As a child, I always wondered what it would be like to have wings, and chances are that you have, too. Feathered wings. Golden wings; enormous feathered wings of gold. The winged images and tropes of Christian scripture, angelic and all-powerful, have also helped to cement in popular imagination the possibility of soaring higher than others, of being higher than others. It is certainly a captivating thought. But Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire makes you question whether elevation is really worth pursuing, spiritually or otherwise. It turns the idea of angels on its head, and ultimately leaves you feeling more human than ever before.
The plot follows Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), two angels that bear witness to the lives of ordinary people in Berlin. They wear coats and expressions of sagacious melancholy, and can tap into the thoughts of the humans they watch over. The absence of joy and passion shows heavily on their worn faces. They are certainly invisible to Berliners, gazing at them with deep empathy, but these are not biblical angels. In fact, there is no mention of God in the entire film.
The passively intense performance delivered by the actors in their angel form is a stark contrast to the sensual world of Berlin, full of movie stars, circuses, and ghostly remnants from the war. The audience gets a sense that they have been there since the very beginning, and are envious of losing out on human experience. Damiel is aware of this, and pursues a trapeze artist after falling in love with her. It is his affection for her that draws him out of his angelic existence, and ultimately provokes him to reflect on what he has learnt about human passion after having been human himself. In fact, before transitioning to this human existence, Damiel imagines the most mundane of things that he is excited to do—“take a bath” or “buy a newspaper” or wait for the bartender to “find me an empty table.” We ourselves are forced to realise the smallest of things that enrich our experience, which may only be noticed by those who are denied them.
More than anything, it is the direction that catches the eye of the audience—indeed, most of the film’s accolades, including at Cannes, were for direction and cinematography—and the silent portrayal of Berlin as it lives and breathes. We almost feel like intruders, like the angels themselves. The feeling of not belonging to this very familiar urban landscape shocked me, and forced me to reassure myself of my own humanness as I watched.
The film is certainly not fast-paced, and many might take the initial lack of plot as a sign of an intimidating, ‘try hard’ artsy, and long-drawn out film (not to mention that it is mostly black-and-white and belongs to the European cinema canon). The focus at first appears to be solely on the humans that Damiel and Cassiel observe, who are themselves unable to affect people’s actions, instead remaining an invisible presence over their shoulders that bring fleeting sense of hope. Wenders plays with this dichotomy many times in the film, tricking the audience into believing that people realise the presence of the angels, when, in fact, they are looking at something in the distance or talking to themselves. But Wenders’s pace allows us to position ourselves as angels, silent bystanders to the bustle of Berlin. We must be as patient as they are, simply existing and watching, rather than doing anything. All that changes, of course, when Damiel “falls” from his divine status, and soon discovers he is not the first angel to do so. His fall is reminiscent of Lucifer’s, though much like the rest of the film, there is no moral judgement placed on his decision. There is no good and evil in Wenders’ film. There is simply Berlin.
Cassiel is a static character, perfectly complementing Damiel’s passion. He is deeply sympathetic to his friend’s desires, and seems to understand him, yet never crosses over. He merely carries on doing as he did before, trying to comfort his humans just by being with them. The segments of Damiel’s human existence are in colour, and the message is clear—the black-and-white existence of angels is not all it’s made out to be. In fact, the audience does not even realise the gloom of most of the film until it is contrasted with Berlin in colour. Damiel had to be an outsider to the human experience for us, his human audience, to realise his point. There are things so deeply ingrained in us that we take for granted, but they make up the very fabric of our being, and add colour to the lives we live as well as those we influence.
Now that I’m no longer a child, I know I’ll never have wings. Yet I also know that the very same “wings of desire” discovered by Damiel towards the end of the film are given to all of us, waiting to be spread. Nonetheless, it is comforting to imagine Cassiel at my shoulder, non-judgmentally aware of my most private thoughts, and wishing the best for me. Perhaps it’s not as enthralling a notion to have immortal divinity, forced to witness the world pass you by, as it is to stay on the ground and just be.
Armaan Verma is Junior Editor at ALMA MAG. He is the author of Glorious Greeks: Meet the Gods and Undoing of the Thieving King.