Wings of Desire – March 17, 2010

Wings of Desire
Dir. Wim Wenders, 1987

Partially inspired by the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Wings of Desire garnered Wim Wenders the award of best director at Cannes 1987. The film is a story of two angels who watch over Berlin, and can travel unseen through the city, listening to people’s thoughts, observing their actions and studying their lives. While they can make their presence felt in small ways, only children and other angels can see them. As a result, the angels remember all of Berlin’s transformations, even so far back as the melting glaciers. Thus drawing on the angels’ perspectives, the film presents the city of Berlin in its totality – its urban fabric, landmarks, and daily life and rhythms – as everything seems to continue through time, including the city’s uncertain future.

This movie was included in our series partly in recognition of the director’s influence, and particularly for its foregrounding the city and urban fabric within the story. In this regard, different aspects of city (life) are showed and analyzed in his films, such as the relation of human beings to technology, and the meaning of everyday life in cities. This movie also depicts images of Berlin landmarks, like Potsdamer Platz, which opens for interpretation the meaning of a place and how this meaning can be transformed by different urban interventions.

French cinematographer Henri Alekan uses a monochromatic point of view to distinguish the angels’ perspective from that of humans (shown in colour). This technique, in addition to aerial camera views, reinforces distance and the difference between the acts of witnessing versus experiencing life – a theme which connects with aloneness, wandering and home. Additionally, setting the film in a city unsettled by the cold war and divided by the Berlin wall raises themes of dis/continuity and history. The concept of history in this film is explored by Rogowski (1992) in connection with the writings of Walter Benjamin, particularly his reflection on Klee’s watercolour Angelus Novus, while Harvey’s treatment of the film as postmodern cinema hinges too on the “intertwining themes of space and time” (1990:308). In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey devotes much of chapter 18 to an analysis of Wings of Desire. The extent to which Harvey’s reading of the film is compelling, and the themes which emerge will serve as jumping off points for discussion.

Suggested reading:

  • Harvey, David. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell: Oxford. (Ch.18: Time and space in the postmodern cinema pp.308-323.)
  • Rogowski, Christian. (1992) “To Be Continued: History in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Thomas Brasch’s Domino.” German Studies Review. 15(3):547-563.
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