For Berlin and its angels

As a belated toast to the city of Berlin and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, today’s post features Wim Wenders’ magnificent film, Der Himmel über Berlin (‘Sky over Berlin’)/ Wings of Desire – newly released on Blu-Ray by Criterion – including videos, essays, and verses by Rilke, whose angels inspired Wenders’ vision.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, The First Elegy
Duino Elegies, translated by A.S. Kline

Der Himmel über Berlin (AKA Wings of Desire) (1987) Trailer
Directed by Wim Wenders

Wings of Desire – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

One more song and it’s over, but I’m not going to tell you about a girl, I’m not going to tell you about a girl. – Nick Cave’s thoughts

Tx to George7575

ESSAYS (the second is by Wim Wenders):

Wings of Desire: Watch the Skies

If ever there was a European art film that could be all things to all people, it’s Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987). Marking Wenders’s career midpoint like a lightning strike cutting across tree rings, the movie is at once audience-seductive and demanding, holistic and aestheticized. It has beguiled the Wenders aficionado as reliably as it’s absorbed the spiritually hungry civilian, the rogue filmhead, the bookish square, and the nondenominational seeker…

There’s little doubt as to the originality of the experience from the very first airborne camera patrols of autumnal cold-war Berlin. In Wenders’s silvery black-and-white view, this is the paradigmatic city wasteland of its age, still war-torn and withstanding a historicized physical and political schizophrenia like no other, symbolized, like the elephant in the parlor, by the wall itself, snaking through the urban spaces covered with graffiti, obliterating your view, wherever you stand, of the city’s other half. This cognitively dissonant urban experiment had frequently been the grim arena for sixties spy noir, but never had we seen Berlin become Berlin so clearly, so eloquently before. (The more sober and evocative German title translates as The Sky over Berlin.) Of course the city is haunted. (LINK)

An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film
The following, written in 1986, is from the first treatment for Wings of Desire.

And we, spectators always, everywhere,
looking at, never out of, everything!
—Rilke, “The Eighth Elegy”

At first it’s not possible to describe anything beyond a wish or a desire.

That’s how it begins, making a film, writing a book, painting a picture, composing a tune, generally creating something.

You have a wish.

You wish that something might exist, and then you work on it until it does. You want to give something to the world, something truer, more beautiful, more painstaking, more serviceable, or simply something other than what already exists. And right at the start, simultaneous with the wish, you imagine what that “something other” might be like, or at least you see something flash by. And then you set off in the direction of the flash, and you hope you don’t lose your orientation, or forget or betray the wish you had at the beginning.

And in the end, you have a picture or pictures of something, you have music, or something that operates in some new way, or a story, or this quite extraordinary combination of all these things: a film. Only with a film—as opposed to paintings, novels, music, or inventions—you have to present an account of your desire; more, you even have to describe in advance the path you want to go with your film. No wonder, then, that so many films lose their first flash, their comet.

The thing I wished for and saw flashing was a film in and about Berlin.

A film that might convey something of the history of the city since 1945. A film that might succeed in capturing what I miss in so many films that are set here, something that seems to be so palpably there when you arrive in Berlin: a feeling in the air and under your feet and in people’s faces that makes life in this city so different from life in other cities.

To explain and clarify my wish, I should add: it’s the desire of someone who’s been away from Germany for a long time, and who could only ever experience “Germanness” in this one city. I should say I’m no Berliner. Who is nowadays? But for over twenty years now, visits to this city have given me my only genuine experiences of Germany, because the (hi)story that elsewhere in the country is suppressed or denied is physically and emotionally present here.

Of course I didn’t want just to make a film about the place, Berlin. What I wanted to make was a film about people—people here in Berlin—that considered the one perennial question: how to live? (LINK)

Rilke’s Last Encounter With an Angel
Harper’s Oct 21, 2007

Throughout human history there are no shortage of tales of poets taking inspiration from angelic figures, and indeed the concept of the poetic “muse” has this derivation. But I’m not aware of another incident in the twentieth century in which an angel appeared and offered the opening lines of a poem—indeed, the first Duinese Elegy, what turns out to be generally recognized as one of the great poems of the century. And while the elegy was dated by various correspondence to a January evening in 1912, Rilke did not in fact put it forward for publication until 1922, just four years before his death, and before the composition of “Komm du.” (Brilliant, a must read for Rilke devotees and anyone interested in angels. LINK)

13 thoughts on “For Berlin and its angels

  1. Pingback: Wenders, Rilke And A Dead Fish «

  2. Thanks from the bottom of my heart for posting all of this. “Wings” is very dear to me and I have written about it extensively in my letters and journals. Someday, I will weed through them, perhaps and share some of my thoughts and feelings about this visionary piece of art where flesh and the spirit collide!!!

  3. Wings of Desire was my introduction to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (and Crime and the City Solution but I didn’t like them at first due to Simon Bonney’s voice). I caught part of Wings of Desire on TV early one morning while getting ready for school, and it stayed with me. I then rushed out and bought every Bad Seeds album I could find.

    • Huh, really? I always thought Simon Bonney was a better singer than Nick, but there were other things that made me like Nick more. Maybe it’s the fact that I can only understand bits and pieces of what Simon’s singing, and although there are a few good lyrics floating around, a lot of them are kind of awkwardly bad. I guess that’s how I must feel, anyway, because I don’t listen to them much.

  4. Wings of Desire. Truly magnificent, possibly life-altering. I am so glad that you enjoyed this post.

    A few years ago, to pacify a friend, I watched ‘City of Angels’, Hollywood’s Americanized remake of WOD. I made it through, enjoyed Nick Cage’s eyes and some of his acting, certainly loved the song, Angel’, but … that’s it.

    Afterward, my friend was in tears. Stupidly, I suggested we watch my copy of ‘Wings of Desire’, explaining that COA was a remake. Well….

    The German film with subtitles part didn’t go over very big. To her credit, she did try to watch it. However, the complaints began immediately: Why are these angels so ugly? Do all German actors look like these middle-aged ugly guys? That angel is too ugly. Is this really a love story? Well, who plays Meg Ryan’s part? Why is German such an ugly language? Why is it in black and white? Then, the deal breaker: I’m sorry, but you’ll have to turn this off. I can’t read that fast and it’s giving me a headache.

    I ripped it out of the DVD player before I started frothing at the mouth or clobbering her.

    What did I expect, after all, that Hollywood would do with a film about Berlin, lovingly conceived and directed by a German, with a plot line inspired by a beloved German poet whose verse defies the most adept translators and confounds literal-minded German language speakers? OF COURSE THEY MANGLED IT.

    It’s worth mentioning that my friend is suspicious of my film choices and asks me to swear that any film I choose for us to view together is not in a foreign language, ESPECIALLY German. Well! What can one do?

    The thing about translation reminds me of Blixa, who has used the same translator for 20 years because he trusts him to properly convey those subtle meanings which, no co-incidence, involve the conveyance of sounds. Like Rilke, Blixa is fascinated by language and holds a mystical world view. The Berlin connection is obvious, so a follow up post is in order. I’ve been mulling it over for days, trying to find the adequate language to express my ideas. (Little Janey articulates my problem exactly.) Sigh.

    Meanwhile, more Rilke …

    From Sonnets to Orpheus, Wesleyan Press, 1987, translated by David Young

    Sonnet 29

    Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen, fühle,
    wie dein Atem noch den Raum vermehrt.
    Im Gebälk der finstern Glockenstiihle
    lass dich läuten. Das, was an dir zehrt,

    wird ein Starkes über dieser Nahrung.
    Geh in der Verwandlung aus und ein.
    Was ist deine leidendste Erfahrung?
    Ist dir Trinken bitter, werde Wein.

    Sei in dieser Nacht aus Übermass
    Zauberkraft am Kreuzweg deiner Sinne,
    ihrer seltsamen Begegnung Sinn.

    Und wenn dich das lrdische vergass,
    zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne.
    Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin.

    Sonnet 29 (English translation by David Young (1987)):

    Silent friend of many distances, feel
    how your breath is enlarging space.
    Among the rafters of dark belfries
    let yourself ring. What preys on you will

    strengthen from such nourishment.
    Come and go with metamorphosis.
    What’s your most painful experience?
    If what you drink’s bitter, turn to wine.

    In this huge night, become
    the magic at the crossways of your senses.
    Be what their strange encounter means.

    And if the earthly forgets you,
    say to the quiet earth: I flow.
    Speak to the rushing water — say: I am.

    Ich rinne (I flow). Ich bin (I am). *cries*

    • I saw bits and pieces of City of Angels and thought it kind of missed the point. I mean, he could talk to her while still an angel, right? I always thought it was the lack of communication that was so painful for Damiel. I also don’t think German is an ugly language but maybe I’m weird or have been exposed to mostly people with nice voices speaking it (err, Blixa). From what I can tell, City of Angels also killed some of the. . .serenity and innocence about the whole thing. I distinctly remember there being a (very softcore) sex scene, and that bugged me. Not because I find sex horrible or anything but because it really wasn’t a part of Wings of Desire at all. It was insinuated. I don’t know though. . .I flipped the channel as soon as the Damiel-equivalent character thought/said something and the Marion-equivalent character was aware of it. Then I flipped back a while later and they were naked. Damn it.

      • He could talk to her but she could not hear him in the literal sense. BTW: COA’S Tagline: ‘She didn’t believe in angels until she fell in love with one.’


        I just looked up Roger Ebert’s 1998 review, written after he sees COA. It’s so good that I’m pasting it in. Fantastic essay.

        Wings of Desire (1988)
        Roger Ebert / April 12, 1998

        The angels in “Wings of Desire” are not merely guardian angels, placed on Earth to look after human beings. They are witnesses, and they have been watching for a long time–since the beginning. Standing on a concrete river bank in Berlin, they recall that it took a long time before the primeval river found its bed. They remember the melting of the glaciers. They are a reflection of the solitude of God, who created everything and then had no one to witness what he had done; the role of the angels is to see.

        In Wim Wenders’ film, they move invisibly through the divided city of Berlin, watching, listening, comparing notes. Often they stand on high places–the shoulder of a heroic statue, the tops of buildings–but sometimes they descend to comfort an accident victim, or to put a hand on the shoulder of a young man considering suicide. They cannot directly change events (the young man does kill himself), but perhaps they can suggest the possibility of hope, the intuition that we are not completely alone.

        The film evokes a mood of reverie, elegy and meditation. It doesn’t rush headlong into plot, but has the patience of its angels. It suggests what it would be like to see everything but not participate in it. We follow two angels: Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). They listen to the thoughts of an old Holocaust victim, and of parents worried about their son, and of the passengers on trams and the people in the streets; it’s like turning the dial and hearing snatches of many radio programs. They make notes about the hooker who hopes to earn enough money to go south, and the circus aerialist who fears that she will fall, because it is the night of the full moon.

        You’re seduced into the spell of this movie, made in 1987 by Wenders, who collaborated on the screenplay with the German playwright Peter Handke. It moves slowly, but you don’t grow impatient, because there is no plot to speak of, and so you don’t fret that it should move to its next predictable stage. It is about being, not doing. And then it falls into the world of doing, when the angel Damiel decides that he must become human.

        He falls in love with the trapeze artist. He goes night after night to the shabby little circus where she performs above the center ring. He is touched by her doubts and vulnerability. He talks with Cassiel, the other angel, about how it would feel to feel: to be able to feed a cat, or get ink from a newspaper on your fingers. He senses a certain sympathy from one of the humans he watches, an American movie actor (Peter Falk, playing himself). “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here,” Falk tells him. How can Falk sense him? Sometimes children can see angels, but adults are supposed to have lost the facility.

        The answers to these questions are all made explicitly clear, in the new Hollywood movie “City of Angels,” which is a remake of “Wings of Desire” and spells out what the original film only implies. After seeing the new film, which stars Nicolas Cage as the angel and Meg Ryan as the woman (now a heart surgeon rather than an aerialist), I went back to “Wings of Desire” again. It reminded me of the different notes that movies can strike.

        “City of Angels” is a skillful romantic comedy and I enjoyed it, but it all stayed there on the screen, content to be what it was. “Wings of Desire” doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.

        It is a beautiful film, photographed by the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who made the characters float weightlessly in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” (the circus in the movie is named after him). When he shows the point of view of the angels, he shoots in a kind of blue-tinted monochrome. When he sees through human eyes, he shoots in color. His camera seems liberated from gravity; it floats over the city, or glides down the aisle of an airplane. It does not intrude; it observes. When the angel follows the trapeze artist into a rock club, it doesn’t fall into faster cutting rhythms; it remains detached. The critic Bryant Frazer observes that Cassiel, the other angel, “leans against the wall and closes his eyes, and the stage lights cast three different shadows off his body, alternating and shifting position and color as though we’re watching Cassiel’s very essence fragmenting before our eyes.”

        Bruno Ganz has a good face for an angel. It is an ordinary, pleasant, open face, not improbably handsome. Like a creature who has been observing since the dawn of time, he doesn’t react a lot. He has seen it all. Now he wants to feel. “I’m taking the plunge,” his angel tells the other one. He will descend into time, disease, pain and death, because at the same time he can touch, smell and be a part of things. All that he desires is summed up in the early dawn at an outdoor coffee stand when Peter Falk tells him: “To smoke, and have coffee–and if you do it together, it’s fantastic. To draw, and when your hands are cold you rub them together … ”

        The children in the streets call Falk “Columbo,” and indeed Columbo, in his dirty raincoat, enters people’s lives and stands around and observes and eventually asks questions. And the angels, who wear long black topcoats, do the same things, although their questions are not easily heard.

        Wenders is an ambitious director who experiments with the ways in which a movie can be made. I didn’t think his 1992 film “Until the End of the World” was a success, but I admired his audacity in following two lovers in a story improvised over five months in 20 cities in seven countries on four continents. His “Kings of the Road” (1974) was a three-hour odyssey in which two men wander the border between East and West Germany in a VW bus, sharing confessions and insights, learning that they cannot live with women and cannot live without them. It’s like an intellectual, metaphysical version of Promise Keepers. His “Paris, Texas” (1978) was a modern remake of “The Searchers,” in which a loner, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tries to track down a lost girl in a landscape that seems to forbid human connections.

        Like many directors who make films of greater length, Wenders is not a perfectionist. He will include what a perfectionist would leave out, because of intangible reasons that are more important to him than flawlessness. Consider, for example, the first time the trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) encounters Peter Falk at that coffee stand. Her performance is almost giddy; she seems like an actress pleased to meet a star she’s seen on TV, and the scene’s reality is broken by her vocal tone and body language. They both seem to be doing an ill-prepared improvisation. That may make it a “bad” scene in terms of the movie’s narrow purposes, but does it have a life of its own? Yes, for the same reasons it’s flawed. Movies are moments of time, and that is a moment I am happy to have.

        “Wings of Desire” is one of those films movie critics are accused of liking because it’s esoteric and difficult. “Nothing happens but it takes two hours and there’s a lot of complex symbolism,” complains a Web-based critic named Peter van der Linden. In the fullness of time, perhaps he will return to it and see that astonishing things happen and that symbolism can only work by being apparent. 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?”

  5. morgan, i love this post. i love the rilke excerpt you have used. thinking of wings of desire always leads me to think of “cassiels song” from b sides and rarities (i think). what a place for any “wild angel” to be.

  6. I just adore WOD. It was my 1st intro. to Nick though I didn’t figure that out until a number of years later when LLI came out and I became a fan.

    And Rilke — there are no adequate words to describe the breadth and wonderment of his poetry.

    Thanks for the links.

  7. We saw this film last week and both me and my husband really liked it. It was beutiful! And of course we laughed at Nick’s thoughts before From her to eternity. 😉

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