by Pedro Silva
“For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all but rather Hate Songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted.” in the words of Nick Cave on his lecture The Secret Life of the Love Song.
The romantic genre generally goes around a central love story and tends to come to an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending trying to ignore the dangerous path that waits the few souls that have courage enough to love truly and unconditionally, and most times fail to create trustfully love stories.
Nick knows all about Love Stories, and his performance of “From Her to Eternity” on the punk-cabaret club where Marion wonders alone couldn’t be more appropriate. The title resumes the film and the lyrics of the song even refer to a man that reads the diary of his lover as Damiel hears the thoughts of Marion. Again “The Carny” lyrics and darkness are perfect to emulate her feelings about this particular moment in her life. The contrast is evident between Jürgen Knieper’s celestial score on the library scenes against the gothic darkness of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Wings of Desire centers around two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). Their job is to “Assemble, Testify and Preserve” their observations on human behavior, they write them down and mutually interchange the stories they witness. The angels themselves, however, have no individual history. The film follows the story of Damiel that, the moment he met a trapeze artist dancing dressed as an angel, with Wings of chicken feathers, falls in love and decides to become one more fallen angel, losing his Wings drawn by desire. Falling is a constant threat, Damiel, Cassiel, Peter Falk, Marion and the boy on the roof, they fall from heaven, statues, trapeze, roofs and some of them even fall in love. Damiel chooses to become human so that he can experience the human sensory pleasures, ranging from enjoying a coffee to touching a loved one. Damiel marvels at a woman who closed her umbrella in a storm and allowed herself to get wet, he doesn’t want just to hold an apple, he wants to bite the apple. He feels the need to add his voice to the multiple voices that he hears and we feel connected with him because even if we are not angels we still have difficulty to leave a mark on the world more enduring than footprints on the sand and touch the life of others receiving afection in return. Wings is a mixture of existential themes with sentimental issues. Cassiel works as a contraposition to Damiel’s vision of human life and Marion as an angel on earth.
The plot is not rich in turns and most of the time it seems nothing truly happens but the inner thought that runs thru the characters minds flow continuously and penetrates us profoundly as we would expect on any existentialist dissertation.
The repetition of the words “Als das Kind Kind war” and other verses from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem throughout the film helps the already poetic narrative and presents the nature of childhood as the possibility of discovery and its opposition to non-existence or adulthood.
One of the most curious character is the storyteller, an almost invisible old man that only the angels seem to notice, he relates to death and to oblivion. The storyteller, named Homer on the credits, feels the need to remain alive so that he can tell the new Odissey, but he doesn’t know how to conciliate war and peace in his story. ‘Der Himmel Uber Berlin’ in German, literally translates to “The Heavens over Berlin” and in fact the city itself is a relevant personage of Wings.
A subplot of the film involves the actor Peter Falk, playing himself. Peter tells Damiel “You need to figure that out for yourself, that’s the fun of it!” and represents the joy of life. He indirectly is telling us we should be proud of failure, happy for feeling pain and transmit us the will to embrace life with everything within because he knows the value of everyday life, of the apparently insignificant events, like rubbing your hands to get warm. What Peter Falk is doing in Wings is counterbalancing with the charm of his plain language and manner, the elaborated poetry of Peter Handke, just as the simple pleasures he represents in the film serve as a counterweight to the complex existentialist dissertations. Otherwise, how could an angel have a grandmother?
Wim Wenders creates a fantasy of long black over coated angels, where solitary souls are wondering in a sad world, a world without beauty, a desert landscape, of unpolished images that somehow criticizes the industrial postwar society of Berlim. Largely shot around the graffiti-covered no man’s land just over the Berlin’s wall, from the landscape arise a strange sense of disconnection among people and pointless quotidian life. Released in the spring of 1988 just 18 months before the fall of the wall, it seems to be the last testimony of a fortunately lost world.
Henri Alekan (the circus was named after him), who also shot Jean Cocteau’s visually astonishing “Beauty and the Beast”, uses sepia-toned black and white to represent the angels vision, later giving meaning to the explosion of color on Damien’s new human eyes, when he choose them over the voices of human thoughts. Alekan add brilliant image textures to Wings monochrome passages that, coupled with occasional interpolations of documentary footage of postwar Berlin buried in chaos, he originates a movie that visually is not quite anchored in time, both old-fashioned and avant-garde. The camera movements on the library scene smoothly giving the perception that we are seeing the world from the angel’s point-of-view and the poetic scene of the dying man, with the camera dandling him, are two of the most accomplished cinematographic moments of Wings.
There is a sequel to Wings “Faraway, so close!” and a remake, “City of Angels”, but the first one doesn’t add much and the second just simplifies the original, removing the existential complexity to become more pleasant to the generic audience.
Returning to Nick Cave’s lecture the pain underneath this particular love film is the sacrifice of eternity in the name of love but “Not forever but now” is surely an expression of desire more than of sacrifice, and that serves as the proof of love, since passionate souls never hesitate to make unreasonable choices.
In the end Wings of Desire makes an excellent case that eternal life is overrated, and true love it’s the ultimate goal of our lives.