For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Inspired in part by the verse of Rilke and bearing a dedication to filmmaking legends Yasujiro Ozu, Francois Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky, German director Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire is the story of an angel (Bruno Ganz) who trades in his station of detached immortality for the unique and temporary experience of being human—spurred on to this decision after falling in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a circus trapeze artist who is traveling along her own road of life-changing transition. While telling this story, the film also ruminates on the complex history of Berlin and reveals the pursuit of love as the apparent paradox of being both alone and together with another, as well as an indispensable phenomenon of cosmic significance.
As if that weren’t enough to contend with, Wenders’ masterpiece also gives us “Peter Falk in a Special Appearance.” A little more on him later.
Wings of Desire is indeed, without exaggeration, one of the most special movies ever made. It is film as poetry, without any of the remote snobbery one might associate with that phrase. Wenders made a movie not only for a specific time in history—that time when the Berlin Wall still divided East and West Germany, while Berliners continued to grapple with the slowly receding, but still terribly dark, shadow of Nazism—but a movie that speaks to every age with its richly humane universality—not to mention its incredible relevance at this very moment, for having accurately reflected our current fascination with “social networking” online.
While the nuts-and-bolts story of the creation of Facebook may have been told by the 2010 film The Social Network , in an incredible way, Wenders’ movie, released nearly 20 years before the launch of Mark Zuckerberg’s epoch-defining website, illuminates the essence of the activities involved in participating in that community.
There, you float above and through a stream of consciousness, taking in moment-to-moment expressions of the human soul through members’ declarations of happiness, pride, sadness, desperation, or sheer banality. Just as when the film’s angels exert their otherworldly influence on people, so do logged-in “Facebookers” make connections with others that also exist in an unusually abstract form, occurring both directly and communally, yet liberated from the physical realm and unbound by constraints of time and place.
Surveying, or “surfing” the lives of others from above in this way clearly holds a magnetic allure, and as no shortage of cultural critics has pointed out, a dependence on it also contains the alarming possibility of actually disconnecting people more than connecting them, of making you feel more isolated from people rather than less. This is exactly the feeling that drives Damiel—the leading angel character played by Ganz—out of his paradise and into the world we more naturally recognize: the world of pleasure and pain and food and blood and life and death.
They’ve been roaming the world since before history began, busily collecting notes on their observations of humanity—but Damiel and friend Cassiel (Otto Sander) are soon to go their separate ways. Dissatisfaction is eating away at Damiel, who has grown restless not only with noting small details like the time of the sunrise and the moment of sunset, but also with his very state of being. As creatures of profound empathy, Damiel and other angels are seen to influence people in distress by placing their hands upon them at key moments—affecting them more powerfully, but still invisibly, and not always as effectively as they might if they could look someone in the eye and be real to the touch.
Traveling through the ages in this way—though, can one be said to be traveling when there is no beginning and no end to the voyage?—has become an intolerable abstraction for Damiel, and one day, he decides to make clear to Cassiel that he yearns for a different life:
To lie, he says, and smiles. To guess instead of knowing. To take your shoes off under a table. To stay alone.
Meanwhile, within the confines of the real world, trapeze performer Marion (Dommartin) aches to feel “gloriously alone,” a condition she believes she might lack knowledge of for having “waited an eternity to hear a loving word” or not knowing who she will soon become, since the circus is closing and she is due that night to give her final performance. Costumed with “chicken wings” that resemble an angel’s but ironically interfere with her ability to fly, Marion too is convinced she has to shed her wings to achieve perfection.
Present in the room but invisible to her while she reaches for a better understanding of her life with these and other private thoughts, Damiel is clearly moved by the kinds of questions he feels himself confronting far away, yet so close:
How should I live? Maybe that’s not the question. How should I think? I know so little.
Also acting as a force of encouragement to Damiel in his desire to descend from the clouds are his observations of Peter Falk, who, delightfully, plays a version of himself in the story. I say “a version of himself” because, while he is playing an actor named Peter Falk, who once played Columbo on television, and who has arrived in Berlin to play “an American detective” in a period film involving the Nazis…well, that is not exactly all of what he is playing.
Once Damiel makes the transition to his corporeal form, leaving behind a troubled Cassiel (who now moves in the opposite direction, isolating himself from humanity after being unable to prevent a man’s suicide), the black-and-white film shifts more permanently to color. Savoring his first cup of coffee, the chill in the air, and even the taste of his own blood that flows when his discarded armor scrapes his head, Damiel sets out in search of Marion—and is overtaken by sadness when he does not find her in the place he expects her to be.
Children—who, unlike adults, could always see him—now look on him not with innocent wonder but as something of an unfortunate sad-sack. Unable to bend time and space to his own will or seek the secrets of Marion’s thoughts, Damiel’s humanity becomes all the more poignant for his inability to sort fate from chance.
And we can never really be sure if it is fate directed by a divine presence, or chance, dictated by human impulse, or mutual determination, that brings Damiel and Marion together again, finally, in a nightclub. To me, this climactic encounter is one of the more powerfully arresting, gently awe-inspiring connections between two people to be seen in the movies.
Damiel offers Marion his drinking glass—not casually, but with ceremony, as if they are about to engage in a ritual. She accepts, and when their hands brush lightly together, we can see her tentative recognition of him turn to an ecstatic truth in her eyes, almost in the same way the Flower Girl recognizes the Little Tramp at the end of City Lights.
But when Damiel makes his first move closer, she places her hand softly to his chest and resists, offering something of a warning: Now it must become serious. She explains to him that while she’s often “been” alone, she’s never “lived” alone—in the paradoxical way that a person may only truly experience comfort in solitude when bound inextricably to another.
She tells him that while she’s been with others in familial and friendly and even romantic relationships and felt happiness, those relationships have seemed somehow random or made of coincidence…
…and he moves a little closer.
She tells him she’s indifferent to whether or not he looks at her or takes her hand…
…and he moves a tiny bit closer.
Then she tells him not to look at her, or take her hand. But their hands are already clasped.
She tells him there is no night as peaceful as this one, and now he leans inward with intent, the better to hear her whisper that she has never opened her eyes and thought, “Now, it’s serious”—but this time is different.
At last it’s becoming serious, she says. So I’ve grown older.
Earlier in the film, when Damiel had informed Cassiel he had decided to make his bold leap into the mortal unknown, he described his anticipation this way:
Let me enter the history of the world, if only to hold an apple in my hand.
Of course this is not all Damiel wants, and not all he is destined to witness; in placing this kind of value on the smallest of sensations, he is asserting his determination to receive the experience of human life in all its fullness. In daring to relinquish immortality, he triumphs over the illusion it created of his bonding with other souls. Now he has a purpose in life that feels real, and Marion does too, in releasing the lock that held her interior life inside. Letting those thoughts spill out now to express the mysterious workings of her heart, she realizes that she and Damiel have met at the perfect time, and in the perfect place, to grasp that the labor of love is to undertake a journey made up of both absolute solitude and a deeply felt communion with one and all.