What I found most interesting about Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987) was how Wim Wenders questioned what it is that makes us human, what it means to live a mortal life. Wenders asks the audience to ponder this question with him by putting them in the shoes of the angels, who make and share lists of their observations of human behaviour. But how do the angels choose what is worth sharing? What is it that they consider valuable?
It seems that the moments that the angels choose to catalogue are the moments which are uniquely human, the ones which they can’t experience themselves and are all the more interesting to them as a result. They seem to choose moments that represent pure emotion and a connection to the world. Wenders beautifully highlights this in the scene in which a man is dying after a car accident. The angel Damiel tries to comfort this man by listing a series of events and experiences. At first it’s unclear what meaning is attached to these experiences. But then the dying man starts to speak along with Damiel, and continues when the angel leaves; we see that these experiences must be unique to this man, memories of his own life. It seems that this is Wenders’ attempt to represent the moment when a dying person’s life flashes before their eyes; when they see what was important to them even if it didn’t seem important when it happened; what it was that made their life worth living. And it seems that these are the moments that the angels pick out as being worthy of remembrance too.
The importance of mortality to the human condition is inextricably linked to the importance of history. In The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (Cherchi Usai, 2001) Cherchi Usai writes about the mortality and history of film, writing that images which do not decay can have no history. This idea that the relationship between mortality and history is symbiotic, that one can’t exist without the other is another idea which Wenders investigates in this film. The history of Berlin is seen most clearly in its damaged structures, in the display of its mortality. And Wenders highlights the effects of World War 2 on the city and its people by looking at how it’s remembered; as anecdotes (Homer, the storyteller), in fiction (the film within a film) and in documentary (the archival footage of war-torn Berlin). By showing us these modes of memory, Wenders picks out the importance of story in the human psyche.
Marion, in her final monologue says:
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. (Wenders, 1987)
And Homer, the old man who walks through the deserted non-places of Berlin, says:
Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood. (Wenders, 1987)
The character of Homer, more than any other, demonstrates this need for story and the way it enables us to make a tactile connection with the world around us. In the quote above he links the story to childhood. He makes another, similar connection, asking:
Where are my heroes? Where are you, my children? Where are my own, the curious ones, the first, the original ones? (Wenders, 1987)
Throughout Wings of Desire humans are compared to children. Or rather, Wenders seems to be asking whether we should be more like children. Children can see the angels and in doing so they see the world for what it really is. They find happiness in the pure existence of being human; touching, tasting and experiencing. They aren’t distracted by the search for an eternal life, they are wholly consumed by living the life that they have.
This idea that to be truly human is to live in the moment and focus on the experience of the now is what mades the character played by Peter Falk so interesting. The temptation which he offers seems so unsettling, the temptation to focus on ourselves and live in the moment. Yet at the same time, Wenders asks us to question where our fascination with war originates. The character of Homer says:
But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure? (Wenders, 1987)
Wenders seems to be making a connection between the glorification of war, religion and the desire to live on in some form; peace isn’t celebrated because it doesn’t offer the same chance to achieve honour, glory and everlasting memory.
So Wenders seems to present us with a paradox; is living in the moment and focusing on our own tactile pleasure an evil temptation that will lead us astray, or is it the purest form of humanity which will lead to true happiness? Does the desire for some kind of immortality and a life beyond the immediate drive us to be selfless and help others, or does it push us to put down others, leading to poverty, war and destruction? This is the crux of Wings of Desire, the contradiction inherent in human nature. Our flaws are what make us human, but they are still flaws.
Wenders imbues these questions about mortality, history and memory into every aspect of the film; the cinematography, mise-en-scène and dialogue. The continuing shifts between monochrome and colour cinematography is a particularly effective conceit. It adeptly conveys the isolation and remoteness of the angels’ viewpoint; but it also, with the costuming of the angels, creates an atmosphere of another time period, the 1940’s and 1950’s perhaps? This aesthetic of older films connotes memories of that time, which are unavoidably linked with collective memories of World War 2; we see both time periods at once, just as we do when we see the making of the film within a film, when we see the extras who may have been real victims of the Nazi concentration camps, or when we hear Homer speaking over the archival footage of the war. In this way Wenders makes the audience his angels, who follow a story though space and time, but can never truly interact with it.
Wenders, W. (1987) Wings of Desire, Road Movies Filmproduktion
Cherchi Usai, P., (2001) The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute