First released in 1987, Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire is a love poem to a city which at the time was riven in two. Viewing it now, feels like watching archival footage of a Berlin I knew back then but which no longer exists. It also features real archival footage taken just after the war, when ‘Trümmerfrauen’ or ‘rubble women’ cleared streets, cleaned bricks, and helped reconstruct the bombed city.
The scenes depict many of the iconic places in the then West Berlin. The angels in the film sit atop the Victory Column on a golden statue of an angel. It is from there that they observe the city beneath them. They also congregate in the State Library, a stunning modernist building which reminds us of an ocean liner. There are images of Anhalter Bahnhof (railway terminus) in ruins, as well as Potsdamer Platz, the centre prewar Berlin, which until unification, was a deserted and muddy no man’s land butting up against the Wall. In addition, we see local nightclubs of the 1980’s and hear the post-punk, emotionally intense music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Most of the movie was shot in black and white which gives the film a dreamlike quality echoing the story of the angels who watch over preoccupied people as they go about their lives. Adults are unable to see the angels, but children can, and so we lament the loss of childlike wonder and children’s openness to possibilities beyond logical understanding.
The angels are poetic creatures who bear witness to humanity but are unable to participate in physical experience. This is amplified by the script, which was cowritten with Peter Handke, a well-known, if controversial, Austrian poet. These angels can only assume the meaning of human experience as they document their words, but they cannot feel them. When one of the angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist, he decides to trade his immortality to feel something real. Through his own actions, the fallen angel invites us to be amazed at the singularity of our own existence and be in awe of feeling the full extent of our humanity. After all, he has chosen to eventually die for the privilege to become fully human. At the end of the film, Damiel states, ‘I know what no angel knows’ and we are to understand that this knowledge, with all its complexities, ought to matter most.