Sunday, 24 February 2008


There’s only two kinds of really great films. There’s the stimulating films like Persona or Chien Andalou, fascinatingly inscrutable parables which you could watch endlessly and still want to see again. Then there’s the nourishing films like La Regle Du Jou or To Kill a Mockingbird, which feel so richly humane and heartwarming you cannot help but feel touched by, meals which you couldn’t bear to think you’d never see again. Yet Wings of Desire is somehow both. It’s survived being turned into both a Hollywood classic and a car advert to remain essential viewing.

“For me the film is like music or a landscape. It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions.” Roger Erbert

It’s not a film that’s going to appeal if you hold to the common idea that film is something linear, or a novel which is just acted out in front of you. Like many of my favourite films it’s immersive nor discursive, it’s more like a piece of music which engulfs you and takes you over with its mood.

Set in divided Eighties Berlin, the film might appear a timepiece. Carl Jung once said of the Berlin wall, “the world is now dissociated like a neurotic”. But this is far from a historical record of life in a divided city. For one thing it casually jumps around time, turning a corner it finds itself in a bombed-out wartime Berlin. But more importantly it uses the divided city as a metaphor for a divided humanity, everyone walled inside their private self.

“They no longer sit in a circle, but rather sit apart. And one doesn’t know anything about the other.”

A key image in the film is the library - each inside his own cubicle thinking his private thoughts. The angels however can pass between the solid barriers and eavesdrop on each of these thoughts. (One of which is the old poet’s given above.) Unseen the angels converse only with each other, sharing such observations.

“When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream?”

However, it boggles my mind how few people actually seem to understand the role of the angels. Many seem to assume they inhabit a state of ‘pure spirit’, above mere humanity to which we should aspire. The references to childhood which open the film (quoted above) are often taken to be a reference to humanity’s unadvanced state. But these notions can be answered with a simple point. This is not a story of a human who became divine, but an angel who became human.

It may be illustrative to compare the angels to the Tralfamadorians, the aliens in Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five. Like the Tralfamdorians, the angels have amazing perceptive powers such as the ability to see through time. But while the Tralfamadorians have reached a state of Zen-like superiority the angels are outsiders, trapped inside their powers. They’re aware the humans live much more limited lives, and see all their failings, but still look to them longingly.

The quote about childhood seems to me a more accurate description of the angels’ state than the humans. The angels are unattached, floating, groundless, without a specific place or purpose in the world. They watch the world attentively, even lovingly, but never quite comprehendingly. Their habit of listing their observations, like they can’t quite see the joins between things, is very childlike.

Damiel, our key angel, becomes human partly out of love for a human girl. (Though also to get the feeling of newspaper ink upon his fingers.) When he succeeds he recites to her an almost exact reversal of the ‘when a child’ speech – essentially “we are here, it’s now, it’s life, let’s live it.” Childhood, free from cares and commitments, is simultaneously free from involvement in the world. It’s a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to settle down there. When Peter Falk reveals he too was once an angel it’s suggestive that perhaps we all were once. (“Oh yeah! There’s lots of us.”) In this way the film is a rites of passage between childhood and adultness.

Simultaneously the angels are artists. They watch life from outside, taking notes. Much of the content of the film is from things Wenders observed in exactly this way, and decided to add. (For example Peter Falk’s sketching of people.) The human Damiel falls for, his route into the human world, is a trapeze artist. Associatedly, the angels are the cinema viewer. Rober Erbert has written of how the “camera seems liberated from gravity; it floats over the city, or glides down the aisle of an airplane. It does not intrude; it observes”. In this way the camera is another airplane. Their world is black and white while the ‘real’ one is in colour. In The Wizard of Oz, filmed in a black-and-white era, it was the fantasy world which burst into colour. These days even newspapers are in colour and black-and-white has become an ‘artistic’ frame.

“I want no longer to hover above, I want to feel a weight within me, abolishing limitlessness and binding me to earth.” – Damiel

All these views are valid and complementary, and in no way vie with one another. However, it’s simultaneously true that the film is ultimately about alienation. Damiel escapes the role of a mere observer of life by embracing humanity. But let us not forget the city where the film is set. The film is not some glib New Agey parable about “following your bliss”. In many ways the humans are as alienated as the angels, locked in their subjectivity, writing epic poems they hope will make everyone else understand, never finishing them. As Richard Raskin has said; “Damiel’s quest is not a denial of the spirit but a wish to live a life in which spirit and body are united.” The trapeze artist aims in her art to achieve weightlessness as surely as Damiel longs to feel weight, and that is the magnet which attracts them. The humans and the angels have the two halves of something which must be put together – empathy for others combined with a will to live.

When Damiel first becomes human, Peter Falk exultingly tells him what he has to look forward to. “When your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things!” Like the graffiti on the Wall, the film often manages to find colour in the bleakest-seeming places. Some films manage to make you see cinema in an entirely new way. This film reminds you of things in the world outside the cinema, things you’d always known but had forgotten to notice. It reminds me of the final line in the Glenn Dakin comic strip, Mr. Night Disappears, “to boldly go where everyone has gone before.”

You know, I even kind of like the sequel…

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