“They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves.”
— Michel de Montaigne
Wim Wenders’ beautifully wrought Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) depicts a world populated by human beings and angels. We cannot ordinarily see or hear them, although children seem to be more attuned to their presence. They see us and hear our thoughts. They were here before us and they awaited our coming. Now they watch and bear witness. They, however, cannot touch or feel, taste or smell. They have no weight. In a particularly touching scene, Cassiel (Otto Sander), one of two angels through whose eyes we experience the film, is unable to prevent a suicide. Driven by curiosity or empathy or more likely both, Cassiel imitates the fall but his weightless plummet can do him no harm.
Cassiel along with Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over East Berlin in the 1980’s, and through their witness to the lives of the human beings they are tasked to watch we are invited to pay lavish attention to the details of embodied life with all its attendant joys and sorrows. Jeffrey Overstreet describes what he calls the “movie’s leisurely, telepathic stroll” which “takes us out of our pell-mell experience of life and all its worries, and it restores to us the balanced view of each moment, reacquainting us with the childlike joy of physical sensation and the holy contemplation of meaning in each tactile detail.”
The theme of childhood runs throughout the film which opens with a voiceover of Peter Handke’s “Song of Childhood”:
“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”
And so on it goes. At first thought, the theme suggests, perhaps, an innocence shared by children and angels. On second, wonderment. Wonder that leads to desire. Damiel expresses the correlation between desire and the body when he longs “to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck.” Earlier when comparing notes, as it were, with Cassiel, he reports:
“A woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy who described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and the astonished teacher. A blind woman who groped for her watch, feeling my presence…. It’s great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people.”
But this patient observation, this wonder yields desire:
“But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Now! Now! and Now!’ And no longer say: ‘Since always’ and ‘Forever.’ To sit in the empty seat at a card table, and be greeted, if only by a nod…. Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence. Wrestling with one of them, we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretence only. We pretended to catch a fish. We pretended to be seated at the tables. And to drink and eat…. Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day, like Philip Marlowe, and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper…. To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to “suspect”, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Hey!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’.”
Damiel desires the desires that can only be realized in the body. Again Overstreet: “There is a woman, a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a traveling circus, who captures his attention. But this infatuation is more than most you’ll see in onscreen romances. Damiel is truly moved by her entire person: her innermost thoughts, doubts, struggles, and courage. But it’s not merely platonic appeal: she’s a beauty, no doubt about it.” And so Damiel, with the unlikely help of Peter Falk (playing himself) falls. But his is not the usual sort of angelic fall. It is not a Luciferian fall away from God in rebellion, it is a fall into embodiment (quite literally depicted in the film). It is not a fall occasioned by resistance to limits, but one that seeks to embrace them. Eric Mader-Lin’s reflections on the theme of falling in Wings of Desire is worth quoting at length:
In this dialogue, in its contrast between the two kinds of yearning, human and angelic, the film affirms a new kind of spirituality, one that is paradoxically both material and spiritual, an affirmation of the necessary and permanent tension between the two: the meaninglessness of the one without the other.
One of the motifs through which Wenders develops this tension is that of falling. We’ve always imagined that transcending the limits of our earthbound lives meant rising up: all that is banal or merely mortal would be left behind if we could only take flight ….
The angel Damiel, in his growing desire to fall into humanity, becomes more and more fascinated with Marion. We see her through his eyes and hear her thoughts through his ears. Eventually Damiel truly falls from his angelic state and comes together with Marion. What does it mean that the film’s last scene shows Marion again practicing trapeze while Damiel, erstwhile angel, holds the rope that anchors her to earth? She didn’t need to renounce her art after all. A new balance between heaven and earth has been established, a balance which, this time, is effected through the love between man and woman.”
Damiel’s fall into enbodiment prompted by desire is an evocative reminder of the beauty and love proper to the life of body. And from time to time we do good to remind ourselves of such things, particularly in an age that in its rhetoric and practice too often disparages the humble body and its limitations.