“When a child was a child…”
A man’s voice is heard, reading out words as they are written in thick ink on paper.
…it didn’t know it was a child”
He continues, some of the words delivered in sing-song, joyfully, as if they were a children’s nursery song:
“Everything was full of life/And all life was one...”
His voice is friendly voice; a comforting voice; a voice that we will soon learn belongs to Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel who watches over the city of Berlin and its inhabitants with the curiosity and reverence of a child. Damiel has such deep affection for human life that he is willing to eschew immortality for earthly pleasures and the most intoxicating human experience of all: love. Both Damiel’s voice and those of the humans he consoles and studies feature prominently on the film’s soundtrack, sometimes in isolation, other times intermingled with one another. They even find their way into composer Jürgen Knieper’s evocative score.
Released in 1987, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987) was Wenders’ first narrative film after the incredibly successful Paris, Texas (1984), and much like its predecessor, Wings of Desire explores themes of loneliness, psychogeography, love, and loss. The film was born through a feeling of homecoming as Wenders, who had been living abroad, returned to Berlin with the desire to rediscover the “Germany in [his] heart.” Taking in the Berlin streets, he reflected on the impact that World War II had upon the city, the Berlin Wall still looming large and creating both a physical and mental divide between East and West; a constant reminder of the horrors that Berlin had once witnessed. But Wenders also perceived the sympathetic faces of angels watching over Berlin everywhere he went (most notably the Friedensengel monument) and found that he was inexplicably drawn to angelic symbolism in other realms: a song by The Cure, a painting by Paul Klee, elegies by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He wasn’t sure where it was all going, but the seemingly disparate imagery of dilapidated Berlin and serene angels had begun to fuse in his mind.
What ended up taking shape was his next film. Wenders enlisted the help of the celebrated Austrian writer Peter Hadke to assist him in writing the film’s screenplay as well as the poetic inner-monologues of both the films five central characters—Damiel, fellow-angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), Marion (Solveig Dommartin), Homer (Curt Bois) and Peter Falk (as himself)—and the Berliners that Damiel and Cassiel encounter as they traverse the city. Henri Alekan, a veteran cinematographer, was brought in to craft the film’s striking imagery, and composer Jürgen Knieper, who had previously worked with Wenders on films such as The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund) (1977), was asked to write a score. Instructed by Wenders to write “angel music,” Knieper decided that he would work with audience’s associations and employ instrumental timbre traditionally aligned with the celestial such as that of a harp and a choir. The cello was also to play a special role in the film’s score too, its mournful tone acting as a musical voice for the yearning Damiel.
After Damiel’s recitation of “Whena child was a child…” at the beginning of the film, a stark string cue is heard over the opening credits that immediately disrupts the tranquil atmosphere established by Damiel’s dreamy words. The cello is central here, and its strained, sustained notes are pitted against pointillistic pizzicato notes. Further tension is created through the dissonance that occurs between the cello and the violin and viola lines, and throughout the credits the music suggests discord, a sense of restlessness.
As soon as we are shown the first shot of Damiel however, a close-up of his eye followed by his point of view as he flies over Berlin, the music transforms into something more melodic. The cello begins to perform a cantabile melody and it’s rise and fall implies longing, the mournful cries of an unhappy being. A sustained synthesized choir pad enters and its otherworldly drone fills out the soundtrack as if it were a vast cathedral organ. When we are then shown the full form of Damiel standing on the ledge of a building, his angel wings dissolving as he looks down upon the city, an arpeggio is heard on a harp that further reinforces Damiel’s connection to the divine. The thoughts of the Berliners below begin to emerge on the soundtrack and allow us, alongside Damiel, to be privy to their innermost feelings and concerns, the gentle babble of their everyday meditations. Their thoughts weave in and out of the soundtrack, seemingly unrelated, yet all unified through Knieper’s music.
In another scene, human voice is further explored in Knieper’s score. When Damiel and his angelic cohort Cassiel enter a library, which is filled with other angels presiding over their human wards, a dramatic cue (the wonderfully titled “The Cathedral of Books”) begins. The “angel chord” of the synth choir pad is heard again, now accompanying the voices of those patronizing the library, and after Cassiel closes his eyes, a choir begins to sing.
For this scene, a “tapestry of voices” was created. Wenders brought in a variety of texts (newspapers, poems, et cetera) which were distributed amongst a large choir comprising of both male and female singers. Knieper had the choristers read these out in different volumes—whispered, very low and then very loud—and made recordings of their readings. They were also played the “angel chord” and instructed to sing the texts over the top of it using only notes found in the chord. The recordings of all these quotations were then mixed together to create the final piece, and it serves to elevate the otherwise innocuous setting and goings-on of a library into the realm of the divine.
Where Knieper scores for the celestial world in Wings of Desire, music by other musicians and composers underscores the earthly. An ethereal piece, “Angel Fragments” by Laurie Anderson, is heard during a heart-breaking scene in which Cassiel, powerless to intervene, watches as a man commits suicide; the wise old Homer delights in the sweet tones of a music box, perhaps playing a nostalgic tune from his youth; aerial artist Marion performs her routine as Damiel watches on, accompanied by the whimsical carnivalia of Laurent Petitgrand’s “Zirkusmusik”; and the band Crime & the City Solution perform gloomy blues in a club as the lonely Marion dances to its languid rhythm, unaware of Damiel’s presence beside her.
Damiel falls in love with Marion and decides he would prefer to be human. After Marion’s aerial display, where Damiel first encounters her, she retires to her trailer and listens to a recording of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song, “The Carny.” Her inner monologue is periodically interrupted by her singing fragments of Nick Cave’s vocal melody over the demented “oom pah pah” waltz of the song’s accompaniment as Damiel listens in. Despite the song’s inherently creepy character, Marion, a carnival employee herself, finds comfort in “The Carny,” which explores the alienation of being part of a travelling carnival troupe. It’s a feeling of isolation that resonates deeply with the unhappy Damiel. He falls in love with Marion and, after an encounter with the actor Peter Falk, an ex-angel who made the switch to the human world, Damiel decides to do the same.
After Damiel miraculously becomes human, his world transforms from black and white to color and he attends a concert of the Bad Seeds at the club he had previously seen Marion visit. The band perform “The Carny,” the song from Marion’s trailer, and as they are about to start their second song, we are even treated to Cave’s thoughts via Cassiel, who is wandering solemnly about the stage. Whilst the band is performing the urgent “From Her to Eternity,” Marion walks to the bar where Damiel is waiting for her. Gradually, the Bad Seeds and their audience fade from the soundtrack, and as Marion speaks to Damiel the music of the Bad Seeds is replaced by another string composition by Knieper that lingers underneath Marion’s poignant monologue. They kiss, Marion finding someone to share her life with, Damiel, forgoing an eternity of loneliness for a lifetime of her words.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.