| Casey Jarrin |
Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?
– Wings of Desire opening voiceover
Here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?
– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
I can’t see you but I know you’re here.
– Peter Falk as Peter Falk in Wings of Desire
It might qualify as obsession: I’ve seen Wings of Desire/Der Himmel über Berlin—Wim Wenders’ 1987 film about rebel lovesick angels wading through the rubble of divided Berlin—too many times to count. I don’t remember the first time, but I do remember the best time: at Berlin’s Babylon Kino at Rosa Luxemburg Platz in summer 2012. Wenders was there, signature mop of hair and round tinted glasses, to unveil a sparkly new 25th anniversary restoration on the tremendous screen at the Babylon: this 1929 theatre survived the war, the Soviet era, the DDR, and years of disrepair, now resurrected in a 21st-century Berlin teeming with international hipsters and creatives. The lights dimmed and I sunk into my seat and disappeared into the screen, even more hypnotic than the cinema-altars of the Ziegfeld on 54th Street or Hollywood’s Egyptian.
I fell into the film’s silvery black-and-white aerial shots of Berlin and Marion the trapeze artist floating feather-like through air; joined its tearful living room arguments and motorcycle crash last breaths; walked sweaty through East Berlin dance floors with the on-stage writhing of Nick Cave and Simon Bonney as primal punk backdrop; sipped tea inside kitchens and wandered the light-filled cathedral of Berlin’s Central Library; crossed the River Spree by night and past the remains of once-bustling Potsdamer Platz; braved the No-Man’s Land between the inner and outer walls of the Wall, surveillance towers and sniper guns looming; past murals-in-progress and cars stuck in traffic (R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” video is a Reader’s Digest encapsulation of Wings of Desire); inside heads and hearts and dreams, ambulances screeching. Every now and then, we’re reassured by Peter Falk in the role of fallen angel Peter Falk, offering a priest-like consoling refrain through the cinema screen as confessional: “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here.” In Wings of Desire, no one is ever alone and there is an empathetic ear listening to our joys and pains, extending a gentle invisible hand onto our shoulders to breathe hope back into broken hearts.
Shot on location two years before the fall of the Wall, this is the sexiest and most achingly human film about angels ever made, without the usual sentimentality (and only wink-wink references to wings). Move over, It’s A Wonderful Life and Heaven Can Wait. As the film modulates from the black-and-white POV of how angels see the city into bursts of how humans experience life, it enacts its own Wizard of Oz dance into color. This punch-gut Berlin fairy tale is also a love letter to cinema: a mash-up of film genres with nods to Fellini’s life-as-circus, Rossellini’s neo-realism, Bergman’s existential puzzles, Hitchcock’s voyeuristic predatory camera, American hard-boiled detective noir (complete with fedora and trench coat), Nazi war epics. . . and the list goes on. Deeply haunted by war (Wenders himself was born in August 1945, days after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings), the film weaves blurry decaying documentary newsreels of bombed-out Berlin into its scenes and waking dreams, reminding us of the human stories of war and its aftermath.
Intersubjectivity? I Don’t Even Know You!
Berlin is the first character we encounter in aerial views from planes, rooftops, the gilded goddess atop the Victory Column in Tiergarten. Wenders’ Berlin is more than a city; it offers a map of intersubjectivity: “My stories always begin with places, cities, landscapes, roads. For me, a map is like a script.” Wings of Desire is a hopeful film about the invisible threads that connect us across the postmodern city, that break down walls between rooms and permeate the Wall. Virginia Woolf’s million-dollar existential question—“Here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?”—vibrates through every single body on screen and in the audience, infuses each frame. Wenders offers us a secular spirituality, somewhere between religion and love, built on a profound understanding of others’ emotional and physical presence, urban perambulations of body and mind, an intersubjective ability to hear and know each other and share thoughts. Absolute empathy, akin to love.
The generosity of the film relates to these fantasies of intersubjectivity—the fundamental connectedness between minds and bodies (even when invisible to each other) as the camera-eye moves through alleys and U-Bahn cars, inside circus tents and soundstages, puts the kettle on as we cry and search for love together. And unlike the films and filmmakers that no doubt influenced Wenders (Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Rossellini’s Rome Open City, or even his New German Cinema compatriot Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz), Wings of Desire is no auteur project with a despotic genius at the helm, but a collaborative one in which several eyes and ears and pens and sensibilities converge into one.
Wenders co-wrote the film with poet-novelist Peter Handke and Claire Denis served as first assistant director (her third collaboration with Wenders, after Paris, Texas and Down By Law). The film’s ensemble is a dream-team of character actors and starlets: Peter Falk as Peter Falk, typecast in Columbo trench coat and fedora, though with the wounded eyes of Cassavetes-era Falk; Bruno Ganz as the fallen besotted angel Damiel in woolen overcoat; Solveig Dommartin as the ethereal yet mortal Marion who flies on the trapeze (Dommartin performed her own stunts!), a double for our human strivings to fly and transcend our bodies, dream new worlds, live intensely, love and be loved. It’s no accident that Wings’ Marion shares a name with that notorious Hitchcock blonde, Psycho’s Marion Crane, and she flies (hello, crane!). Though Wenders is a self-professed film geek, thankfully his Marion transcends Hitchcock’s voyeuristic gaze; she has a complex subjectivity we grow to understand—and she survives.
To imbue the film with dreamlike visuals, Wenders coaxed master cinematographer Henri Alekan out of retirement (most famous for shooting Jean Cocteau’s moody gothic-surrealist masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête/Beauty and the Beast). Alekan originally wanted the angels to be translucent shadows, though ultimately used his grandmother’s silk stockings as a lens filter to create the gauzy muted sepia-toned POV of the angels (truth is always stranger than fiction). Wenders wanted him to capture “this faerie universe through the mystery of light” and in homage to the master DP, the circus at the center of the film bears Alekan’s name.
Both Wenders and Alekan delight in the multiple views into the city as a map of the human, using the camera as a thrilling double for “the eye of the angel.” In a 1988 interview in Film Quarterly, Wenders describes the “vast possibilities for innovation” enabled by “the invention of the guardian angel and the point of view it implied.” He delighted in the angels’ ability to witness all and “listen to people’s thoughts,” enacted through a more dynamic camera than usual, as well as long takes where the angels listen and watch. Through constantly shifting camerawork, we freely inhabit more than one POV: aerial shots of Berlin, alternately invoking wartime aerial maps and the view from 747 windows; deep zooms into living rooms, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s opening to Rear Window; dizzying hand held moments, disorientating and intimate; crane and tracking shots that highlight the near-magic technology of what a camera can do; long takes that linger; shot-reverse shot Hollywood-inspired exchanges between characters, when a kiss is sure to follow; “eye of God” shots that see through floors and walls in a way that no human could.
Though the camera’s eye is akin to godliness, we are in decidedly secular Berlin; Church has been supplanted by the free exchange of ideas within the public library as Cathedral, with its open airy vaulted ceilings. Here angels and humans converge to disappear in stories, history, dreams, light streaming through windows. For Wenders, the library is “a heavenly wonderful place” with “the whole memory and knowledge of mankind united there”—a place where German mainstay Curt Bois as Homer, “storyteller driven to the ends of the earth,” delivers “a liturgy in which no one needs to be initiated into the meanings of words and sentences,” translatable across bodies and time. Wrestling with uncertainty offers a kind of hope and secular communion.
Angels Slumming With Us Humans: Columbo in the Muck
This is also a film about an angel who chooses to lose his wings. Bruno Ganz’s Damiel is no Lucifer branded Satanic and cancelled by holier-than-thou angels; he is restless, curious, grumpy, hungry for the small sensory pleasures of mortal life. He exclaims: “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds. But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence.” He finally refuses, in the Defiant Angel equivalent of teenage angst: “I don’t want to always hover above!” This is his deal with some faceless devil. Let me feel: feel hunger and the satisfaction of a currywurst in my belly, feel cold and the warmth of coffee descending down my throat, cup warm between my hands; let me desire to know another body and feel the connections and desolations and possibilities of love.
No world is too small or beyond fascination for Damiel; while his ponytailed sidekick Cassiel (Otto Sander) catalogs extreme and exceptional circumstances of the human (plane crashes and prisoners, the 1936 Olympics and suicide letters), Damiel rhapsodizes over near-invisible, small particulars of lives: “A woman in the rain who folded up her umbrella and let herself get drenched”; “A schoolboy who described how a fern grows out of the earth”; “A blind woman who sensed my presence.” His is a dream of small pleasures and pains, “to be able to say ‘Ahh’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Ouch!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen.’” His desire is for sensory presence, to wiggle his toes, feel an itchy sweater against his skin, not know an outcome, take risks, transgress against the angel’s directive to “look, gather, testify, verify, preserve.” To live and fall and scrape his knee, “to know what no Angel knows” in a world not beholden to God.
Damiel conducts the film’s orchestra of inner monologues, confiding in fellow angel Cassiel that “to watch is not to look down from above, but at eye level” (a political statement, especially as spoken while walking between the outer and inner walls of The Wall, guards holding AK47s in the background)—a dream of that connecting thread of consciousness that eliminates hierarchies between mortal and angelic, superstar and superfan. Rendering us all beautifully human and searching for that amorphous but palpable thing called love (Wenders is an old-fashioned romantic and I am too). These are angels with dreams of human relatability, who use their powers of intersubjective eavesdropping to venture into the hearts and minds of humans in mundane-joyous-painful moments, and then descend into full-color mortal life with its shocks of blood and pain and inevitable death. And wow, does mortal coffee taste good.
Who better to share a cup of black coffee with than Peter Falk, interlocutor between the angelic and the humans, playing himself? He arrives on the scene costumed in hard-boiled trench and fedora (“very Humphrey Bogart”), echoes of his signature role Columbo (“Is that Columbo?” wonder passersby). He’s an unassuming Everyman detective who could be anyone and no one, who doesn’t worship at the altars of superstardom or American exceptionalism. He is recognizable yet relatable: he doesn’t want to look like or be anyone in particular. Walking onto his WWII film set, surrounded by extras (he wonders “if they’re Jewish”), Falk argues with a costumer as he tries on a series of hats, none of which feel right. Looking into a full-length mirror, his inner monologue proclaims: “I want to look anonymous . . . melt into the crowd.”
Falk becomes a conduit between angels and humans, a foil to our twin angels Damiel and Cassiel: “familiar to everyone and suspect to no one.” Falk’s appeal to Damiel as Compañero (“I can’t see you but I know you’re here”) becomes his refrain and Wenders’ manifesto, a speaking out to the audience. They know we’re here, watching, hoping for connection and maybe even a dash of transcendence. And this desire for connection, for community, for contact, has perhaps rarely been so acute or poignant as during our pandemic years of social distancing and its alienations. Dare I say it: this is the film we all need right now.
Film as Collaboration with the Audience: Seeing Together and the Stories That Save Us
Wenders invites us into a collaboration so that the film we experience is, in part, the film we’ve created with him. In a 1988 interview, he described his desire to “give the spectator the freedom to interact with the film and construct it according to one’s own perspective. . . [my films] first come together in the head of the spectator. . . . they do not always point their finger at something and say ‘You will see this now and nothing else!” Wings doesn’t tell us what to see or how to feel, allows our senses and perspectives to be part of the filmmaking experience. This is the opposite of classical Hollywood cinema in which on-screen characters and audience members alike are objects of a controlling eye and hand, the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” Great and Powerful Oz of the auteur.
Wenders has also said: “I prefer movies that ask me to see.” This film has always felt like a beautiful generous invitation to me, to you, to the audience, to take part in the everyday magic all around us – and to open our senses to the mundane experiences that Damiel finds extraordinary. To sip every cup of caravan coffee with the same wonder as the first time it touched tongue and lips. Similarly, the end of the film and Marion’s final convergence with Damiel in the bar (Nick Cave show persisting off-screen, through the wall) is also an intimate moment of encounter with us as the audience. As with Jean Seberg’s confrontational close-up look into our eyes in the final shot of Godard’s Breathless, Solveig Dommartin as Marion looks directly at us and says “Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand.”
This final invitation by Marion happens in a shot-reaction shot: within the diegetic space of the film, she looks into Damiel’s eyes—and in color! Though like Seberg’s gaze at the end of Breathless, she’s looking directly at us, the film audience. And says: we’re more than just the two of us now. 1+1=3, approaching infinity. This is simultaneously an invitation to Germans on the eve of reunification, an appeal to humans everywhere, and a direct address to the bodies breathing and thinking and squirming in the cinema theater, to make the future real now. This is a hopeful return to where the film begins, an incantation of secular intersubjectivity in which the connecting thread is love.
Wenders began his career as a landscape painter and still has a vexed relationship with teleological narrative storytelling, far preferring anti-narrative “daydreaming” without a beginning or end. He describes how “the relationship between stories and images is like the story of a vampire who tries to suck the blood out of images. Images are quite sensitive, like snails that pull back into their shells when you touch their feelers” whereas “stories give people the feeling that there is meaning, that behind the inscrutable disarray of all phenomena there is a hidden order in which everything has its place.” And yet he admits that stories are crucial for our survival; they “help us to overcome our worst fears: that there is no God, that we are nothing but tiny oscillating particles with perception and consciousness, lost in a universe that remains beyond our conception.” Ultimately, “Stories are a substitute for God” and “Stories make life bearable.”
Wings of Desire is both sensitive snail-like flow of images and vampiric story that gives structure and hope to our days—an elegant, generous, collaborative structure of feeling that makes life more bearable for us all.
Gut, Taja. “Das Wahrnehmen einer Bewegung” (“The Perception of Movement”). Individualität 19 (1988). Reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition. Ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Paneth, Ira. “Wim and His Wings.” Film Quarterly 42.1 (1988). Reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition. Ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Wenders, Wim. “Impossible Stories” (1982 lecture in Livorno, Italy). Reprinted in The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations with Wim Wenders. Translated by Michael Hofmann. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.
Wenders, Wim. “On Wings of Desire.” The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations with Wim Wenders. Trans. Michael Hofmann. London: Faber & Faber, 1991. Reprinted on Criterion Collection website, 2009: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1290-on-wings-of-desire
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London and New York: Harcourt, 1925.
Casey Jarrin is a writer, photographer, and outrageous optimist in the age of Tinder and drones, Reddit and pandemic. Her poems, stories, and essays on art as empathy machine have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Washington Square Review, KGB Literary Review, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Eire/Ireland, YorkMix, and the Walker Art Center’s Third Man Project. She grew up in 1980s NYC and moved to Saint Paul to teach film at Macalester before escaping academia to run Live Mind Learning. She hopes to move back to Berlin with her black cat Lucius and partner Erik. Trylon is her favorite place on earth.
 Wim Wenders, “Impossible Stories,” 1982 lecture in Livorno, Italy. As reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition,ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 34.
 Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (London and New York: Harcourt, 1925), 127.
 Wim Wenders,“On Wings of Desire” in The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations with Wim Wenders, trans. Michael Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 1991), as reprinted on the Criterion website, 2009: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1290-on-wings-of-desire
 Ira Paneth, “Wim and His Wings,” interview in Film Quarterly 42.1 (1988), as reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders, 67.
 Ibid., 68-69.
 Taja Gut, “Das Wahrnehmen einer Bewegung” (“The Perception of Movement”) in Individualität 19 (1988), as reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders, 71.
 Wenders, “Impossible Stories,” 35.
 Ibid., 36.
Edited by Brad Stiffler
This is a gorgeous exploration of a film I love. Thank you for the deep and honest perspective.