Friday, September 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, "Wings of Desire"

On September 23rd, 1987, Wim Wenders released an extraordinary film called "Wings of Desire," about the city of Berlin and the angels who watch over its human inhabitants. (The original German title is “Der Himmel Über Berlin” or “The Skies Over Berlin.”) Partly inspired by the angels in Rainer Maria Rilke's DUINO ELEGIES, Wenders wrote the film along with poet Peter Handke, who is responsible for some of the most gorgeous prose ever to grace the cinema.

These angels, visible only to children or other angels, can hear the thoughts of humans in close proximity but cannot touch or control them. Far from being a "religious" film, these immortal angels who are clad in drab trench coats live in a world that is seen in black and white, without emotion or sensation, while the human world of love and hate, and the taste of food and the feeling of warmth or cold is seen in vivid color. (The glorious cinematography is by the legendary Henri Alekan, Cocteau’s cinematographer for “La Belle et la Bête.” He was 77 when Wenders convinced him to work on the film.) It is no accident that the film takes place in Berlin, which at the time was a divided city, one half free and the other half enslaved. The wall did not fall until two years after the release of this film.

The duty of the angels is to record and chronicle the human experience: in little spiral ring pocket notebooks they jot down behavioral oddities, inner thoughts, and peculiar things people have said and done. After millions of years (we discover that the angels have been here even before humans), it is natural that some angels might long to feel what humans feel. And indeed, we witness an angel fall in love and wrestle with his desire to renounce his divinity and become mortal in order to be with the one he loves in a fragile, finite existence.

When I first saw this film in 1987, I was literally awestruck and truly emotionally devastated by its scope of humanity and the clear presence of the "animus mundi" in the story. For the first nearly ten or fifteen minutes, we follow a pair of angels as they listen in on the voice of humanity itself, going from person to person, hearing thoughts of love, pettiness, despair, hope, regret, and forgiveness from men, women, young and old. I wept openly through that stunning and powerful opening sequence, overwhelmed by the force of so much existence, so much life, so much sorrow and so much joy (listening in, through an angel, to the thoughts of a dying motorcyclist who has just been in an auto accident is heart-rending). And by extension, not just now, but in the past and the time humanity has left.

In this way, the entire film is transcendent—we are given a glimpse into and a sense of the collective human experience. "Wings of Desire" is magical, emotional, mystical, and profoundly moving. It is not part of our daily lives to feel this much, to be this open, to take in this much at once, to be this aware of the real, sentient, valued lives of all living beings-- to see the one as well as the many simultaneously--and for this reason, I think everyone should see this film. It is a supremely enchanting and enriching experience which will stay with you forever.

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