In the summer of 1987, I went with a girlfriend to take in a film at the Detroit Film Theater housed in the majestic architectural precincts of the Detroit Institute of Arts. At the time, I had been going through a period of ascetic renunciation, having left a promising career as an indie musician and song writer and opting, instead, for a life of relative quiet, working in a bookstore and concentrating on reading and meditation.
In my asceticism, I turned to vegetarianism, limited my intake of alcohol, and stopped drinking coffee altogether. Then I saw Wim Wender’s extraordinary film Wings of Desire, known in German as Der Himmel über Berlin (“The Heavens over Berlin”) and later remade by Hollywood as City of Angels, a tinsel town product which in no way does justice to the original. That event changed a lot of things in my life, and probably had much to do with my eventual transformation from ex-musician/pretend ascetic to poet and literary critic. As philosopher Richard Rorty has observed, an inspired engagement with creative works “is the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the critic’s conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.” This was certainly the case for me.
Wenders made the film in the days of pre-unification Germany as a poetic meditation on his homeland and, in particular, on what he thought at the time to be the geographic, poetic, and spiritual heart of the country: the divided city Berlin. To do this, Wenders invoked the poetic idiom of Ranier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (masterfully executed by Wenders and the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke).
Wenders was not working from a plot, let alone a script, but intuitively finding his way through the project along with the collaboration of his actors, co-writer, and crew, including the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who was then in his late seventies, and long-time colleague, composer Jürgen Knieper. Mirroring the collaborative ethos of the film’s production, the language of the film beautifully meanders between German, French, and English. Similarly, the cinematography alternates between black and white and color.
The film features two angels, Cassiel (Otto Sander) and Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who survey daily life in Berlin, invisible to all the city’s inhabitants (though a few children quite consciously detect their presence in a few scenes). They (and through them, the audience) hear the thoughts, both mundane and profound, of the afflicted, the struggling, the dying, and of those, like most of us, moving through otherwise uneventful days. In a remarkable scene shot at the Berlin State Library, a cacophony of voices—German, Turkish, Arabic, and a few seconds of the opening lines of Genesis in Hebrew—multiplied by Knieper’s intuitive score for chorus unfolds the extraordinarily rich fabric of the interior human life.
The angels hold great affection for the living. They give spiritual succor to the dying and suffering, and, in one short but powerful scene, we feel Cassiel’s frustration at not being able to prevent a suicide. However, for all the pain attendant to human life, the film is, nevertheless, an affirmation of that life. This affirmation is most present in Damiel’s desire to take on flesh, to, as he says, forsake his spiritual existence and “feel the weight within.” When he does, he heads to a coffee stand where he enjoys the hot, bitter deliciousness of mediocre coffee: a fitting symbol for human existence. Eventually, he finds a transcendent encounter of earthly immanence with a French trapeze artist, Marion (played by Solveig Dommartin in her cinematic debut), at a concert of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. As Marion tells Damiel, “At last it’s becoming serious.”
In the strictest sense, I suppose, Wings of Desire is not a “religious film.” There are no churches other than as scenery in the film, no clerics, no prayers, and only one easily missed reference to scripture. But the film certainly attests to St, Augustine’s observation that “love calls us to the things of this world.” Damiel’s incarnation can surely be read as emblematic of a more dogmatically-approved incarnation, that of Christ, just as Damiel’s love for the “things of this world” in general and Marion in particular are evocative of that divine prototype’s love for the world and for each particular human being. Indeed, this film, perhaps more than any other, gives us pause to consider what philosopher Jacques Derrida meant when he asked us to consider the “impossibly possibility of religion without religion” and what Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott describes as the “hunger for God” inextricable from human existence. These perspectives clearly resonate with the film’s affirmative ethos. Despite a sequel, 1993’s Faraway, So Close!, and the 1998 remake, there is quite simply no film like this film.
When I left the Detroit Film Theater that summer in 1987, I noticed it had rained. I went home to my rented upper flat in Ferndale and tore through the cupboards looking for coffee. There was just enough for two cups. It was mediocre: hot, bitter, and delicious. Though I was not exactly sure who I was, I was no longer a phony ascetic. Things were finally getting serious.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD teaches English at Marygrove College. Follow him on Twitter: @pater_familiar.