Wings of Desire: A Film, A Poem, A Love Song to Humankind

From “Song of Childhood”
Peter Handke
Original as used in the movie:

Als das Kind Kind war,
ging es mit hängenden Armen,
wollte der Bach sei ein Fluß,
der Fluß sei ein Strom,
und diese Pfütze das Meer.

Als das Kind Kind war,
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war,
alles war ihm beseelt,
und alle Seelen waren eins.

Als das Kind Kind war,
hatte es von nichts eine Meinung,
hatte keine Gewohnheit,
saß oft im Schneidersitz,
lief aus dem Stand,
hatte einen Wirbel im Haar
und machte kein Gesicht beim fotografieren…


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.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed…

Thus begins “Wings of Desire,” a tone poem—a visual poem, with one of the most beautiful opening and title sequences I’ve ever seen, heard, or felt. If you are one to skip titles, please refrain or you will miss the foundation of the story—it is formed by the titling, the narration, the music. A hand moves a fountain pen across a white page, black ink forms words from the beginning of Handke’s “Song of Childhood” in its original German. At the same time, we hear the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) recite, nearly sing, the poem in German. The poem, Ganz’s narration, and the music taken together are captivating. I never knew German could sound so beautiful.

Interspersed with the writing of the words from the poem are the opening credits, printed by hand in white on black, the recitation of the poem continues. Rather than seeming jarring, this juxtaposition works, maybe it has something to do with the cello in the background. As the music rises, we see clouds in the sky, an eye fills the screen. It blinks and we see West Berlin from above. A West Berlin prior to the wall coming down. An angel stands on the shattered spire of Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) on Breitscheidplatz (a symbol of Berlin’s WWII damage). He is wearing a wool trench coat his folded white wings span almost his entire height. The angel looks down and we see what he sees—the people of West Berlin going about their day, in the streets, on a bus, on bicycles, in their homes, kissing in a plaza. We hear what he hears, their internal voices having conversations with themselves, or speaking to others, we hear self-doubt, distress, worry and a little joy. This quiet chorus of conversation and innermost thoughts are how the angels hear the world. The angels are unseen but for the exception of children who see them and smile. 

We recently re-watched this movie, directed by one of my favorites, Wim Wenders, released in 1987, in German with English subtitles. Every time I see it, it is fresh, new, it speaks to different parts of my heart and soul. It is magical and real. It is quiet and subtle. It is also full of the heat and “fire” and joy of life, of love. Wenders and writer and poet Peter Handke collaborated on the script. The casting is superb, Henri Alekan’s cinematography is breathtaking—the angels’ viewpoint is shot in monochrome and mortal humankind’s perspective is in color. The transition between the two is quite natural. The music, composed by Jürgen Knieper, carries the story throughout with musical assists from Laurie Anderson, Laurent Petitgrand, Crime & the City Solution, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds–including a cameo appearance in a nightclub. This is one of those films where sense of place is so strong that the city itself, West Berlin, is an integral part of the film–an uncredited actor. 

The angels have been watching since time immemorial. They watch the people of West Berlin. Unseen and unfelt, the touch of a hand offers comfort to those distressed. Unseen, that is, by all but children. The children see them, they see them and smile. I love that the children can see the angels. 

There are many angels, but the film centers upon two, Damiel played by Bruno Ganz and Cassiel played by Otto Sander. As mentioned, this entire film is perfectly cast, especially true with pairing Ganz and Sander to portray these two angels, friends. I can’t imagine them played by anyone else.

The angels not only watch from above, they also walk among the people. They walk on the streets, at the circus, outside a food truck, and in The Berlin State Library—incidentally the first library scene begins with a beautiful lead in shot. They don’t simply watch. They are moved. Empathetic hardly seems an encompassing enough adjective. They place a hand on the shoulder of someone distressed or in some kind of pain and you get the sense of ease the people must feel. Angels are watching—not merely observing, they are watching over, interested, and caring. I wonder if and hope that I too may have been touched by an angel when I was in a library. 

One of the most heartbreaking scenes, is when Cassiel is trying to comfort a man sitting on the top of a tall building. Cassiel has his face and a hand on the man’s  shoulder, we hear the thoughts of the man “I don’t care. All these thoughts. I’d rather not think anymore. I go. But why?” and he pushes himself off. Cassiel’s cry of anguish is heartbreaking. The angels may provide comfort, but they can’t always save us.

Damiel comforts a man dying as a result of a motorcycle crash. Through Damiel, we hear the man’s thoughts, “I stink of gasoline. I saw it all clearly: the Mercedes, the pool of oil.” “Karin, I should have told you.” Damiel kneels down behind the man, his hands gently resting on the man’s head. The man’s thoughts continue “It can’t be that simple, I’ve still so much to do.” Then simultaneously they speak a litany of memories, “…the boathouse floating in the lake. The Southern Cross. The Far East…The Mississippi Delta…the child’s eyes…”

Juxtaposed against the black and white scenes of the angels’ perspectives are scenes shot in color of the mortals’ perspective. The contrast and intersection of mortal and angel are, in large part, represented by two events taking place. One of these is a film crew from the US shooting a film in Berlin. The star is Peter Falk, playing himself. Watch for an encounter between Damiel and Peter Falk, it is a delightful scene, which I don’t want to spoil by writing about.

The other event is the Circus Alekan (the name, a tribute to the cinematographer) is in town and this is where we meet Marion, a star trapeze artist. We meet her on a trapeze, wearing wings. Damiel watches her practicing, and performing. I can’t say enough about Solveig Dommartin’s performance as Marion—on the trapeze, on the ground and in the street, she moves like one would expect a trapeze artist to move to stand, to walk. She had less than eight weeks to train as a trapeze artist and performed all the trapeze work in the film herself—not once using a stunt double.

Dommartin as Marion has two notably powerful scenes. The first in black and white, as she is observed by Damiel who is clearly falling in love with her. She is in costume at her mirror and thinking to herself as she looks at her reflection. Damiel watches her, he hears her thoughts, her fears, “…I think I still have the right to be afraid…but not to talk about it…You’d like to cry like a very sad little girl…” Then, she pulls herself through, “It’s gone already…” she winks and smiles at herself in the mirror, “It’ll come back. It doesn’t matter.” This scene is so real—I can’t be the only one that finds herself talking like this—so honestly to his or her own image, who winks at his or herself in the mirror, to show encouragement, smiles, shrugs shoulders.

Damiel falls in love with Marion. So in love he wants to feel gravity. He wants to be a mortal man. After telling his friend Cassiel, he falls to the ground, he sits up, touches the back of his head with his hand, and then looks at it. His fingers are covered blood. He is in color, he feels gravity, he bleeds.

Marion’s second monologue is at the end of the film speaking to Damiel, now a mortal. This scene is shot in stunning color. Dommartin’s make-up, costuming and especially her delivery are flawless. Her monologue is real, palpable, and powerful. She has fallen in love with Damiel and speaks to him about love but also to us, to the city of West Berlin, to the world. Some of the dialog mirrors pieces of Handke’s “Song of Childhood”: “Why was the brown-eyed one my brother…and not the green-eyed boy on the opposite platform?” brings these lines to mind:

When the child was a child,
 It was the time for these questions:
 Why am I me, and why not you?
 Why am I here, and why not there?

The scene is best in its entirety, but I feel compelled to share a few of her thoughts on loneliness, wholeness, and love:

“I’ve never been lonely, neither alone, nor with someone else. But I would have liked to be lonely. Loneliness means: I am whole at last. Now I can say it, as tonight I’m lonely at last.”… “Last night I dreamt of a stranger. Of my man. Only with him could I be lonely.”…”I know…it’s you.”

Beautiful! I have to agree with Roger Ebert who wrote:

For me, the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions. Some of them are asked in the film: “Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?”

Roger Ebert on “Wings of Desire”

I have to add that for me it is also a poem.


This film is:

“Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej”

The reference is to influential filmmakers: Yasujirō Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky. 

Scholars Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beickene believe these directors were valued by and influential on Wenders: Ozu had taught Wenders order; Truffaut the observation of people, especially youth; and Tarkovsky, a less clear influence on Wenders, consideration of morality and beauty.

“Song of Childhood”, Peter Handke, German and English translation.

Awards: For Wings of Desire, Wenders won awards for Best Director at both the Cannes Film Festival and European Film Awards. Later this film has been added to countless Top 10 films of the 1980s and Top 100 foreign language film lists. No wonder. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.