Like the sweeping desert landscape in Lawrence of Arabia or the eponymous cinema in Cinema Paradiso, the Berlin Wall is a key, indispensable character in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, Wings of Desire. Covered in graffiti and street art – some of which spreads messages of hope and optimism – the Wall towers over the lives of those living in Berlin and Germany, physically and metaphorically constraining them.
Though it’s not so much the physical barriers that bother Wenders. It’s the psychological, emotional and spiritual ones that divide people and breed distrust and resentment among them. Berlin and Germany in the 1980s, as well as at other times in history, is incomplete; for all of its architecture, its literature, its wealth, something essential to the human experience is missing.
That thing is harmony. Seen through the eyes of two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), the people of Berlin are consumed by personal crises. A young man commits suicide. Families are distant. A man dies after a car accident. A circus is forced to shut down. The angels do their utmost to comfort and console the city, caressing and listening to those in pain. Cassiel hugs the young man as he sits on a building’s ledge. He still jumps. Damiel places his hands on the injured man’s head, as he sits aware of his impending fate. He still dies.
Damiel and Cassiel are invisible to human life. They hover and watch over Berlin, patiently, attentively, compassionately, never felt or sensed by the people near them. Regardless of their moral purity and their search for peace, both are ultimately powerless. Damiel and Cassiel’s suspension in time and space brings them potent grief and regret. They can only bear witness to life’s events; they cannot experience or impact them. Though eternal and immortal, the existence of an angel is a difficult one. Wenders visually emphasises this by the sepia-toned lens through which we and the angels see Berlin.
Many films that attempt a diagnosis of a time or place in history – Kurosawa’s High and Low, Fellini’s I Vitelloni, Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy – take advantage of the techniques of realism. The reason for this is clear: capturing the real world and lifelike characters seems like a good way to pass comment on it. However, this is hardly the only way to address cultural, social and political matters. Wenders fantasy-filled, at times experimental, film gets to the heart of the German experience as well as anything ever created. The same thing can be said of its exploration of the human condition, too.
“Sometimes I'm fed up with my spiritual existence,” Damiel says. “I'd like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth.” Centuries of living as an angel has wearied him. And like that, Damiel chooses to become a human, to be “greeted with a nod … to feed the cat … to lie!” Everyday aspects of life, for most of us, mean very little. But for Damiel, who has only ever known a life of invisibility, of almost total solitude, these are the building blocks of human existence, upon which greater, majestic joys, such as love and tenderness, can be predicated.
Damiel’s transformation is epiphanic. Sepia-toned, black and white Berlin disappears, replaced by the vivid colours of life. His face, once so stern and resigned, becomes softer. He even begins to smile. Damiel becomes an active participant in the world, capable of shifting opinions, ideas and hearts. A young lonely trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), motivates him to make the transition to human form. One night, they meet in a darkened bar where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are playing. Damiel hands Marion a drink. “You need me. You will need me.” They forge an instant connection, exchanging expressions and touches of endearment and care for each other. Adorned in an earlier scene in angel wings for a trapeze performance, Marion finally meets her match. The souls of two angels merge into one.
Wenders holds up this relationship as the epitome of what has been absent in Germany and Berlin: love. The coming together of two formerly unfulfilled souls is his antidote to the world’s ills. Making efforts to find personal connections is the answer, not erecting walls and allowing envy, self-pity and hatred to smoulder. This is true not only of persons, but of cities and nations. Particularly ones that have Germany’s history.
The effect of Wings of Desire is startling. Its poetry seeps from every frame, as feelings of loss, impotency, and later renewal and warmth spill out. Over 30 years later, Wings of Desire is still as revelatory and arresting as ever. It doesn’t lay out a substantive plan for global unity, but its affects are deeply felt. And sometimes it’s those feelings that we need to be reminded of the most.
Wenders’ film finishes on an optimistic note, gesturing that abhorrent histories can be overcome, that harmony can conquer all. The film – which ardently, if earnestly – critiques the state of German life, indelibly embodied by the Berlin Wall. Its symbolic fall in 1989 – two years after the film’s release – was no doubt welcomed by Wenders. It represented an opportunity, for newfound friendship and unity among common peoples.
Wenders is, though, more circumspect these days. In an interview in 2014 with The Guardian, he said, “after the initial euphoria, the city lived [through] reunification quite badly, I felt. There was a mutual discontent, and bad feelings. That is now slowly disappearing and Berlin starts feeling more ‘normal’ altogether.” Negotiating preconceived notions and tensions is the constant battle any functioning society must engage in. Given recent social and political events in Germany – namely the rise of far-right sentiment – this truth is of ever-pressing importance.
– Nick Bugeja