Wings of desire follows Damiel, an angel who watches over the city of Berlin. The angels are not seen by the people around them but they fly and walk around the city, trying to give comfort to people in trouble. Damiel, frustrated with not being directly involved in the human world, wishes to become mortal, and quite literally falls into that world. The film was released in 1987, just 2 years before the Berlin Wall fell, and confronts the division of the city and its odd history as an island of Western Europe under the iron curtain.
The film starts out with this incredible flying shot over the city and through an apartment building, observing small pieces of human troubles. We begin to understand that we are observing the world from the point of view of the angels, hearing the thoughts and troubles of people going through their daily lives. I have rarely seen a movie that captivates me so much in the first scene. The premise is as beautiful as the film itself. The viewer is immediately drawn in because of how beautifully and sensitively the director handles the material.
What is interesting in the film is unlike classical thought, the angel’s world is not idealized. We see the angels simply wanting to walk around like normal people. It frustrates them that while they want to help people, they have no direct way of helping them besides trying to provide comfort. Occasionally they can give people a glimmer of hope and take them out of their negative cycle of thoughts. This is highlighted in the scene above where Cassiel attempts to give a man comfort who is pondering suicide, but is ultimately unsuccessful. We understand here that the angels are limited by their inability to interact directly with the human world and can only attempt to give love and comfort. While the viewers of this film are not angels (or so we think…), most people can relate to the frustration of being able to give love, but having no direct effect on the situation. This is what brings empathy and makes human a story about angels.
The second way the angel’s world isn’t idealized is shown through the choice to shoot the scenes from the angels’ point of view in black and white. This is one of the more interesting choices to me because it implies there is something that the angels can’t see. While they can fly and listen to people’s thoughts. While they do have these all-seeing eyes, they are not able to grasp this humanity that comes with mortality. When Damiel chooses to become mortal, he is suddenly able to see color and he is acknowledged. Color, in this sense, represents some intangible beauty in mortal life that is lost in other circumstances.
The other piece of symbolism that perplexed me was the armor that every angel ends up with an armor chest plate (as we learn from the conversation with Peter Falk). It is clear that the armor is meant to a juxtaposition to the wings he had as an angel. My best interpretation is that while his immortality protected him in the angel world, he will have to find his own way to protect himself in the mortal world. It is the armor that falls on Damiel’s head and makes him bleed. It is the first time we see him bleed or experience pain, which he does not seem to be upset about.
There are very few movies that make you rethink the way you see the world. Every once in a while, a film can create an impression that you will never forget. Wings of Desire elicits a childhood desire and longing for some sort of mystical world to exist around us. It tells a very human story of angels maneuvering through our world and displays the beauty of our own mortality.