Floating Through the Spirit of Wim Wenders’ ‘Wings of Desire’

When it comes to Wings of Desire, it is a film whose spirit is much better served to be expressed through any other medium than words. Perhaps I could paint your a picture or play you an instrumental number with more ease than explaining the ineffable essence of what makes Wim Wender’s late-1980s film such a profoundly beautiful masterpiece. I’m not a religious person by any means, nor particularly spiritual, but there’s a very specific feeing emitted by Wings of Desire that feels touched by a divine presence—both hauntingly meditative and wonderfully enrapturing. The romantic fantasy of a film tells the tale of immortal angels who reside over Berlin, listening in on the thoughts of humans, comforting those in distress, and longing for their own ability to taste the pleasures of the living. In an article which originally appeared in The Logic of Images in 1987, Wenders said: 

I really don’t know what gave me the idea of angels. One day I wrote “angels” in my notebook, and the next day “the unemployed.” Maybe it was because I was reading Rilke at the time—nothing to do with films—and realizing as I read how much of his writing is inhabited by angels. Reading Rilke every night, perhaps I got used to the idea of angels being around.
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And if you look at his original treatment for the film, you’ll see he begins  with the Rilke quote from The Eighth Elegy:
And we, spectators always, everywhere,
looking at, never out of, everything!
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Written in 1986, the treatment going to say:
You have a wish.
 
You wish that something might exist, and then you work on it until it does. You want to give something to the world, something truer, more beautiful, more painstaking, more serviceable, or simply something other than what already exists. And right at the start, simultaneous with the wish, you imagine what that “something other” might be like, or at least you see something flash by. And then you set off in the direction of the flash, and you hope you don’t lose your orientation, or forget or betray the wish you had at the beginning.
 
And in the end, you have a picture or pictures of something, you have music, or something that operates in some new way, or a story, or this quite extraordinary combination of all these things: a film. Only with a film—as opposed to paintings, novels, music, or inventions—you have to present an account of your desire; more, you even have to describe in advance the path you want to go with your film. No wonder, then, that so many films lose their first flash, their comet.
The thing I wished for and saw flashing was a film in and about Berlin.
 
A film that might convey something of the history of the city since 1945. A film that might succeed in capturing what I miss in so many films that are set here, something that seems to be so palpably there when you arrive in Berlin: a feeling in the air and under your feet and in people’s faces that makes life in this city so different from life in other cities.
 
To explain and clarify my wish, I should add: it’s the desire of someone who’s been away from Germany for a long time, and who could only ever experience “Germanness” in this one city. I should say I’m no Berliner. Who is nowadays? But for over twenty years now, visits to this city have given me my only genuine experiences of Germany, because the (hi)story that elsewhere in the country is suppressed or denied is physically and emotionally present here.
 
Of course I didn’t want just to make a film about the place, Berlin. What I wanted to make was a film about people—people here in Berlin—that considered the one perennial question: how to live?
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Before starting in on what his prologue might offer:
When God, endlessly disappointed, finally prepared to turn his back on the world forever, it happened that some of his angels disagreed with him and took the side of man, saying he deserved to be given another chance.
 
Angry at being crossed, god banished them to what was then the most terrible place on earth: berlin.
 
And then he turned away.
 
All this happened at the time that we today call: “the end of the second world war.”
 
Since that time, these fallen angels from “the second angelic rebellion” have been imprisoned in the city, with no prospect of release, let alone of being readmitted to heaven. they are condemned to be witnesses, forever nothing but onlookers, unable to affect men in the slightest, or to intervene in the course of history. they are unable to so much as move a grain of sand . . .
And when you look at the whole of Wenders’ work, the Andre Breton quote, “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name,” seems to resonate throughout. His characters are "all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive. Some of them find it in others and then some of them realize even if they did—would it even make them feel better? Or are they destined to eternally feel that hole inside?" In Wenders’ Pina, Bausch says, "What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?" And in hearing her say those words, I realized the essence of that question was the through-line for all of Wenders’ work as an artist—this precise and deeply specific feeling for something you can’t taste or touch but know like the back of your teeth and crave and search for without end. 
 
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And as we anticipate Wenders’ next feature Every Thing Will Be Fine, a 3D drama starring James Franco, we wonder where that film will land on his spectrum of work. But in the meantime, let’s all do ourselves a favor and re-watch Wings of Desire, or at least read the rest of his treatment for the film HERE, his own take on the film’s production HERE, or watch Nick Cave’s perfect concert scene below and Peter Falk in one of his finest roles.
 

 

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