The Poetry of Angels – Wings of Desire (1987)

wings-of-desire-title“When the child was a child,

it didn’t know that it was a child,

everything was soulful,

and all souls were one.”

‘Song of Childhood’ Wings of Desire by Peter Handke

In the annals of great film one of the common themes is the conveyance of poetry through the art of the visual medium. This has been done most significantly in the works of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Malick but a director who is often overlooked in this ability is Wim Wenders. The German director first received acclaim for the wonderful film Paris, Texas which epitomizes the ability to convey, through imagery, the plight of a protagonist who speaks volumes while being nearly silent for the first 20 minutes of the film. The film rightly won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and has been an inspiration for many filmmakers since.

His next trip to the Croisette was with Wings of Desire a film about an angel who is tired of observing and recording history and wants to experience life. He wants to dirty his fingers with the ink of a newspaper, take a warm bath and lie through his teeth. He has spent every moment of the history of mankind inspiring others but he is ready to inspire himself and seek true love. The film has an incredibly original approach to the work of angels by showing all of the humans in Berlin and their thoughts, at times trivial, at times profound, throughout their day to day existence. The angels can only be seen by children which is very important because only children lack the pure, untainted, soul to see the angels. As in the poem ‘Song of Childhood’ by Peter Handke, which is spoken throughout the film, states: children do not know they are children but adults clearly know they are adults and thus are forced to live a half-life in a way. On a side note any fans of the wonderful band Dirty Projectors will notice that ‘Stillness is the Move’ is an interpretation of the ‘Song of Childhood’ and worth a listen.

The angel Damiel, played exceptionally by Bruno Ganz, has guided a number of people in his time but none more noteworthy than Marion played by Solveig Dommartin. Marion is an acrobat and dreams of performing in the circus forever, but issues with money and popularity essentially doom those dreams. She also dreams of finding a true lover, of being able to be lonesome in another’s arms. She has felt glimpses of this experience but has yet to find anything lasting and true. Damiel has only been able to observe this kind of love, but yet he knows that he can never be whole until he experiences it firsthand. The risk of mortal life is worth it if only to live for a day experiencing certainty, absolution and reality in the eyes of a human. This is one of the aspects of the film I find most inspiring that among humanity there is a constant case of the ‘grass is greener’ and yet really, the secret to happiness is to enjoy the moments you are given. The angels in this story observe thousands upon thousands of banalities and trivialities a day however these experiences are incredibly remarkable to the angels, to the point that they are written down in their journals to share amongst themselves each day. We fret over the simplest of complications, and yet there is a whole crowd of angels who would give up eternal life if only to participate in the worst struggles of humanity.

There is a very Zen aspect to the film which itself doesn’t shy away from showing the horrible aspects of life, while reinforcing them with the positive. Footage of World War II, including death, famine and strife, are interspersed with a scene of a young man committing suicide causing horrible pain to Cassiel, an angel who we could argue is Damiel’s best friend. It shows many scenes of intense sadness, including the life of a very old man who was once a great storyteller and poet, and worries that his audience has outgrown his craft. “Must I give up now?” The poet wonders. “If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood.”
It provides us with a feeling of serenity affirming that, although life has its hardships, life also has its pleasantries and it is important to remember that even the most mundane of experiences are still experiences that we can enjoy alive, as humans, together. Peter Falk, in a wonderful role playing himself, exclaims to Damiel in trying to convince him to ‘take the plunge’ to become human, “Oh, to smoke, and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.”

Wings of Desire is an inspiring film that reminds us that simply to be human is remarkable in and of itself. To be able to live, and be alive, is worth such an inestimable value that we cannot forget ourselves because of petty complications. Why worry about what could be when you can worry about what is? Marion sums it up perfectly when she and Damiel are finally able to meet, as mortals and true lovers, and says “I don’t know if there’s destiny but there’s a decision. Decide!” Indeed, perhaps there is no fate, but there is now, and now I implore you to decide!

-Andrew Liebelt