52 Movies: Week 8 - Wings of Desire
In summer of 1988 I walked through the doors of the Detroit Film Theater, housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, to see Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire (known in its original German title as Der Himmel über Berlin). I hadn’t read any reviews of the film, knew nothing about Wenders’ work, and, so, I was absolutely unprepared for what I would experience. Now, almost thirty years after that first encounter, I wonder if I am prepared for the film even now, let alone to write about it.
Wings of Desire is something of a minor miracle. Filmed essentially by mixture of intuition and improvisation without an actual script and ensouled by scraps of poetic dialogue and monologue sent via wire by Swiss poet/playwright Peter Handke (inspired in no small part by Rilke’s Duino Elegies), the film—seguing beautifully between German, French, and English—tells the story of incarnation as an angel, Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) comes to realize he must renounce his eternal existence in order to, in his words, “take the plunge” and participate in human life. One might interpret this as a kind of postmodern Christology. Even before he takes the plunge, Damiel falls in love with Marion (played by the luminous Solveig Dommartin), a French acrobat in a tiny circus; her presence, especially her interior life so marked by loneliness, serves to convince him of what he had already been considering. Once his incarnation is accomplished, Damiel, deprived of his angelic omniscience, must find his beloved in the messy milieu of human life in pre-1989 Berlin: a city divided, darkened, yet still spiritually alive. When Damiel does find her, in the bar of a concert hall where Nick Cave is performing, Wenders offers us an affirmation of both the spirit and of the flesh: the divinity inherent to the eros that unites man and woman.
Indeed, the film is itself an extended contemplation of the synergy between fleshly and divine orders of eros, and Henri Alekan’s sublime cinematography, transitioning from black and white monochrome when told from the angelic point-of-view and color from the human, beautifully articulates Wender’s simple yet profound vision. Alekan, who was seventy-seven at the time of filming, had worked on Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La Belle et la Béte (1946), used the same technique for acquiring the warmth of tone in the monochrome parts of Wings of Desire as he had in the Cocteau film: a filter made from his grandmother’s silk stocking, a notion gloriously low-tech, but bursting with poetry and eros.
Likewise, the score by Jürgen Knieper straddles the line between the form and improvisation with music evocative of the transcendent/immanent longing that is the centerpiece of the film; and the library scene, which includes a hodgepodge of voices in a surreal landscape of languages (Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, in addition to the German, French, and English) some taken from the newspaper, some from scripture (the opening lines of Genesis in Hebrew), some from conversation—all improvised according to some very loose direction from Knieper.
In reality, the film includes far too many extraordinary scenes ripe for commentary—but to focus on just one seems to be to an exercise in “killing to dissect,” for the film is an organic whole. It may be that each scene, like a holograph, reveals the whole, but I trust less in my analytic skills than in my impressionistic ones when it comes to this film. So many of the scenes, indeed, inhabit my soul life: the library, the angels comparing notes in a car, the dying man on the street, the suicide, the many scenes with children (who, unlike the adults, often see the angels), the nightclubs, and the exquisite climax in the bar with Marion and Damiel—not to mention the charming subplots of Peter Falk (playing “himself”) who is (according to the story) in Berlin to work on a film set during the Nazi era, and the story of Homer, the people’s storyteller (played with great warmth by the eighty-seven-year-old Curt Bois). Nevertheless, my biography intersects in the film in such a way that I must comment on one scene (though maybe it counts as two) in particular.
During the break in filming the Nazi movie (note the metanarrative), Peter Falk stops at a snack truck for a coffee. He senses a presence (Damiel) and offers his hand in friendship to his invisible interlocutor. Falk, having a cigarette while leaning on the truck’s counter, has ordered a coffee, and when it arrives he takes a sip and tells Damiel how good such a simple pleasure is—“To smoke, and have coffee—and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.” Later, as one of his first incarnational acts, Damiel heads straight for the truck and a hot cup o’ joe.
In summer of 1988, I was in my mid-twenties. I had recently quit the music business and had more-or-less renounced the world. I wore grey, black, and white all the time, was a vegetarian, spent a lot of time looking for spiritual direction amongst Buddhists, Theosophists, and Anthroposophists, and, worse than that, I never drank coffee. When I got home after seeing the film, I ripped through all of the kitchen cupboards until I found a stash of coffee saved for guests. I immediately brewed up a pot of the strong French roast. I gave up the life of a black and white angel. I incarnated. But, as the film’s closing scroll says, “To be continued…”
Years later a colleague, a philosopher from the Anglo-American tradition, came to watch me teach Wings of Desire during my Religion and Film course. I told him of my own experience with the film, to which he answered: “If you see that film and it doesn’t change your life, you’re probably not alive.” Recently, I showed it at the end of a Creative Writing course. Afterwards, I saw one the students walking across campus, as if in a daze. I stopped her to see if she was okay. “It’s that film,” she said. “I…I have a lot to think about.” Indeed.
Welcome home, angels.
—In addition to teaching philosophy and English at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer living with his wife and most of his nine children in Waterloo Township, Michigan.
Great review, and great story. But I have to say: although I liked it, Wings of Desire didn't come near changing my life.
Posted by: Mac | 02/24/2016 at 05:20 PM
I remember that scene and there was something else Peter Falk does in the movie that I liked, but I cannot remember right now. Gloriously filmed, I recall being in awe of how it looked. I have the dvd here, I need to re-watch.
Small correction: Nick Cave.
Great commentary and review, Michael!
Posted by: Stu | 02/25/2016 at 05:37 AM
Oh, and many years later Bruno Ganz shows up in the movie, The Reader, which was quite exciting at the time!
Posted by: Stu | 02/25/2016 at 05:37 AM
oops! Nick Cave and DETROIT Film Theater!
Posted by: Michael | 02/25/2016 at 05:51 AM
Both fixed now. Can't believe I missed the Cave typo! His presence in the film was one of the things that most struck me the first time I saw it, which was ca. 1994.
I actually was not all that keen on it that first time, although I loved it visually, especially the b&w part, as I have a great love of b&w photography, still and moving. I liked it better the second time, which was within the past couple of years. I think I over-theologized it the first time, taking it more as a rejection or at least belittling of spiritual reality rather than an affirmation of physical. I can see how if one were involved in a somewhat gnostic spirituality it could be a revelation.
I've only seen it at home (VHS the first time, DVD the second). I can imagine how beautiful it would be on the big screen.
Posted by: Mac | 02/25/2016 at 07:29 AM
I love finding out about all these movies. I really like Peter Falk. Next time I'm sick, I want him to come tell me a story. If changing your life means drinking more coffee, I'm in trouble.
I just put this on the top of my Netflix list and I have Pather Panchali in front of the DVD player for me to watch tomorrow after my root canal.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 07:40 AM
I'd rate this one as a must-see. "If changing your life..." Heh--me too. I wish I could drink more coffee and still sleep at night.
I'll be interested in hearing your reaction to PP. Though it may be "I fell asleep". You'll have anaesthesia in you and it is both long and low-key.
Posted by: Mac | 02/25/2016 at 08:16 AM
"many years later Bruno Ganz shows up in the movie, The Reader, which was quite exciting at the time!"
He's also fantastic as Hitler in 'Downfall.'
This has been on my list for several years. I'll have to move it closer to the top!
Posted by: Rob G | 02/25/2016 at 08:49 AM
For me to consume any more coffee than I already do, I'd have to have an IV.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 09:09 AM
Thanks for the edits, Mac.
I will definitely check out PP...and seeing Wings on the big screen was pretty extraordinary...the switches from b&w to color were breathtaking in that context
Posted by: Michael | 02/25/2016 at 09:15 AM
What about the sequel, Michael: Faraway, So Close? I know I watched it too, but my memory is that it just didn't do it for me like Wings of Desire did. Just saw it the one time when it was first released.
Posted by: Stu | 02/25/2016 at 10:11 AM
I wondered if it was supposed to be Nick Cave because of the context. I think I've probably mentioned that my daughter saw him praying in St. Louis Cathedral in NOLA once. It made me curious about him.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 10:19 AM
Stu...I know I've seen Faraway, So Close...but I have no memory of it! I don't know if that is indicative of the film or me, though.
Posted by: Michael | 02/25/2016 at 11:00 AM
I have a friend for ranks Wings of Desire among his favourite films; I know it is a film that makes a very strong appeal to some, and I don't think I've ever heard the reasons for that appeal better expressed than in this little essay. Thanks so much.
I saw it myself a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I found it rather puzzling. The appearances of Peter Falk and Nick Cave, both playing themselves, was part of that confusion, and probably I was just not in the right frame of mind for such a subdued, meditative film. (But I was alive! I must insist on that.)Reading this makes me want to see it again.
I also feel like contributions of this quality are setting the bar high for the rest of us. My piece on The Tree of Life is getting harder and harder to tackle!
Posted by: Craig | 02/25/2016 at 11:46 AM
Craig...I almost chose Tree of Life instead of Wings of Desire
Posted by: Michael | 02/25/2016 at 01:28 PM
"I have a friend for ranks Wings of Desire among his favourite films"
That reminds me: an interesting thing to do sometime might be for everyone to list their top five all-time favorite films with a couple or three sentences as to why.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/25/2016 at 01:37 PM
The first sentence of mine would be a discussion of why I couldn't limit it to five.
Posted by: Mac | 02/25/2016 at 01:56 PM
Did we never do this? Of course, it would gone if we did.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 02:05 PM
The reason I think we might have is that I seem to remember questions like, "Can we count something like the Jeremy Irons Brideshead Revisited, or does it just have to be movies?" and "Can we chose all 3 LotR movies as one?" Like anyone would ask the latter.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 02:08 PM
Maybe we did and I just don't remember!
Posted by: Rob G | 02/25/2016 at 02:29 PM
Well, if we did, we've all seen a lot of movies since then.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 02:40 PM
I don't think there was a blog post that included lists of that sort, but we may have done it in comments.
How about if we do that at the end of the 52? Maybe post it on New Year's Day 2017. (2017?!?) You could send me your list anytime, but I'm pretty sure that by the end of this year I'll have seen at least several movies that are highly recommended by y'all that I wouldn't have seen otherwise, and that could affect the list.
Actually that's already happened. I'm not sure I would have revisited Seven Samurai now if Rob hadn't been talking about Kurosawa.
Posted by: Mac | 02/25/2016 at 04:13 PM
We did do our favourite films once. I remember that I put The English Patient on mine, which earned a rebuke from Janet. 8-)
I've seen a lot of films since then, and I wouldn't put it on my list anymore.
Posted by: Craig | 02/25/2016 at 04:20 PM
I'm so bad.
Posted by: Janet | 02/25/2016 at 05:27 PM
You keep us on the straight and narrow ;-)
Posted by: Paul | 02/25/2016 at 05:45 PM
That does ring a bell (about The English Patient).
Posted by: Mac | 02/25/2016 at 06:03 PM
It rang a bell with me too, but Google didn't bring up the comments. Could it be so long ago already?
Posted by: Paul | 02/26/2016 at 06:10 AM
The archives search finds this discussion specifically of The English Patient, prompted by Louise saying she'd seen it and asking what others thought. I can't find a "favourite movies" discussion. There was a sort of Desert Island Discs conversation a while back, but I think that was about books or music rather than films.
Posted by: Paul | 02/26/2016 at 06:19 AM
I vaguely remember saying something about my top five being easy to list -- it's the second five that's difficult. But I'm not sure if we ever "officially" listed our top five or ten. And I don't remember the English Patient discussion.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/26/2016 at 06:19 AM
Here it is.
It must be obvious to all who know me well that I have a deadline this afternoon.
Posted by: Paul | 02/26/2016 at 06:27 AM
I'm supposed to be spending my mornings writing now, and I'm discovering how resourceful I can be in thinking of other things that need doing right away, or just piddling around, especially when the work is not going smoothly.
Posted by: Mac | 02/26/2016 at 06:52 AM
Oh my goodness. I said I didn't recall a post and it was only a year and a half or so ago.
Posted by: Mac | 02/26/2016 at 06:54 AM
"Oh my goodness. I said I didn't recall a post and it was only a year and a half or so ago."
Ditto! And I'm the one who suggested it back then as well! Crikey!
At least I remember now what film was in my top 5 that Tree of Life knocked out. It was Ikiru.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/26/2016 at 09:51 AM
I'm sure glad to know it's not just me.
Posted by: Mac | 02/26/2016 at 10:33 AM
Nope -- I turn 55 next week. I expect the frequency of such things will only increase!
Posted by: Rob G | 02/26/2016 at 11:24 AM
Oddly enough I thought the discussion of our favourite movies was a few years ago. Memory can be such a weird thing! I enjoyed reading those old threads again.
Posted by: Louise | 02/29/2016 at 01:37 PM
I can't believe I had to look at this to remember what Wings of Desire was.
Posted by: Janet | 02/29/2016 at 08:26 PM
Maybe it was the root canal.
Posted by: Mac | 02/29/2016 at 10:10 PM
Movie day! My favorite day.
Posted by: Janet | 03/02/2016 at 12:15 PM
That's just what I was thinking Janet - and I checked the schedule to see what there was to look forward too, only to see it was me :-/
Posted by: Paul | 03/02/2016 at 12:40 PM
I guess I will look forward to it more than you do. ;-)
Posted by: Janet | 03/02/2016 at 01:16 PM
I'm glad y'all reminded me. I've been busy all day and was about to get involved in something else.
Posted by: Mac | 03/02/2016 at 03:55 PM
I also forgot, for the same reason, to do a Francis quote yesterday. Must go find one now.
Posted by: Mac | 03/02/2016 at 03:58 PM