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.