PRINT Summer 1988



“WHEN THE CHILD WAS A CHILD.” A time of questions without the possibility of answers.

“Who am I? And why am I not you? And you me?”

An extra-ordinary time of self-interrogation, undertaken not so as to know, but so as to describe a meaning for existence within the historical space of the individual geography. An originary time of innocence, of discovery undirected to whatever small apparent benefits may follow. A golden age in which dream has the weight of reality, desire the force of action, in which the only form of representation and explanation that is given is the tale, the fable, the potent circle of myth. “When the child was a child” is the line that opens the new film by Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire. From the beginning, it characterizes the work’s narrative regime.

Wings of Desire seeks to be a history of origins, a fable of foundations, a mythic tale—and not just in metaphor. The first frame of the film summons on scene an angel, his identity revealed by his feathered wings, glimpsed for a moment but otherwise invisible. Standing high on a building in Berlin, the angel studies the movement in the streets below. He sees without being seen, observes but cannot be observed—except by children. The angel is pure spirit. His body is indifferent to the strictures of space, subject to the laws of neither gravity nor time. He floats in an atemporal, undifferentiated dimension, where he is permeable to the world but not of it. And to the angel, humanity’s unspoken thoughts are as transparent, as loudly audible, as those given form and utterance; perhaps they are more so.

The angel is a pure gaze upon the world. He doesn’t belong to the world, but he is necessary to it; without his gaze, the world might not exist, might crumble into a stream of minute fragments of existence, disconnected from each other and meaningless. Working from above and beyond, the angel rebuilds and weaves together meanings that transcend the here and now of human life. His statute is that of eternity, as opposed to the private microhistory of the individual, which alone can create for itself neither cultural meaning nor memory. He is the angel Walter Benjamin writes of in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the angel who restores dimension to history through a powerful act of witness, of gathering together, of patiently and lovingly collecting what would otherwise fall into amnesia and oblivion. The angel is the principle of conservation, of the organization and classification of signs, and therefore of narration. Without him, without his ability to distill events into memory, the world would have no recollection of itself, and thus no self-awareness, no self-representation.

Wenders’ angel, played by Bruno Ganz, has a number of angel companions, who populate the sky over Berlin and roam its streets and houses. Each is bundled up in a uniform of heavy dark overcoat and scarf, and each wears a small ponytail, the tied-back hair accentuating the intensity of the gaze. Yet our angel is different from the others; bit by bit, he lets himself fall under the spell of the human, of the living. Once made sensitive to everyday time, to the temptation of existence, this immortal being abandons his unchanging and forever unchangeable state. Through an act of will, or perhaps as a game, he gives up the protective net of the regime of looking, the reassuring cage of his removed speculation, to experience humanity’s flight in the apnea of the absolute present.

As in all fables, the angel’s transformation is not done freely. It follows certain laws; it is a process of initiation, a path marked by set stages and symbols. First, something must set it in motion; then it must find a means, pass a series of trials. And it cannot be completed without the assistance of mentors. Perhaps the wandering of the angels, evoked in aerial longshots in the opening sequences of the film and then in increasingly close-up views in the streets or indoors, postulates exactly the voyage of approach necessary to activate the forces of desire, the only forces capable of realizing even the dream of an angel.

We are in Berlin, in an unspecified moment of that city’s contemporary being. The city—gently touched, traversed, searched by a black and white photography consumed with intensity—is presented as a mute container, overburdened with signs of its past—the disorder of haphazard postwar reconstruction as much as the exposed corpses of bombed-out buildings, still unrebuilt. These emblems quietly coexist, creating a setting both delicate and hallucinatory. A city simultaneously dense with history and oblivious of it, boldly searching for an identity that would sweep away the past (as if resolving a neurosis), elliptical, decayed, disfigured by an incredible architectural facelift—it is Berlin that is the angel’s temptation.

And, like all temptations, it cannot help but be metonymic. The angel’s metamorphosis matures and is consummated in three physical sites, each of them signified by a guide whose concerns somehow cross the invisible threshold that defines the dimension of the human. First is the library, where the writer Homer (Curt Bois), now an old man, agonizes over the question of whether it is possible to find a narrative voice, to give life to an epic, in a time of peace, and whether a world that has no one telling about it is a world that has lost its childhood. The second is the set for a film about Nazi Germany and the persecution of the Jews; the guide here is the actor Peter Falk (playing himself), the star of the movie, and also an ex-angel who has renounced immortality for the minute pleasures of living—the aroma of coffee, rubbing one’s hands together in the cold of a winter’s day. The third is a circus tent; the trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the embodiment of dream and desire, can teach what no angel knows. All these three places are tied to memory, to story, to representation, art, as opposed to life. They are dedicated to the realm of fiction, of mise en scène, of a kind of vicarious experience, rather than to the direct experience that exists only in the present, prior to the recording processes of history. This quality of theirs is paradoxical, for if what stimulates the angel to become a man is desire, if his goal is to love a concrete woman, then the result of his transformation must be the creation of a new forever, a new eternal present, something that once proposed can never be erased; the immortal image of a dream that has brought together a man and a woman, and has changed the colors of the world.

Indeed, Wings of Desire is a full-blown love story. More, it is a sort of hymn to love, the candid, tender manifesto, ingenuous but not innocent, of a man who must have thought about love at length, in a fluctuating movement of desire and negation, attraction and refusal. In this sense the film is far from the renitency and the casual tropism of Wenders’ early road movies, such as Alice in the Cities, 1973, and Kings of the Road, 1976; it is much closer to Paris, Texas, 1984, so close as to be virtually a mirror image—and thus the earlier film’s exact opposite. Wenders’ last American movie concluded in impossibility, in separation (the protagonist’s from his wife, but also Wenders’ from America), positing silence and renunciation as the only means appropriate to the incommunicability and excess of passion. But Wings of Desire opens with the joyous dawning of illusion and of promise, a flow of words. In the final sequences of the film, those wings bring the now-human angel and Marion to meet, propelling them into one of the most talkative declarations of love in the history of cinema—a virtual marriage agreement, based on the premise that one must take things seriously and be capable of declaring oneself happy. These sequences abandon the severe, measured black and white format that Wenders has used to characterize the angels’ perspective on the world, choosing instead rich, earthy colors, with a clear prevalence of reds (for the director, the color of emotion, of blood, of life, maybe of the female?); it is perhaps no accident that the palette recalls Paris, Texas. And as in that earlier film, here too the female character, while apparently at the center of the plot, is really no more than a narrative pretext, an expedient that allows the director to build his fable, for fables must have a quest and a destination. The angel’s movement across is replaced by movement toward, and the woman he seeks takes the place of the landscape, or perhaps becomes a territory unto herself.

At the end of the film one reads not the words “The End,” or “Ever after,” but “To be continued.” Not only the love story must be continued, but, and even more, the telling of it, or the telling in itself. For the act of absolute love, capable of generating life and of producing duration and continuity, lies only in narration.

Wings of Desire, written by Wenders in collaboration with Peter Handke, and filmed by Henri Alekan, is dedicated to three angels; Yasujiro (Ozu), François (Truffaut), and Andrei (Tarkovsky).

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.