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Angels and the Modern City

Wim Wenders: WINGS OF DESIRE

Produced by Anatole Dauman.
Screenplay by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke.
Director of photography: Henri Alekan.

Starring:
Bruno Ganz as Damiel.
Solveig Dommartin as Marion.
Otto Sander as Cassiel.
Curt Bois as Homer.
Peter Falk as Himself.

I'd like to get something straight from the start. I'm no great fan of moving pictures. The cinema, for me, has always been suspect. I think of it as a form of diversion that waits round every corner, an escapism we'll never escape. The 20th century's great art form, a totalizing art that's taken over so much of our lives--to assess its influence is almost impossible for us. We've grown up inside it, we live our lives under its spell. And unlike the great art forms of the past, the cinema seems mostly a means of avoiding life, or snuffing life out. Its flickering images are too compelling; we're too easily taken in by such devastating visual powers. Such powers, however, the power that cinema lends us--it's nearly always a sham. What are we left with after the credits run? We've been entertained, and wait for the next fix.

Although the cinema certainly matters to me (my point here, after all, is that it's impossible for it *not* to matter) and although I'm often compelled by a particular movie for the two hours I watch it, it's rare that a film will answer the demands that I bring, say, to my reading. It's rare that a film forces me to widen my thoughts the way certain books do. There are few movies, in other words, that actually *thrill* me, that make me see something new in relation to spiritual life or think something new in relation to the problem of being human. Wim Wenders' *Wings of Desire* is the only film of these few that's made me actually want to write about it. It's the only film I return to, and muse over.

*Wings of Desire* is one of the peaks of cinema, it's one of cinema's highest accomplishments. If the art of cinema has a *Divine Comedy*, it must be this single film by Wenders.

Never has a film given such powerful answers to our most pressing questions. Not clearcut answers, but paradoxical and ambiguous ones, answers that lead to further questions, to a rethinking of basic assumptions. That a filmmaker can raise such existential problems so compellingly is something in itself to wonder over. Wenders makes these questions drive every scene in his film.

What are the relations between material and spiritual? Is there something beyond the material world? If there is some higher or divine realm, how can we enter into it or achieve communion with it? Is it true that transcendence can be attained through conquering the body? Is the body material and the mind, or part of the mind, spiritual? Is human history a parade of disasters finally leading nowhere (or leading, perhaps, to some terminal disaster)? Does anyone hear our voices? Do these voices resonate with some divine Word or words? Our triumphs and perils--are they connected to some ultimate purpose, part of some cosmic conflict, or are they ultimately meaningless?

Our culture's indecision regarding the earthly and the transcendent is fundamental, and ancient. These are the problems, after all, that dogged Plato into formulating the West's first great philosophical system. They are the same problems that give impetus to the ongoing struggle in the West between religion and scientific secularism. Normally dealt with in academic or social/political registers, such questions don't often become the animating spirit behind movies. But Wenders' film is different; it stands entirely apart. He somehow manages to convey the immediacy of such questions to modern life, to the lives and yearnings of individuals, to their love lives, their thoughts about work, death, family. *Wings of Desire* is utterly bizarre, in a quirky and often humorous way, but at the same time utterly serious. Wenders' genius was to make a film both compellingly realistic, as a documentary of life in modern Berlin, and convincingly metaphysical, as a tale of the angels in charge of watching over Berlin.

*Wings of Desire* generates its dramatic tension by exploiting the tension that holds between angels and humans, between the two overlapping realms in which they live. The angelic realm is particularly fascinating here because it is one we haven't ever glimpsed in such a tactile way. Besides which Wenders' angelic realm doesn't exactly conform to traditional ideas of angels. Beyond time and death, the angels here hover over Berlin and can move in and around it at will. This, so far, is familiar enough. They can enter any room or office and observe the people there, even overhearing the thoughts that run through their heads. (The viewer too can hear these thoughts as voiceovers.) We then learn that the angels have been preparing for this job since the beginning of time. The two angels we know as characters in this film have in fact been present over this same plot of ground since well before human history. At first they merely awaited the arrival of "the one created in our image," i.e. man. Then, after the earliest humans arrived on the scene, their waiting took on a different character.

Human beings in this film come forth as a result of evolution, but they come forth destined to fulfil a spiritual potential. Wenders' myth of men and angels thus strays from the orthodox religious accounts, but has, to be sure, its parallel aspects as well.

Having carefully watched human beings from the beginning, the angels in some ways understand us better than we understand ourselves. In particular they understand how we reach for what is spiritual, how we sense but can't quite enter into the spiritual realm just beyond us. This understanding, however, doesn't necessarily imply an intellectual superiority. Although their realm overlaps with ours, and although they can read our thoughts, there remains the barrier, a barrier experienced as such by both sides. As for us, we cannot see the angels, and we cannot normally converse with them. We may even doubt their existence. For their part, they cannot know what life really is for us, what it feels like. The coldness or warmth, the color, the taste, the texture of things--these are completely alien to angels. Their world is in black and white, and they can never really touch things. Being that the angels transcend time, they cannot really know time either. They cannot know its human meaning. Intellectually they may know that man lives in the present, that man's present is ever running out, ever dragging him toward death. They *know* this, as a matter of fact, but they don't know what it feels like to actually live within it.

The angels' curiosity about the true lives of men leads to desire. Their lack of real life, of the tragic feel of life, eventually leads some of them to want to shake off their eternity and join man in his time-bound state. The desire of the angels to fall is Wenders' brilliant twist. Not to fall like Lucifer, by a denial of God, but to fall through a need for human warmth, through a curiosity or empathy for human life. The angels, in their perfection, can fall in love with man, with his compelling imperfection. Wenders makes of this possibility a beautiful meditation on the worldly and the divine, on what it might mean to be mortal and immortal.

It's through the dialogues of the two angels Damiel and Cassiel (played by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) that we learn of their long waiting for man's gestation. We learn also of their current task, their calling: to witness the development in man of "spirit". Damiel and Cassiel watch over the lives of Berliners and keep note of what they see and hear. They must testify to man's spiritual side, and so they must gather evidence of it.

One of the most telling dialogues as regards Damiel and Cassiel's work takes place when the two of them meet to relay what each has recently witnessed. It is evident that the two occasionally make reports to each other of their individual observations, things they've seen and heard as they each wandered around Berlin. The two are seated in a car on display in a car dealer's showroom. Cassiel first takes out a small notebook and begins giving the standard readings:

CASSIEL: Sunrise and 7:22 a.m. Sunset at 4:28 p.m. Moonrise at [....] Twenty years ago today a Soviet jet fighter crashed into the lake at Spandau. Fifty years ago there were the Olympic Games. Two-hundred years ago Blanchard flew over the city in a balloon.

DAMIEL: Like the fugitives the other day.

CASSIEL: And today, on the Lilienthaler Chaussee, a man, walking, slowed down, and looked over his shoulder into space. At post office 44, a man who wants to end it all today pasted rare stamps on his farewell letters, a different one on each. He spoke English with an American soldier--the first time since his schooldays--and fluently. A prisoner at Plotzenzee, just before ramming his head against the wall, said: 'Now!' At the Zoo U-Bahn station, instead of the station's name, the conductor suddenly shouted: 'Tierra del Fuego!'

DAMIEL: Nice.

CASSIEL: In the hills, an old man read the Odyssey to a child. And the young listener stopped blinking his eyes.... And what do you have to tell?

DAMIEL: A woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy who described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and the astonished teacher. A blind woman who groped for her watch, feeling my presence.... It's great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people. But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I'd like to feel there's some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I'd like to be able to say: 'Now! Now! and Now!' And no longer say: 'Since always' and 'Forever.' To sit in the empty seat at a card table, and be greeted, if only by a nod.... Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence. Wrestling with one of them, we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretence only. We pretended to catch a fish. We pretended to be seated at the tables. And to drink and eat.... Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day, like Philip Marlowe, and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper.... To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to *suspect*, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say 'Ah!' and 'Oh!' and 'Hey!' instead of 'Yes' and 'Amen'.

This dialogue begins as a lyrical testimony to the ways in which man's spirit must break through the pragmatic weight of everyday life. The train conductor who shouts "Tierra del Fuego!" and the man who sends his farewell letters each with a rare stamp from his collection are both in some way refusing to recognize the limits of mundane life. But by the dialogue's end the focus has shifted in the other direction. Damiel's yearning for the weight of the world brings him to make almost equally lyrical evocations of what he imagines human life to be like. "To have a fever.... Finally to *suspect*, instead of forever knowing all." In this dialogue, in its contrast between the two kinds of yearning, human and angelic, the film affirms a new kind of spirituality, one that is paradoxically both material and spiritual, an affirmation of the necessary and permanent tension between the two: the meaninglessness of the one without the other.

One of the motifs through which Wenders develops this tension is that of falling. We've always imagined that transcending the limits of our earthbound lives meant rising up: all that is banal or merely mortal would be left behind if we could only take flight. First we would fly like the birds, escaping the clutches of family and the law, crossing over walls and borders. Who could pursue us? Then, taking this imagined flight further, we might literally succeed in ascending to Heaven, in this way crossing over from time into eternity, and leaving death behind on the surface of a fallen, corrupted earth. The dream of flight and its concomitant fear of falling is incarnated in the figure of Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the once-aspiring trapeze artist who's about to give her very last performance. The small-time circus Marion works in is going to close down for lack of money. She knows very well she'll have to return to waitressing: her dream of rising up through her art was a delusion. But there is more that nags her before her last night: trapeze is a dangerous art, and what if, her very last time above the crowd, she should lose her composure and fall and break her neck? Along with her coming fall from the ideal life as a circus artist, there is also the possibility of a literal fall, one that is frighteningly material.

The angel Damiel, in his growing desire to fall into humanity, becomes more and more fascinated with Marion. We see her through his eyes and hear her thoughts through his ears. Eventually Damiel truly falls from his angelic state and comes together with Marion. What does it mean that the film's last scene shows Marion again practicing trapeze while Damiel, erstwhile angel, holds the rope that anchors her to earth? She didn't need to renounce her art after all. A new balance between heaven and earth has been established, a balance which, this time, is effected through the love between man and woman. Wenders charges theological speculation with romance, with Eros, as he charges this particular love story with a very particular cosmic significance. There is no love story like it, in film or literature, that I know of.

Falling. Scenes of falling are everywhere in this movie, but it is only Damiel's falling for Marion that is simultaneously a kind of transcendence. The other cases of falling include auto accident, film stunt (a fake sort of falling), suicide (a young man leaps from a building) and the angel Cassiel's pathetic attempt to experience what that suicide must have been like. Having been unable to prevent it, he's led to a confused empathy: he will repeat the young man's suicide by himself falling from Golden Else's shoulder atop the Victory Column. But Cassiel is both immortal and weightless: his fall can be nothing like true suicide. (Interestingly, it seems uncannily like the stunt fall we witness on the film set, or like those hundreds of stunt falls we've seen in those hundreds of action movies.)

Cassiel seems to be the all-around professional angel: the angel as mid-level management. In each instance he lacks Damiel's grace and sympathy. He is closer to abstract intelligence and further from creative, living being. In the same meeting with Damiel quoted above, we learn that what most attracts Cassiel to the idea of falling is the possibility of experiencing evil. Cassiel, as angels go, is in a more Luciferian mode, more in the mode of the angel as we classically understand it. Is Damiel, then, in a mode closer to Christ?

Wenders nowhere underlines the notion that Damiel might be somehow Christlike. The only way we may think of him as Christlike is in the sense rendered by a rewritten, pared down John 3:16: "For Damiel so loved the world that he gave his eternity in order to be with man." This, if you consider it, is quite pared down indeed. But Damiel certainly is more Christlike than Cassiel, if only because he is more human; he is animated more by love than by whatever it is that animates Cassiel.

Love, transcendence, human history, mortality: these themes taken up by Wenders give his film a potentially epic character. Not epic in the Hollywood sense of large-scale war-movie-cum-love-story, but epic in the traditional sense of a story about foundations: *the* story of the heroic struggles that defined us. The theme of epic story is made explicit here through the character of the despairing old storyteller, the old Berliner who is at the same time a kind of would-be Homer. His criticism of the world around him is familiar enough (familiar to me at least: most of his words could have come from, and probably already have come from, my own mouth). According to him, the possibilities of wonder, of storytelling, are finished: men have become both too sophisticated and too impoverished through their scientific knowledge; they've lost the world through their destructive know-how.

Where are my heroes? Where are you, my children? Where are my own, the dull-witted, the first, the original ones?... Name me, Muse, the immortal singer. Who, abandoned by his mortal listeners, lost his voice. How, from being an angel of storytelling, he became an organ-grinder, ignored or mocked. Outside, on the threshold of no-man's land.

The no-man's land he wanders are the dead zones and nearly dead zones bordering the (still standing) Berlin wall. He is looking for the location of the Potsdammer Platz, which has been effaced by the changes brought about through the war and then the division of the city between East and West.

Wenders' lamenting Homer is a figure for many of the modernist (still fundamentally Romantic) critics who see our advancements as alienating us further and further from what is more authentically human. It is a complaint that found a first great exponent in Rousseau and one that has defined us ever since. But this kind of lament is implicitly criticized by Wenders. For in the very same city where the old storyteller wanders distraught there is occurring "a story of new ancestors"--namely the story of the fall of Damiel and his love for Marion. And if I love this film so much it is because Wenders, in this regard, is nearly convincing. I'm almost brought around to believing that, yes, it is possible to tell stories about the modern world that might matter to us as much as the ancient stories mattered: those, say, of Adam and Eve, or Odysseus.

Marion had dreamed of a man in her sleep, a man who came to her. In fact it was Damiel who, in his angelic form, was lying in her bed by her side. When Damiel finally falls, a day or two later, he comes to the pub where Marion goes to dance. He comes to find her, only her. But it's she who approaches the bar where he's waiting. The two turn to each other and Marion, recognizing the face from the dream, begins her monologue about how, finally, things are getting "serious". Along with the dialogues between Damiel and Cassiel, I find Marion's monologue the lyrical high point of the film. She speaks it just inches away from Damiel, a man she'd never before seen in the flesh; she speaks it with halting confidence, a frankness and softness that mean he is only to listen, to hear from her mouth the meaning of their new love. I'll finish this essay by quoting the monologue in full:

It's time to get serious.... I was often alone, but I never lived alone. When I was with someone I was often happy. But I also felt it's all a matter of chance. These people are my parents, but it could have been others. Why was that brown-eyed boy my brother, and not the green-eyed boy on the opposite platform? The taxi driver's daughter was my friend, but I could just as well have embraced a horse's head. I was with a man. I was in love. But I could just as well have left him there, and continued on with the stranger who came toward us.... Look at me, or don't. Give me your hand, or don't. No, don't give me your hand, and look the other way.... I think there's a new moon tonight. No night is more peaceful. No blood will be shed in the whole city.... I never toyed with anyone. And yet, I never opened my eyes and thought: 'This is it.'... It's finally getting serious. So I've grown older. Was I the only one who wasn't serious? Is it our times that are not serious? I was never lonely. Neither when I was alone, nor with others. I would have liked to be alone at last. Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it because today I am finally lonely. No more coincidence.... The new moon of decision. I don't know if destiny exists, but decision does exist. Decide. Now we are the times. Not only the whole city, but the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are more than just two. We personify something. We are sitting in the People's Plaza, and the whole plaza is filled with people, who all wish for what we wish for. We are deciding everyone's game. I am ready. Now it's your turn. You're holding the game in your hand. Now or never. You need me. You will need me. There's no greater story than ours. That of man and woman. It will be a story of giants. Invisible, transposable. A story of new ancestors. Look. My eyes. They are the picture of necessity, of the future of everyone on the plaza. Last night I dreamt of a stranger. Of my man. Only with him could I be lonely. Open up to him. Completely open, completely for him. Welcome him completely into myself. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know it is you.

Eric Mader-Lin,
January 2002

 

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