Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire opens in black and white with a pen inscribing the words "Als das Kind Kind war" into a notebook. The line, "When the child was a child," echoing I Corinthians 13, is spoken in a childlike sing-song by a male voice which we later learn belongs to an angel. The phrase acts as a refrain throughout the film to preface poetic evocations of the innocence and harmony of childhood. "When the child was a child it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea."
Following the credits is a shot of a gigantic eye, then an aerial scene of post-war Berlin. Atop a crumbling church tower stands a winged angel wearing an overcoat. In the street below a little girl stops to look and is jostled by passersby. Two other children in a bus stare upwards at the spectacle.
The angel is Damiel, condemned to observe the city and eavesdrop on its citizens. The camera becomes the angel's point of view tracking through the streets and into the houses, visiting everyday people experiencing ordinary pleasures and pains. Parents worry about their children; a man frets over the death of his mother who never threw anything away, people sit and stare vacantly at the television. The angel hears their interior thoughts. They are distressed, reflective, amused, bored, concerned. Their lives seem fragmented and disconnected, untouched by the integrating powers of imagination embodied by poets and storytellers. Damiel appears on an airplane carrying the actor Peter Falk to work on a film project in Berlin. Falk is worrying about the character he is to play in a film about the Third Reich.
Later, Damiel is joined by his companion angel Cassiel and they compare the odd miscellany they've been writing in their notebooks. They speak of an old man reading the Odyssey to a child, a woman folding her umbrella in the rain and getting drenched, and a man looking over his shoulder into space. Through the course of their conversation, the viewer discovers that these angels have been around since the beginning of time and are now here in Berlin to, "observe, collect, testify and preserve." They are guardian angels without the power to intervene in the affairs of humans. They put their weightless hands on the shoulders of suffering people and share their pain but are impotent to help. Their presence is sensed by certain children, by people in emotional distress, by readers in libraries, and in one of the film's most remarkable sequences, by the victim of a motorcycle accident. As the dying man sits and thinks of his female companion, Damiel comes to him and cradles his head in his hands, and gradually the man begins to speak the same words as the angel, a curious, incantatory, hypnotic poetry of timeless images and places and knowledge of all mysteries.
Eloquence and universal knowledge, however, in Wenders' anti-Platonic view, leads to static perfection, which Damiel begins to question. While he admits that "it's great to live by the spirit," he yearns to feel some weight to him, to be able to say "now" rather than "forever." He wants to be able to have a fever, to display fingers blackened by newspaper, to be excited by a meal or the curve of a neck. He wants to feel his skeleton inside his body, to be enthused over evil, to lie through his teeth, and like Philip Marlowe, to come home and feed the cat He wants to be able to take off his shoes and stretch his barefoot toes. He wants to be able to be alone, to let things happen.
He gets his wish. Attracted to a circus, he sees a woman, Marion, wearing a shabby set of wings rehearsing for her trapeze act. As he gazes at her, the screen momentarily turns to color, indicating the penetration into the angelic world of the vital and sensual elements of the temporal realm. Damiel falls for the woman. He follows her into a trailer where he eavesdrops on her fragmented thoughts: I know so little. How should I live? How should I think? The viewer watches him observing the curve of her neck and staring as she undresses. Again, a moment of color. She desires to love and later dreams of a winged man wearing bronze armor. It is Damiel.
Damiel's mind is made up. He will descend into the mortal world and like Odysseus, forsake immortality for the fleeting but more piercing experience of the earth and flesh. Damiel and a piece of his angelic armor falls with a thud just beside the Berlin wall. Now, the film shifts almost exclusively to color and to more conventional cinematic narrative techniques.
Damiel discovers that his sharp angelic armor has cut his head, but delights in the taste and texture of his own blood. He says, "I'm beginning to understand." He asks a passerby if the blood is red and inquires about the other colors in the graffiti on the wall. This is not a world of corrupt and entrapping matter but a world of liberating sights and sensations. He sells his angel's armor and buys a loud coat and rakish hat. Damiel is encouraged in his exuberant enjoyment of the sights and smells and tastes of the world by the actor playing the Peter Falk character who, it turns out, is also a fallen angel now enjoying playing the fictional character Columbo on American television. "I want to know everything," Damiel tells Falk. But human knowledge, unlike angelic knowledge, is incomplete, fragmented, and ambiguous. "You have to find it out yourself," the Falk character tells the fallen angel, "that's the fun of it."
Damiel makes his way toward Marion as resolutely as Odysseus made his way home to Penelope. "She'll teach me everything," he says, "entirely different wings will replace my usual ones, wings that will at last amaze me."
He trails her to a crowded music hall and sits at the bar. She silently makes her way toward him and he listens as she tells him that "it's time to get serious." The scene fades and opens again on Damiel as Marion's assistant, holding the rope as she twirls high above on her "chicken feather" wings. "Something has happened," he thinks. "It is binding...she took me home and I found my home...I now know what no angel knows."
The simplest reading of Wings of Desire is to see it as an existentialist rejection of conventional notions of Platonic philosophy, an inverted gnostic fable, or as a repudiation of the famous dark mirror section of Corinthians 13. Indeed, Wenders seems to turn Plato upside down. In the Phaedrus, the soul's wings begin to sprout as a consequence of gazing upon the beautiful, but the soul's education is away from the contingent, the temporal, and the sensual. The light, winged and holy beings in Plato's thought who exult in the bliss of perfect knowledge have left completely the world and its imperfections. By contrast, Wenders affirms the earthly wings Marion uses in her trapeze act as the true wings. They are annoying "chicken feathers" to Marion, and clearly her flying is a poor imitation of the flight of genuine angels, but Wenders wants us to see Marion as the proper angel, and Damiel as the pretend angel. As Marion descends from her trapeze and walks away sporting her fake wings, one of her co-workers yells, "An angel just passed by." Damiel, who is invisibly present in the scene is stunned, thinking that the remark referred to him. He then realizes the man meant Marion, not him. He comes to see, as does the viewing audience, that the offhand remark was strictly true, for the angel that passes is what Wallace Stevens elegantly referred to as the "necessary angel" of the earth "in whose sight we see the earth again." ("Angel Surrounded by Paysans," Stevens 496). This is Plato's education of the soul in reverse. Instead of ascending the ladder toward transcendence under the tutelage of the angel who understands all mysteries, Marion, whose thoughts are confused and her way hidden, instructs the angel how to descend into the world of fictive flights and frayed feathers. The "entirely different wings" that Damiel desires are the source of a sensation he was unable to experience as an angel: amazement.
In gnostic mythologies, the soul, having fallen into the world of time and matter, is seduced by temporal and fleshly pleasures and forgets that its home is elsewhere. This is the theme of a film by one of Wenders' worthy rivals, Nicholas Roeg. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, an extraterrestrial descends to earth in order to use his superior intelligence to create a corporation which will supply his barren home planet with life-giving water. Once on earth, however, he falls victim to seductions of the flesh and of the eye. He becomes a fornicator, an alcoholic, and an inveterate television watcher. He forgets earlier memories of his suffering family patiently waiting his return home.
By contrast, Wenders' fable shows a spirit who is given substance, purpose and meaning through his descent into matter. When he falls to earth, it is winter; there is snow on the ground, and he experiences cold for the first time. He enjoys rubbing his hands together to create warmth. He buys a cup of coffee and realizes something close to ecstasy as he holds his cold hands around the hot cup and tastes the bitter liquid. As an angel he would often pick up an object, a pencil from the library or a stone from Marion's dresser, but as he would touch it would become transparent and weightless. Released from eternal observation, testifying and collecting, he is now able to do what no angel can do—interpret. Instead of observing events, he can read them, that is, discover the story they tell, understand reality as poem rather than bloodless event.
Another poem by Wallace Stevens resonates so closely with these aspects of the film that one is led to suspect either that Director Wenders had read the poem before filming or perhaps more likely, that the poet, who died in 1955, had seen, as angelic presence, Wenders' film long before it was made. It's called "Large Red Man Reading."
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.
There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life.
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,
Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.
In the gnostic version it is the earthling who lacks perfect spiritual knowledge; in Wenders' tale, it is the spiritual being who lacks the imperfect and incomplete knowledge of the earth, knowledge which creates the desire not to watch, but to create, to make, to beget, in a word, to love. To make (in Greek "poesis") and to love are moving toward synthesis in Wenders' fable.
While agreeing with the claims of I Corinthians 13:11 that faith and eloquence and knowledge are nothing without love, Wenders reverses the contentions of the famous last verses of chapter thirteen: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child; When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully." In Wenders' film, love is only possible when we see in a mirror dimly, that is, when we possess that partial knowledge which creates desire to forge stories out of experience. And, most clearly in terms of the film, we do not outgrow childhood but achieve it. We now know that the look in the eyes of the children as they gaze on the angels in the film is not the look of yearning but of acceptance or amazement; it is the angels who look at children with yearning, the yearning to become as a child, when "everything was full of life, and all life was one."
To see the film solely as an existentialist rejection of transcendence and a celebration of immanent reality is an oversimplification of Wenders' aims. First, his angels are not merely desiccated spirits. They are rich and complex beings, whose felt presence is salutary. Like the children who can sense them better than adults, they are radiantly innocent. Yet, like Rilke's Angels in the Duino Elegies, in their perfection they are seen by mortals as terrible. Second, Wenders himself is more a Platonist than an existentialist. He is haunted by the idea of transcendence, but to him, transcendence is inseparable from the desire of and for the earth and flesh, desires that are more Homeric than Platonic. If only, he seems to suggest in this film, a Homeric sensibility could be grafted, without the rending pain of contradiction, onto a Platonic temperament. In Wings of Desire, Wenders' wishes to blend the sensual and secular Homeric tale of Odysseus' return home to Penelope with that of the transcendent quest of lovers told by Plato, not in the Phaedrus, but through the comic/ironic voice of Aristophanes in The Symposium. Love, in Aristophanes' famous myth, is the desire we feel for a person whose soul mate we were before we fell into the world of hidden ways and dim mirrors. In Wenders' film the quest is Platonic in its reference to ideal beginnings and supersensible ends, but Homeric in its emphasis on the sensuous details of lovers who, out of partial knowledge and imperfect memories, search through the sights and sounds and smells of a perishing earth for that which will give a sense of wholeness and meaning to their experience.
At the movie's end, when Damiel and Marion meet at the bar, they look at one another. He attempts to embrace her but like her Homeric counterpart Penelope she must delay until she is certain the man is worthy not only of her but of the remarkable story he's involved in. She pushes him away. Throughout this whole scene, Damiel is speechless. It is Marion who now speaks in the curious poetry Wenders and Scriptwriter Peter Handke have given the angels. "It's time to get serious," she says, "Look at me or don't. Give me your hand or don't. No. Don't give me your hand and look the other way." Indeed, she is teaching Damiel what he needs to know. Here the child's puddle is becoming the sea. These two are no longer Berliners but rather the Adam and Eve of a new consciousness, a new way of seeing and knowing. "Now WE are the times," Marion says, "not only the whole city but the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are more than just two. We personify something. We are sitting in the people's plaza. We are deciding everyone's game. I am ready. Now it's your truth. Now or never. You need me. There is no greater story than ours. That of man and woman. Look my eyes. They are the picture of necessity. I dreamt of a man."
Aristophanes' transcendent lovers have met Homer's Odysseus and Penelope.
The important question for Wenders is that of who arranged this rendezvous of Man and Woman. Who brought the palpable world of Homer to the rarified one of Plato? It is of course the magician, the artist, the Storyteller.
Early in the film, the two angelic protagonists visit a library where they meet and exchange benevolent glances with other angels who hover above readers immersed in books. The readers are totally absorbed, as if feeding on a life-giving substance. Unlike the aimless and distracted citizens of Berlin seen earlier, these people are giving themselves up to the power of words to give shape and depth, in a phrase, to make poetic sense of their lives. What draws the angels to the library and its rapt readers is the integrating powers of language. Often associated in many mythologies with the bearing of messages, angels are in a sense themselves texts, but disembodied, or perhaps disembooked texts. They hang around libraries in order to sense something of the magical transformation of text into life through reading, but they are unable to do more than observe and take notes. Damiel picks up a pencil, and at once it becomes a substanceless facsimile of a pencil. He twirls the weightless pencil in his hands, closes his eyes, and throws his arms out in a posture of crucifixion, indicating his despair over his inability to experience the rapture of the readers.
Into this scene comes a sick old man puffing up the stairs and sinking exhausted into a chair. "Tell me Muse," the angels hear him think "of the storyteller who was thrust to the edge of the world, child-like, ancient, and through him reveal everyman." The old man recalls that his listeners used to sit in circles enjoying his stories; then, they took to reading books, sitting apart from one another and now he is in danger of losing his voice altogether. "And once mankind loses its storyteller, it will have lost its childhood."
The angel Cassiel follows the old man through the gray landscape of divided Berlin as he looks for a place that used to be but is no more. As he plays on a tiny organ grinder, the old man thinks, "Name me Muse, the immortal singer who, abandoned by his mortal listeners, lost his voice." The old man is named in the credits as "Homer."
And it is "Homer's" words that conclude the film. After Damiel and Marion have succeeded in finding one another, the old man is seen trudging through off into the dreary landscape of Berlin, muttering "Name the Men, Women and Children who will look for me, their story teller, their spiritual guide, more than anything in the world. We have embarked."
The old man Homer is the director himself. Wings of Desire is Wim Wender's invocation to the Muse to inspire him to become the angel of storytelling for our time. The obstacles facing this "spiritual guide" are enormous and perhaps insurmountable. Storytelling isn't what it used to be. The oral poet is gone and the angel of books has been "thrust to the edge of the world," which is to say, into the libraries. Storytelling now, for better or worse, has become the business of the cinematic artist, the angel of moving images. It is this angel who must give us back our lost childhood and create a coherent identity appropriate to a new millennium.
The task is made even more difficult in light of the fact that the film-maker must confront his own medium's failure to invent a satisfactory narrative for this time. The old epic of war, the old valorization of the male hero on his journey to either purge or purchase the object of his desire, which is to say, a woman, is, in terms of Wings of Desire, obsolete. The traditional film director seeking to manipulate, arrange and control what the viewer sees with the assistance of the camera's voyeuristic, patriarchal eye, must learn to "let things happen." The result may be disorienting and unpleasant to the viewer, but if an alternative to conventional ways of seeing and knowing is to come about, cinema must, according to Laura Mulvey, "break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to create a new language of desire" (432).
Compounding the difficulty, to "let things happen," as Wenders knows from his early notion that one could point the camera at something and simply let it go, also runs the risk of being voyeuristic and patriarchal. The artist becomes the watchmaker god who watches but does not interfere with events. Such experimentalism may produce profound, even obsessively compelling images, but, unshaped by the ordering powers of story, the images become destructively addictive. In his latest film titled Until the End of the World, Wenders imagines that in 1999, technological advances have produced a mechanical device which can record one's dreams and memories. Although made for the noble purpose of allowing blind people the opportunity to see again, the invention turns malevolent. People become addicted to their own psychic pictures. They wander about with portable viewing screens fixated on the moving images. Like rats compulsively pushing the lever that activates pleasure producing chemicals in the brain while forgetting to eat, sleep or have sex, these people do nothing but watch. The watchers do sleep but when they do they dream about their dreams. For one watcher (Solvieg Dommartin, Marion from Wings of Desire), when the message appears on her screen that her batteries are dead, she screams that she doesn't want to live anymore. Her writer husband imprisons her and observes withdrawal symptoms in every way as harrowing as those associated with the most addictive drug. Tapping on his typewriter in the Australian desert he thinks, "I didn't know the cure for the disease of images. But I believe in the magic and the healing power of words and stories."
Stories heal not because they involve us in events but because they keep us from falling into them. The storyteller pushes us away and says "It's time to get serious," meaning that we must step back and behold the various ways in which images are held together, the larger narrative in which we act and have our being, or as Marion puts it, "everyone's game."
Wenders laments the fact that movies are coming to look more and more like television in their framing, their rhythm, and their lighting. When television devours the cinema, when we all become addicted to this peculiar strain of the disease of images, a chaos of fragmented pictures generated by commercial interests devoted solely to the transformation of everything into products, then perhaps the genuine voice of the storyteller will have been stilled completely.
The last and perhaps greatest challenge for the angel of storytelling in our time is the artist's own distrust of the power of story to heal. In his book titled The Logic of Images Wenders says that stories "bring out lies...and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none. Then again, our need for these lies is so consuming that it's completely pointless to fight them...Stories are impossible, but it's impossible to live without them." (59)
And yet, despite such skepticism, and despite all the obstacles, Wenders believes that the true storyteller's voice can never be totally suppressed. If we listen carefully, we can still make out the diminished sound of the organ grinder, can still hear the storytelling angel's voice, grown small, but still strong: "Sing in me Muse," it says, "And through me tell the story..." And the story, though told more and more in the language of moving images, may still be the larger narrative of man and woman, as old as the tale of Odysseus and Penelope, and as new as the story of Damiel and Marion. It is the story of love, which, after Wings of Desire, we may discover to be indistinguishable from the love of story.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Feminisms, ed. Robyrn R. Warhold and Diane Price, Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Wenders, Wim. The Logic of Images. Trans Michael Hofmann, Faber and Faber, 1991.