Der Himmel Über Berlin (1987) (aka Wings Of Desire)
Wim Wenders

“When the child was a child, it didn’t know that it was a child, everything was soulful, and all souls were one…


Wings of Desire (1987) takes off with a dedication to cinema’s three great stalwarts – Truffaut, Ozu and Tarkovsky. Indeed, elements of all the three directors’ works are present in the film. However, Wim Wender’s decidedly mood piece, released months after the Tarkovsky’s demise, is a film that is to be felt and not seen, much like the latter’s films. To quote Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) – “Your eyes, your ears, your senses, will be overwhelmed”.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two angels living in Berlin whose mission is to “assemble, testify and preserve” reality. They keep documenting the happenings in the city, going through the minds of its citizens in the process. Damiel meets a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and falls in love with her. After the suggestion from an ex-angel Peter Falk (as himself), he decides to shed his wings. Seemingly plotless and enigmatic, Wings of Desire makes a lasting impact on the viewers who watch it using their heart rather than their brains.

Damiel and Marion are a single soul separated by the ethereal skies (similar to Berlin itself where brethren of a single blood are divided by the ideological wall and humans have become no more than one-man islands). Both of them go through the same trauma. Both are strangers in spite of being around for a long time. Both have grown emotionless and are desperate to experience true feelings. Damiel acts as if he is one among the earthlings whereas Marion plays the part of an angel in the circus. Damiel wants to shed his omniscience, immortality and super-mobility in exchange for the mystery, fallibility and restrictions of human life. Damiel’s pining for petty human experiences holds quite an adversarial relationship with Cassiel who quietly and helplessly observes human suffering and even feels a bit hostile at the “conversion”.

The angels in the film represent everything that is both ancient and nascent, much like the city itself, which is a juxtaposition of culturally iconic structures (the Berlin Library, the Wall) and vignettes of massive reconstruction and renaissance (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, its skyscrapers). They have been around even before the appearance of the first creature on the planet, yet are mere infants, unable to differentiate between the emotional and sensual shades and colours. Like an infant, Damiel sees plain monochrome – he cannot discriminate between various souls (“everything was soulful, and all souls were one” ). But as the child grows up and as Damiel sheds his wings, they are no longer cherubic and recognize the harsh colours of humanity and become skillful (and even wily) enough to look at various hues and dimensions within people.

Cinematography is easily the first thing one notices and veteran Henri Alekan ensures that the camera velocity is neither too slow to contradict the dynamics of the scenes or too fast to prevent one from sinking into the ambience. The sepia tinged monochrome immediately enhances the already mellifluous verbal poetry. The film’s imagery and sound shuttle between subjective and objective realities, aptly sustaining the heavenly cinematic journey. The editing also suitably employs POV shots to compare and contrast the lives of people above and below the skies of Berlin. Bruno Ganz, who would ironically deliver the chilling performance as Hitler in The Downfall (2004), is out of the world, literally, and his childlike innocence emphatically emphasizes his emotions.

Wings of Desire is more than a yearning for preservation of humanity. It is a celebration of it. It is a celebration of sensitivity – of rubbing your hands during a cold winter day, of feeling pain due to a wound. It is a celebration of perceptibility – of sipping hot coffee while reading newspaper, of the occasional amusement at sight of red blood. It is a celebration of human life, its mortality, its diversity and its vulnerability. Each of its character is a poem, each image, a verse and each sound, a melody. Strongly recommended for anyone who loves mankind, reality and life.