The Lust for Life in Wings of Desire

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The Lust for Life in Wings of Desire

What does it mean to be alive? To lay your head down on your pillow at night and say you truly lived that day? In Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire, which has received a gorgeous new 4K restoration coming to The Criterion Collection next month, we understand humanity through the innate lack of it in Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), two angels existing within a Berlin still divided by the Wall. Filmed in gauzy black-and-white by then-80-year-old cinematographer Henri Alekan, who was pulled out of retirement by Wenders for this project, Wings of Desire introduces us to their world through overhead shots of the city before we join them on their daily excursions.

The duo are perpetual observers, with Wenders presenting through them a poetic panorama of the city, filled with people eking out their ordinary lives. The angels are only seen by small children, who appear to them as silent strangers, while for adults the impact of Damiel and Cassiel can be felt through thoughts and emotions—a calming, spiritual influence that hopes to shift their interiority in subtle ways. The inner thoughts of these mortals are always available to the angels, who bear witness to the full spectrum of feeling that persists within an individual. In a sense, they know these people on a deeper level than anyone else ever could, and yet that only further alienates them from humankind.

Knowing someone at their most base level, their core self, by hearing their every thought precludes you from being able to truly know them as human beings. You’re missing the spontaneity, the things they choose to share with you. You’re withheld from the alluring mystery of getting to know someone. At certain times, Damiel and Cassiel unite to share stories of what they’ve been observing. Some are grandiose, but most are the moments we never stop to appreciate: In one instance, Cassiel shares the tale of a woman in the rain who folded up her umbrella to let herself get drenched. 

We see early on that this eternal life of distance from the world is wearing on Damiel, who speaks of this “spiritual existence” and says “I don’t always want to hover above, I want to feel a weight within.” It’s exactly those simple pleasures that he’s looking for, telling Cassiel, “I don’t have to father a child or plant a tree, but sometimes it’d be nice to come home after a long day and feed the cat like Philip Marlowe. To have a fever or have your fingernails go black from reading the newspaper. To be excited not just by the mind, but by a meal, the curve of a neck, an ear. To lie! Through one’s teeth! To feel your bones as you walk along. For once just to guess instead of always knowing. To be able to say ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Ouch!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen.’”

After living in America for seven years, making films including his 1984 Palme d’Or winner Paris, Texas, Wenders yearned to be back in Berlin. There’s a melancholy air that permeates Wings of Desire, its Wall-era setting reverberating through the minds and souls of those who experienced it. In the 2003 documentary Wings of Desire: The Angels Among Us, Wenders details how he desired to make a film about the Germany of his heart, the Germany he loved that was no longer there. You get a sense of Wenders’ aching in the character of Homer, an old man whom Cassiel finds in a library and begins to follow.

Portrayed by Curt Bois, Homer is described by Wenders as “neither man nor angel but both at once, because he’s as old as the cinema itself.” His relating of this storyteller figure—a man with the history of time etched into his mind, but who wanders the shattered streets and graffiti-splattered rubble of Berlin looking for the demolished Potsdamer Platz—to that of cinema speaks to film as its own observant force, one that endures long after we’re gone yet remains in its own ways impenetrable. Like Damiel and Cassiel, we are merely observers of these characters no matter how invested we feel in their plights.

While the time and setting of Wings of Desire is incredibly specific, its themes spring eternal. As author and professor Michael Atkinson puts it, “If ever there was a European art film that could be all things to all people, it’s Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire,” going on to call the film “at once audience-seductive and demanding, holistic and aestheticized.” 

The passage of time becomes a focal point in the angels’ discussions. They observe events passing by. They follow people like Homer, who reflect on how the world around them has changed—how much their memories are tied to specific locations, some of which are no longer there. The Wall makes these observations all the more poignant, as though we are watching a relic, a memory that one day will be forgotten when those who experienced life behind the Wall are no longer around.

Damiel and Cassiel spend their days recounting the history of the world, learning and telling the stories of others but not crafting tales of their own, not being a part of the story of the world. Passive observers, never participants. “I’ve been on the outside long enough, absent long enough. I’ve stood outside the world long enough,” Damiel says. “I want to enter into the History of the World, or even just hold an apple in my hand.” His desperate need for a mortal life hits a breaking point when he encounters Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist who enamors him and gives him the one thing that surely can transcend any plane of existence: love.

“I wanted her work to be dangerous,” Wenders says of Marion’s job, “so that she would charm Damiel, who was never himself in any danger of falling. And so I imagined the girl as a trapeze artist, flying under the big top with tinsel wings. When the angel saw her, he would laugh, no question. And perhaps fall in love…” Training for weeks, Dommartin brings an authenticity to the electric heights of her performer, accomplishing the elevated acrobatics without a stunt performer or safety net. Like Marion, she risked life and limb in the pursuit of her art. For Damiel, the risk of falling from the heavens into the mortal realm would be in pursuit of life itself.

To capture the lack of fullness in the angels’ experience, Wenders instinctively knew from the start that his film would primarily be shot in black-and-white. He pulled in Alekan, responsible for shooting films like Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, which Wenders describes as the greatest looking black-and-white film ever made. There’s a good case to be made that Wings of Desire also makes a run at that title, with Alekan using a filter he made from his grandmother’s 50-year-old silk stocking to give the angelic scenes their hazy glow, creating a sensation that we’re genuinely watching something from the afterlife.

In a moment which rivals the overwhelming sensation of the sepia-to-color shifts in The Wizard of Oz and Stalker, Damiel’s transition to mortality crashes into color, a magnetic spark bringing us into a remarkably vibrant real world. It’s the kind of color that makes you see the world differently, that makes you go outside and appreciate the blue of the sky and the greens of the trees. Upon landing in the world of the living, Damiel is struck by his old angel armor. A wound opens in his head. He starts bleeding and, curious of the liquid’s striking red glow, he gives it a taste, discovering for the first time that blood even has a taste at all. 

The taste and color of his own blood is the first thing to astound Damiel upon his new journey, which allows him to exclaim “I’m beginning to understand!” To be human is to feel. Yes, that means to feel love, to feel joy, to enjoy the taste of coffee or the color blue. It also means to feel pain, to feel heartache, to bleed, to cry, to feel like you want to die. The longing for human connection and the ache when you aren’t able to feel it. The idea of being removed from it all is to be removed from what makes us human, from what makes life worth living. That we will die one day makes it feel even more worth it.

Entering our world, Damiel soon encounters one of Wings of Desire’s more peculiar delights: Peter Falk, playing himself. When we see the actor earlier in the picture, observed in black-and-white by Damiel on the set of a questionable-looking detective thriller set in a concentration camp, he’s rattling off a very Peter Falk series of monologues. They play like utter nonsense, but unquestionably entertain the viewer who would never have expected Columbo himself to show up in this existential German art film portraying himself. That juxtaposition is very much part of the point. Wenders and his assistant director Claire Denis were bemoaning that the film needed some levity or else it’d be too morose. Two or three weeks into shooting the idea of bringing in Falk finally sprung up on them. 

Even better, Falk is revealed to be a fallen angel, a man once like Damiel who can sense his angelic presence and encourage him to make the transition. Feeling Damiel there without being able to see him, Falk tells the angel that he wishes he could look into his face and tell him how good it is to be here. To smoke, to drink coffee, to draw. When your hands are cold and you rub them together and it feels better. Those simple pleasures are exactly what Damiel has been longing for. Wenders cast Falk for his tenderness, gentleness and friendliness, and you feel them instantaneously.

In his very Falk way, when Wenders asked for the actor to record some lines to include as voiceover—with the decision for the angels to hear the thoughts of mortals not manifesting until Wings of Desire was already in its editing process—Falk went with it, no questions asked. Peter was in a recording studio in Los Angeles, I was listening on a line in Berlin,” Wenders explains. “I had written a few pages of interior monologues for him to try. He went through it, and eventually said, ‘You know what, Wim? I’ll stop reading your lines and just close my eyes and give you some rambling thoughts. You’ll find something in there.’ And then we recorded for half an hour, non-stop. It was all I needed—except that a lot of Peter’s thoughts involved his grandmother. We laughed a lot when we realized that ex-angels don’t really have grandmothers. I still used some of it. It was just too good.”

The spontaneity and incongruity speaks to the entire process of putting Wings of Desire together, which was a very “fly by the seat of your pants” operation from the word go. For a film with such larger-than-life subject matter and meticulous detail in its design, it’s remarkable how fluid and improvised much of Wings of Desire’s production ended up being—from the casting of Falk to its dreamy camera techniques to the improvisational nature in which they shot the film without a script, merely incorporating Peter Handke’s dialogue on the fly. That ultimately demonstrates its understanding of the beauty of life, the poetry of finding your rhythm as you move through the day—of waking up not knowing where you’re going. Maybe you’ll run into a trapeze artist who will make you want to risk it all, change your stars and strive for a new life in the circus. Like so many things, it all comes back to love.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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