Following a pair of angels, Damiel and Cassiel, as they observe a divided Berlin unseen, Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1988), is primarily concerned with the idea of faith. The idea of faith is illustrated best by the people who can see the angels: children, and a blind woman, as well as the character of Marion, whom Damiel falls in love with. In terms of philosophy, Damiel and Cassiel represent contrasting views of humanity. Damiel yearns to experience life as a human, and Cassiel sees humans as tragic and violent. Faith as it functions in the film, could apply to faith in a higher power, and faith in humanity.
The use of hallucinatory juxtapositions combining multiple perspectives of the city used throughout the film makes it visually very beautiful and enjoyable to watch. The pacing of this film is composed such that makes it feel tranquil (Small). Film critic Roger Ebert shared in his review of Wings of Desire on the genius of the film’s cinematographer, Henri Alekan, “his camera seems liberated from gravity; it floats over the city, or glides down the aisle of an airplane. It does not intrude; it observes” (Ebert). The camera’s perspective on the city appears as if it is effortlessly floating above like an angel.
Traditionally associated with the faithful and innocent, children are shown to see the angels while others cannot. Their innocence allows them to see the presence of an angel. I believe the young children in this film are a representation of faith. The first thing we see at the start of the film is a series of shots of young children stopping what they are doing to look up. It is revealed that they are looking at Damiel standing at the top of a building. Every young child can see him and stops to look at him. Throughout the film, young children stop to look at Damiel and the other angels, and not once does one look startled by them. Each child looks at peace and happy with the angel’s presence. The angels blend in with the crowd of the city very well, yet these children look at them in a way I feel they know that there is something special about their presence, despite them being dressed in very ordinary clothes compared to the people of Berlin in the film, standing out only for their ponytails. The poem that Damiel writes during the film, is about childhood. At the end, when he is a human, he concludes that, referring to a state of childhood, “so it is even now.” This seems to mean that Damiel thinks living like a child is the best path in life.
Another character that can see the angels is the blind woman. She so greatly could feel the presence of the angel Damiel, she stops and asks who is there. I thought this to be very significant, since the blind woman cannot see, every step she takes is equivalent to a leap of faith. Since each step she takes is in faith she can be more attuned to the presence of divinity. Damiel’s presence is also felt in the film by American actor Peter Falk that plays himself in the film. In the film, Falk tells Damiel “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here.” Falk is another human that was once an angel like Damiel. The fact that he became human, supposably in a similar way as Damiel, suggests that angels can at any time choose to become mortal.
The main love interest takes the attention of Damiel because of how she lives in faith. The first time we see Marion on the screen she is wearing her costume, which is all white and includes a pair of what appear to be angel wings. It is quite obvious that her costume is meant to symbolize purity and divinity as she is dressed to look like an angel. I find it very important that Marion is a trapeze artist. Every motion of her lively hood is a leap of faith. Her profession is very dangerous, at any moment she can fall and die. She puts so much trust into the equipment, gravity, and herself. She has to have faith in herself and her ability to be safe while so high off the ground.
In the film, Marion is worried about her performance which will be during a full moon. While Marion is having her internal dialogue, the song “The Carny” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds plays. I feel it a bit redundant that she is listening to a song about a carny when she herself is one. Marion is kind of like Damiel, in the way that she is just passing through. She thinks of how she is a stranger to the city yet she knows it so well, just like the angels. In her trailer, while she is having her internal monolog Marion shares how fear is a silly thing, and she says the line “that’s what makes me clumsy, the absence of desire.” Marion longs for someone to love, she is longing for the desire to love. She wants similar aesthetic experiences that Damiel seems to long for as well.
Complicating the idea of faith as something positive, the suicidal man Cassiel attempts to comfort mirrors the leap of faith image of Marion. In the scene, Cassiel could comfort the man, but he couldn’t do anything to alter the result. I think it is interesting that he jumps off the building when he could have committed suicide in a number of ways. The jumping image seems even more important since it occurs twice, once down to the roof, and then off the building. This scene explains Cassiel’s more pessimistic outlook and links faith with death. If a leap of faith image is used for a death scene, then it implies that faith is foolish, leading to demise. This provides an interesting antithesis in the film.
I feel that the film brings to question how one’s existence can be of worth if it doesn’t include the knowledge of an end. If your existence doesn’t allow for risks how can anything truly be of purpose? The film is very much interested in the idea of faith that Søren Kierkegaard was interested in. This film is about forces that are not seen but most people. The angels don’t experience aesthetic qualities of life in the ways that humans do. Damiel has the simple wish of drinking a cup of coffee, and it is the first thing he tastes as a human. The angel’s existence doesn’t have the opportunity to test faith. Kierkegaard believed a leap that is made by faith is to believe in something higher than reason, a blind leap.
The angel Damiel wants to experience simple life moments, moments only fully experienced by children. Damiel describes childrens experience with life to be simple but the most fulfilling. When speaking with Cassiel, Damiel describes wanting to experience simple sensory experiences like holding a newspaper and having the ink stain his fingers. All the wants that Damiel shares having are very sensory oriented, and very simple. I don’t think what Damiel wants can quite be limited to an aesthetic life as defined by Kierkegaard. I think Damiel saw these aesthetic wants as something vital to experience to appreciate life. Throughout the film, Damiel shares a poem about children, one of the stanzas reading, “When the child was a child, It was enough for it to eat an apple, … bread, And so it is even now.” I take this poem to be what Damiel believes to be truths about life. I think Damiel is saying in this stanza that he doesn’t want to experience superficial vanities that are so many aesthetic life qualities. He wants to experience life life a child, appreciating everything.
In an interview with film critic, Haden Guest with the Harvard Film Archive Wim Wenders spoke on his reasoning for depicting the angels’ different experiences by showing their view of the world with the absence of color. “Maybe they see more colors than any of us. But it was sort of a useful idea to create this other world and to make it believable that they could hear our thoughts. So they have this whole different, other sensorium to register things” (Wenders). So much of the film is in black and white, I take this to mean that the perpetual angelic existence is bleaker than a mortal existence. I like the technique of having the frame quickly through progressively fade to color as Damiel becomes human. The change to color as well as the footprints make clear to the viewer that Damiel has changed.
While in her trailer, Marion thinks to herself, “How should I live? Maybe that’s not the question. How should I think?” and Damiel nods, as to tell her that is the right question. I think sharing this question is one of the main purposes of the film. Our thoughts are so attuned with the ways we live our lives. The ways we think affect so greatly how we live. I think this quote is about a matter of perspective. I think Daniel’s nod signifies that he is agreeing with what Marion says, and I think this means that how you frame your perspective is what is most important.
Ebert, Roger. “Wings of Desire” 12 April 1998
“Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin)” Harvard Film Archive 8 April 2018
Small, Courtney. “Blind Spot: Wings of Desire” Cinema Axis 2 January 2014