and the deeper nuances. Does that mean that a live performance of a Shakespeare play cannot be enjoyable for one who is encountering the play for the first time? No, one can still get a general appreciation of the poetry of the language and the drama, even though some of the full thrust of meaning will be overlooked.
The language in Wings of Desire is far more poetic and abstract than one encounters in most films. No person, no matter how astute, can catch the full thrust of the meaning of this poetry at the speed at which it passes by, whether by audio track or subtitles. The most that one can get out of Wings of Desire on a first viewing is a sense of the beauty of the poetry and a broad-strokes feel for the themes. It will appeal to the senses and the spirit. The magnificent cinematography provided by the great Henri Alekan will aid the process of appreciation a great deal. Full understanding of this film can only emerge from careful reading and analysis of the poetic passages in the manner that I attempted to introduce above, and then . . . watching the film again. Wings of Desire, like Shakespeare, is a taste that must be cultivated. The language and concepts are esoteric and difficult. It is not a question of ones intelligence or capacity for insight -- it is a question of willingness to expend the effort to derive from this film all that it has to offer. Wings of Desire offers an elevated potential for rewards, but each persons experience with the film will depend largely on how enthusiastically they reach for that potential. For those who prefer not to expend that kind of effort as part of film-watching theres an easy alternative in this particular case -- go with the Hollywood remake instead: City of Angels, starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, which reduces the concept to a simple love story and lays out its limited range of issues explicitly. It's like Shakespeare in Cliff notes!
The cinematography in Wings of Desire is sensational. Henri Alekan who was famous for his brilliant work with director Jeau Cocteau in La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) was coaxed out of retirement to work on Wings of Desire. The idea of filming the perspective of the angels in blue-tinted monochrome while splashing the perceptions of the human characters with the full gaudy color spectrum proved a nifty way of emphasizing what full sensuality has to offer. In a cute kind of tribute to the master cinematographer, the circus in Wings of Desire was named the Alekan circus. Alekan's cameras glide effortlessly through scenes much like the soaring of angels, seemingly defying gravity. The shots amidst the autobahn traffic are effective as well as the overhead vistas of the gloomy but seemingly eternal city of Berlin.
The soundtrack is appropriately sparse and haunting. There are magnificent segments with fragments of choral music, reminiscent of Stockhausen, that invoke the idea of a choir of angels. Other segments emphasize viola and cello music that provides the proper somber but ethereal mood. The casting of the four principal parts was superb. Bruno Ganz gave a suitably impassive performance. His face is handsome enough but not overly handsome for his status as an angel. Solveig Dommartin was stunningly lovely as Marion. I could fall for her myself though I'm no angel! She is the kind of woman who to me seems to suggest even greater internal than surface beauty, which is what one might expect would attract a spiritual being like Damiel. Peter Falk was his usual impassive and enigmatic self and added immeasurably to the charm of the film.
The DVD version includes a fine assortment of extras. There is an audio commentary with Wim Wenders and Peter Falk that is informative as well as entertaining. A documentary on the making of the film is included as well. There are interviews with various members of the cast and crew. A gallery of advertising materials is provided. Perhaps of greatest interest is 32 minutes of outtakes including a pie fight as an alternative ending. Subtitles are provided in three languages: English, French, and German.
Wings of Desire brought home the 1987 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Director for Wim Wenders. This film is one of the most fascinating ever produced in the boldness of what it attempts. It is transcendent and mystical in its subject matter while celebrating the simple pleasures of daily human existence through evocative language tendered in a mood of quiet reverence.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Germany:
The American Friend
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
The Blue Angel
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Kings of the Road
The Marriage of Maria Braun
The Nasty Girl
Run Lola Run
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
The Tin Drum
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