Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin]

Wim Wenders
Release Year:
Length (mins):
West Germany/France
Wim Wenders (screenplay by), Peter Handke (screenplay by)
Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander
Cannes Film Festival 1987 Winner Best Director Wim Wenders
Screening Date:
  • 12 Feb 2019
  • Categories:
    Drama, Fantasy, Romance

    Atmospheric drama about an angel (Bruno Ganz) who wanders amongst the streets of Berlin and falls in love with a trapeze artist. Includes music by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

    Film Notes

    "Der Himmel Uber Berlin" (meaning "heaven over Berlin") seems a more appropriate title than the English "Wings of Desire" for Wim Wender's celestial tribute to life, love, Berlin, filmmaking, angels and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, among many things.

    Seen through the (black-and-white) lens of veteran French cinematographer Henri Alekan and reflected in the gentle eyes of Wenders' star angel Bruno Ganz, "Wings" is a soaring vision that appeals to the senses and the spirit.

    "Wings" perhaps makes the mistake of lingering over its one-note theme, but that note is so lovely, the error -- if it is such -- is minor. An intuitively composed fable of earthbound angels in the city of Berlin, "Wings" is closer to poetry and music than linear storytelling anyway: Your senses simply absorb the sounds and images -- although "Wings" is a healthy enough meal for the brain as well.

    Damiel (the visually eloquent Ganz) is an angel assigned to the divided city (and Berlin is but one of countless dualities in Wenders' work). In partnership with angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), he observes, sympathizes with and consoles the human race. Though he is invisible to most, there are some intuitive beings who detect his presence, including Peter Falk who, with trademark aplomb, plays himself as a visiting actor appearing in a German war movie.

    Damiel, Cassiel and a host of other angels, all dressed in long overcoats, the scarf tucked under the lapels, with their hair tied in ponytails, are all over town, following would-be suicides, bitter parents, accident victims, mothers in labor, Turkish immigrants on a drive. They know about the man who intends to kill himself today, sticking his rarest stamps on all his farewell letters, and the subway driver who mistakenly calls the zoo stop "Tierra del Fuego." A collective spirit of benevolence, the angels listen in without judgment and with pity. But they lack, Damiel realizes, the tactile.

    In evocative language (courtesy of Wenders and cowriter Peter Handke), Damiel expresses a desire to unite his eternal spirituality with the mortal, the sensual; "to come home like Philip Marlowe and feed the cat," and "to be excited by a meal, the curve of a neck . . ." Which is where Marion (the graceful Solveig Dommartin) comes in. A trapeze artist at a French circus (named the Alekan, no doubt after the cinematographer) who wears pantomime wings and swings in the "heavens" above circus crowds, she seeks romantic solace for her deep-thinking spirit. Will Damiel forsake the eternal?

    "Wings," like most Heaven-and-Earth movies, ties up its resolution with romantic ribbons but, in Wenders' eyes, such a conclusion is the crowning union of life's dual opposites, the sensual and the spiritual, German's East and West -- as well as its Nazi past and occupied and uncertain present . . . It's also one of the best endings you can hope for in a movie. And "Wings" is one of the best movies you can see.

    Desson Howe, The Washington Post, July 1st, 1988.

    Five visual themes in Wings of Desire – Wim Wenders’ immortal film about watching

    It’s been voted the second best film of the 1980s, but what makes Wim Wenders’ fantasy about two angels observing life in Berlin still so resonant today? These five extracts give a clue to the film’s enduring richness.

    Few modern films have made the transition to classic status as quickly as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). His tale of a guardian angel in a still-Wall-divided Berlin who falls in love with – and to earth for – a melancholy trapeze artist is a canny merging of cerebral formal experimentalism and unabashed popular romanticism. It swept up highbrow critics alongside a much larger mainstream audience than was typical for ‘challenging’ foreign-language cinema of the day. Leading US film magazine Premiere’s 1980s wrap-up poll voted it second only to Raging Bull (1980) as film of the decade.

    Still a quintessential ‘arthouse’ film, its bold use of style (black-and-white, existential voiceover, languorous pacing) – and content (overt symbolism and culture blending, from Rilke-inspired poetry to Nick Cave’s post-punk anthems) fostered an appreciation, even a devotion that endures to this day.

    No doubt the snaking Berlin Wall that split east and west, and which would be breached just two-and-a-half years later, epitomised the divisions that Wenders and co-writer Peter Handke explore: temporal and eternal; past and present; and seen and unseen, through the watching, invisible angels, chiefly Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), who debate the former’s desire to “enter the history of the world”, having been outside looking in for so long.

    Ultimately, Wings of Desire is a visionary film about vision: the act of watching, with all its fascinations and limitations. Here, then, are some of the visual strategies at play.

    Angel eyes

    Wenders brought legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan – responsible for the haunting gothic chiaroscuro in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête – out of retirement to shoot Wings of Desire (and named the film’s circus in his honour). Alekan famously used a silk stocking as a filter for his textured, sepia-tinged black-and-white imagery, depicting the angels’ muted vision of the world. Ironically, his rich, creamy monochrome might appear too gorgeously tactile for the angels’ non-sensory world, but its silent-cinema feel helps instantly convey their timeless existence.

    Bearing witness

    Given its central characters, Wings of Desire is an exceptionally watchful film, both clinical and voyeuristic. Wenders’ unseen angels are basically unable to engage human beings directly. And yet, the very act of quietly watching over them, able to hear their innermost thoughts and desires, and occasionally even offer some kind of palliative aid, is one of the film’s most touching aspects.

    Wenders’ stately drifting camera suggests their detached, exterior position (and later, when Damiel steps into time, is brilliantly contrasted with a more dynamic, street-level tracking). Yet the angels’ invisible intimacy and empathy with beings they can never fully understand, somehow makes these divine observers all-too human. In fact, it echoes the essence of the moviegoing experience itself: spectators unable to affect what they see on screen, and yet so often, unable or unwilling to remain emotionally disconnected.

    Symphony of a city

    Don’t forget that the film’s original title is Der Himmel über Berlin – The Sky or Heavens over Berlin – and that the project began as an investigation into Germany’s then-divided city. Indeed, its angels were only brought in as an inspired afterthought. Perhaps acknowledging the tradition of early ‘city symphony’ silent films like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or even Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927), Wings of Desire is also in part a wonderful time capsule of wintry, pre-unification Berlin. Its roving aerial camerawork and ground-level tracking wide shots highlight the city’s desolate no-man’s-land expanses bound by the ever-present Wall.

    Yet the film also diligently looks back at earlier, even more turbulent times, with its archive – and, strikingly, colour – footage of the capital in its ruinous postwar state. For the angels, this may be a passage of time gone in the blink of an eye; but to late-20th-century audiences, German or otherwise, Wenders suggests that the spectre of recent history isn’t so easy to cast off.

    The American friend 

    Of all the directors – Herzog, Fassbinder and co – from the late-1960s and 70s New German Cinema renaissance, none showed their love of American cinema and Americana as explicitly as Wenders. Returning to his native country after filming Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984) in the States, the appearance of Colombo star (or John Cassavetes favourite, depending on your frame of reference) Peter Falk ‘as himself’ isn’t just another Wenders Hollywood homage, but a further layer to the theme of moviemaking.

    Falk is ostensibly in town to shoot a Second World War-set thriller, but his avuncular presence also brings a welcome, grounded warmth to the angst-ridden, ethereal ambience. And the revelation of his true origins delivered late in the film isn’t just a wonderful (and perfectly judged) surprise, it connects beautifully to Wenders’ themes and his central character Damiel’s dilemma.

    The colour of love

    As the film’s English title makes plain, desire is the driving force behind both the film and its angel protagonist Damiel’s fervent longing to leave behind immortality and become human. As this wish percolates and he meets Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the wistful circus performer with whom he falls head over wings in love, Alekan’s exquisite monochrome gradually gives way to vibrant colour.

    The first time is an abrupt cut as she swings on her trapeze (wearing, naturally, angel wings); the second, more tender and deliberate shift comes just after she confesses her innermost feelings in Damiel’s presence. As Damiel departs, the image slowly shifts into colour: foreshadowing the union to come in the real world. For a film so intent on conjuring and then conquering a state of timelessness, this disruption of the image is the ultimate signifier that life and love within time are the only true reality. Seeing blood as red. Tasting coffee. Feeling the cold. For Wenders and his characters, the realm of the senses is the one that truly makes sense.

    Leigh Singer, Sight and Sound 

    What you thought about Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    13 (30%) 12 (27%) 7 (16%) 9 (20%) 3 (7%)
    Total Number of Responses: 44
    Film Score (0-5): 3.52

    Collated Response Comments

    106 members and guests attended the screening including 10 A level German students and two tutors from Godalming College. The 44 responses represent a hit rate of 42%.

    There were a mixture of views from you ranging from “I can't think of another film where the gulf between expectation and experience has been so huge. One of those famous films and directors that I have been very aware of but never got round to seeing, so I was grateful for the opportunity. But I found it dreadfully dull and pretentious. Clearly attempting to be arty and intellectual, but it was like being subjected to two hours of excruciatingly earnest and contrived sixth form poetry (no offence meant to the Godalming College attendees - in fact I'd be fascinated to know what they really thought about this film!). Peter Falk was the only saving grace. If this was "adventurous German film making not beholden to a screenplay" it was an adventure that went very wrong in my opinion!” to “Wonderful to see this again, after 30 years. Knowing different things now, this film still remains one of the most beautiful, heartfelt films made. Wim Wenders links the sad expressions, all uttered as hushed voiceover, with images showing beauty in despair. Those unseen angels not engaging beings directly, especially in the library added another unreal dimension that called to mind A Matter of Life and Death. And yet, it's a very complex film, layers of a divided city's life, which seems to exaggerate Damiel's journey and the choice between eternity and the fleeting joy of love. His, and the other angels, involvement with the woes of others, quietly watching over them, able to hear their innermost thoughts and desires. Loved the innocence of children being able to see them, as well as the harshness in vibrant rock shows, the fantasy and reality of circus life. A great mixture in the weaving around apartments and streets, bridges and floating over walls, taking in the struggle and the ruin, but also unspoken hope. I wonder if we could also see either Alice in Der Standen or The Goalkeeper's Fear of The Penalty just to spoil us”. And “Wim Wenders' highly imaginative and lyrical ode to post-war Germany - and to life - was one to savour. The spartan use of colour - to emphasise love and feeling - as well as a master cinematographer's use of the camera to sweep and hover between angels and the people of Berlin was breath taking. It is a film that speaks to me on so many levels”.

    “Fantastic. Much better than the remake”. “Amazingly creative”. “Extraordinary. The poetry was at times obscure, but this film had compassion, tenderness and humour…and the shots of the city were quite beautiful. Thank you”. “Alles Gut!” “Impossible to categorise”. “Interesting”. “Stunning b/w photography – filmic poetry! I almost wish WW had not given in to the slight sentimentality of the latter part”. “Very slow start but suddenly I was really engaged”. “Amazing cinematography”. “Odd but strangely compelling”. “It took a bit of getting into, but very poetic”. “Confused at the beginning, struggled to understand the motives of characters and their roles, but when the narrative became clearer I understood the beauty”. “Not a really captivating film I didn’t realise who were the angels at first ….Otherwise it was interesting to see “The Berlin Wall” and Berlin itself showing the East and West”. “Too long. Thank goodness for the Peter Falk scenes”. 

    “I was baffled for a while, only gradually realising what was going on (or not going on).  But like all great art, this film takes some working at.  So many memorable scenes.  When can we see it again?”

     “An interesting mixture. Some lovely touches (such as the group of angels in the library overnight with nothing to do) and some really-quite-boring sections where little happens. I'm glad I have seen it, as it has been "on my list" for many years, but I doubt I will be recommending it to anyone (except die-hard Nick Cave fans - the version of "From Her to Eternity" is great). The cinematography is very good, and Peter Falk was a complete delight and clearly enjoying himself - but overall a mixed experience”.

    “In these days in which we are increasingly segregated from our fellows by our digital cocoons and illusory social connection via our screens this reads as a plea to 'live in the now' and get back in touch with the physical world and our fellows. It contrasts the detached, ageless overview of the angels to the lost children of the city, mired in their own concerns, time and life slipping through their fingers. It is a lovely, messy, warm humanist fable, Bruno Ganz's benign and careworn smile beaming down on the beleaguered population of Berlin. There is a delicious hallucinogenic, kaleidoscopic view to it reminiscent of 'A matter of life and death', though I had forgotten quite what a vast quantity of indigestible cod philosophising there is in it. The music from Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave, particularly the use of the lurching carillon thump of his superb 'The Carny' suits the film perfectly. Lovely ...if a bit like hard work”.

     “Enjoyed immensely! As much as the first time & I was not expecting to as I was not sure 30 years on I would buy into the fairy tale!   I loved all the imagery and the contrast of different aspects of city life”.

    “Loved peter Falk. All the little scenes kept me going between the long drawn out ones. Loved the club scenes and the clothes!” “Amazing and weird” “Not fully understood”. “Too deep for me”. “I saw it in my 20’s and was bewildered. I think I still am!” “I am afraid I did not enjoy it at all. Maybe I need to watch it when I am less tired. Enjoyed Peter Falk’s appearances though”. “Self-indulgent and boring – would it ever end?” “Incredibly tedious. Rescued only partly by the end”. “Incomprehensible”. “Pretentious nothing! Tedious”. “2 hours too long.  A lot about nothing”.

    We have placed cookies on your computer to help make this website better. For more information please click here

    By continuing to use this site or closing this panel, we'll assume you're OK to continue. You can view our full privacy policy here