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Singing an Epic of Peace: Close-Up on "Wings of Desire"

Wenders's masterpiece extends far beyond the city and time it was set in. Thirty years after its premiere, it feels more timely than ever.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire (1987) is showing from February 16 - March 18, 2018 in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and France.
Wings of Desire
Forty minutes into Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, Cassiel (Otto Sander) sits next to an old man dubbed Homer (Curt Bois) and watches him flick through a photo book inside Berlin’s City Library. Homer, however, can’t see him: Cassiel does not belong to this world, but to the community of somber-looking, coat-wearing angels hovering above Berlin. The old man’s eyes glued to the book, the camera suddenly shifts to World War II newsreel footage of the war-torn capital, and Homer’s voiceover accompanies the photos of dead infants and corpses piled along the sidewalks: “No one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace… what is it about peace that makes its story so hard to tell?”
Though this is hardly the first image that comes to mind when thinking of Wenders’s 1987 masterpiece—think of the iconic opening featuring Cassiel’s fellow angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) perching atop the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church—the scene marks a crucial moment. It is the first time in the film we see Wenders juxtaposing 1980s Berlin with the memories of the city’s World War II horrors, a compare-contrast exercise that becomes a sort of leitmotiv toward the end, and it also gives a taste of the film’s multi-layered narrative structure.   
Three years after his Palm d’Or winning Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire welcomed Wenders’s return to West Berlin after nearly a decade of living and filming in the United States. Set in 1987 Berlin, the Wall still intact and carving a no mans-land into the city’s heart, it is as much about Berliners—whether mortals or immortals—as it is about the city and historical moment they inhabit. Damiel and Cassiel have been watching over the capital for all eternity: they do not merely look after humans (little can they do when they decide to hurt themselves, for one) but witness and testify to their spirituality. They take notes of the most extravagant things they observe in their peregrinations, and then meet up to share their journal entries. It is during one of those rendezvous that Damiel confesses his longing to become human: “I don’t want to always hover above—I’d rather feel a weight within.” And while it is true that part of his desire to give up immortality is tied to the encounter with a trapeze circus artist he falls in love with, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), Wenders and co-script writer Peter Handke frame Damiel’s wish as a need to enter the world and the city’s zeitgeist. “I have been absent long enough,” Damiel tells Cassiel a few moments before taking the plunge: “let me enter the history of the world.”
The history he enters is one of walls, borders and polarities. In 1987, Berlin was still a couple of years away from witnessing the disintegration of the Wall, and the legacy of the city’s partition is everywhere present in Henri Alekan’s cinematography: walls and ruins looking all the more oppressive when seen and shot through the angels’ immortal and black and white gaze. But the dichotomies of the Cold War era are just one side of the city Damiel becomes part of. Wenders intimately connects Berlin’s 1980s present with the nightmare of Germany’s Nazi past. Seconds after Homer’s reflections inside the City Library, Cassiel follows the old man as he looks for a place that no longer seems to exist: Potsdamer Platz. Once a thriving spot in the centre of Berlin, the square had become a power hub of National Socialism before being wiped out during Berlin’s partition: a grass-filled wasteland extricated from the city’s life and cut in half by the Wall, in 1987 the square was hardly a place at all.
It is not the only instance in which Berlin’s Cold War present is juxtaposed with the horrors the city witnessed some 40 years prior. Moments after the stroll along the remnants of Potsdamer Platz, Cassiel materializes inside a car driving through archival footage of the city’s bombed-out buildings. The car’s journey ends at a movie set: US TV star Peter Falk (playing himself) stars in a detective film set in Nazi Germany, and extras dressed as SS officers casually chat and smoke around others sporting Stars of David. The result is as alienating as it is eerie. In merging Berlin’s Nazi ghost with its Cold War present, Wenders blurs their temporal distance, forging a sense of eternal recurrence—as though the city’s history of violence kept recycling itself, walls above ruins. “Are there still borders?” Cassiel asks himself in another powerful passage, as the images of war-torn Berlin leave way for present day footage of the city: “Now more than ever.”
Perceptively, Wenders treats the city as a synecdoche of sorts. “I have BERLIN representing THE WORLD,” read the film’s first treatment (the caps are Wenders’s own). And indeed, the capital gradually turns into a symbol of resistance, a monument to the horrors of war and to humanity’s resilience that far exceeds its geography (in Wenders’s own words, “more a SITE than a CITY”), whose universality is matched by the scope of the questions raised by its inhabitants, from Damiel’s early musings about one’s place in the world to the later ponderings on war and peace.
Speaking to Film Quarterly in 1988, Wenders claimed Wings of Desire coincided with a move away from his “self-confessed pessimism” in favor of a more positive outlook on the world. It may be hard to note the shift. Uplifting as Marion and Damiel’s love story may be, Damiel’s fall from heaven ends in a city pulled apart by two superpowers, and a world grappling with the omnipresent fear of nuclear annihilation. Fueling the anxieties of the characters populating the streets of Berlin, be they angels or humans, are questions about the rise of populism, society’s fragmentation, humanity’s self-destructive drive and its inability to listen and learn from the past. Watching Damiel’s journey in 2018 is to reckon with the unsettling realization that these fears are as timely today as they were in the late 1980s.
But for all its dark subject matter, there are moments when Wings of Desire exudes a certain soothing feeling. Damiel and Cassiel cannot physically protect people, but they show a heart-warming, almost parent-like affection in the way they try to console them when things look rough. Time and again the angels and Homer refer to kids as humanity’s only hope: after all, children are the only ones able to see the angels, and it is only in their perpetual sense of wonder that humanity will be able to fashion a history “without murder or war,” the same childlike curiosity sparkling in Damiel’s eyes as he takes his first steps in Berlin, the black and white photography suddenly replaced by brighter colours. They are all brief glimpses of peace, but their aura lingers long after the ending credits—courtesy of the cast’s extraordinary performances as much of Wenders and Handke’s ability to craft a story which, anchored as it may be to Berlin’s geography and history, ends up transcending both.  

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