One can take deep pleasure in observing the beauty of human life in its myriad and extraordinary forms, or one can have the sensual pleasure of experiencing them first hand, but it’s impossible to experience both at the same time. Having one means sacrificing the other in Wim Wender’s 1987 film Der Himmel über Berlin—literally “The Heavens Over Berlin” but released as Wings of Desire to English speaking audiences. I prefer the German title as it expresses better the broad nature of the film’s story though the two titles might also reflect that dichotomy of observation and experience. In one sense, it’s a beautiful exploration of artistic endeavours while in another sense its a lovely portrait of the human experience. It’s quite good either way.
Bruno Ganz plays Damiel, one of many Angels who roam Berlin, invisible to adults. Damiel and another angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander), meet to exchange observations of commonplace yet extraordinary behaviour, like a woman who puts away her umbrella to let herself get soaked by a rainstorm. We see them rest their heads and hands comfortingly on humans in distress and some humans are receptive to the support of the angels even if they can’t see them. The angels don’t seem to be tied to any specific religion and we see them equally concerned with Jews and Muslims as presumed Christians.
We see them with a wide variety of individuals but the film pays particular attention to three—a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a elderly poet named Homer (Curt Bois), and the American actor Peter Falk (playing himself).
All three are artists of different kinds. If one thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of the Dionysian and Apollonian dichotomy in art, one can see the actor and the trapeze artist as representatives of the Dionysian, artists who literally put themselves into the performance, while in the film’s dedication to “former angels”, directors Yasujiro Ozu, Francois Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky, who had all died before this film’s release, we can see the identification of film directing with the angels, or the Apollonian—the angels are cut off from personal participation but bring the poetry and revelation of dreams.
I would have said the film’s style owes more to Bergman than anyone else but of course Bergman was still alive when the film was released. Not just for the way aspects of the human experience and mind are anthropomorphised but also the tone of the conversations between the angels feels very Bergman in their remoteness, pleasure, and contemplation. But of the three named, the film seems stylistically closest to Tarkovsky in its parts where it avoids attachment to specific characters and it resembles Truffaut in its contemplation of the fundamental nature of human relationships. Its visual style didn’t remind me of Ozu very much but in its sense of detachment from and yet love for the complexity of human community I could certainly see the influence of Ohayo or Floating Weeds.
I love Wender’s use of black and white and colour. The angels are only visible in black and white shots while colour footage is used to portray the more sensually connected world of human life. It’s common cinematic parlance to use black and white to establish scenes as taking place in a distant past but as true cinephiles will tell you there’s more to black and white than an evocation of the old. Like the observation of the angels, it transmutes reality to the dream-like, the fantastic, and the sublime. And yet colour is undeniably more complex and reflects a certain kind of emotional intensity—and for its greater realism it grounds the viewer in the more down-to-earth world of humans.
Eventually, one of the angels decides to become mortal in order to experience the sensory pleasures and it’s significant that he can’t have both worlds. Yet when he finally meets the woman he’s fallen for, her immediate reaction is to intellectualise the experience as she discusses what their attraction means on a bigger philosophical level. It’s not only angels who can travel between modes of thought, it seems, and perhaps each mode owes its strength to its understanding of and sympathy for the other.
Twitter Sonnet #1019
A language wrote above the beauty’s hill.
A thousand tongues partook of wine at night.
A turkey strange departs the woods at will.
No shuffled cards can sure dispel the sight.
In troubles snaking by there’s paint besides.
A calibration botched between the points.
A course distorted puts the weeds in tides.
A skull beheld its written name in joints.
Plantains at night recall potassium.
All drained of colour, crimping teeth.
No hue could come to bones for calcium.
The only pigment made subdued the wreath.
A leaden orb upstaged the thatchéd sun.
A circling heart resolves a painted run.