“Why am I me, and why not you?”
What does it mean to be human? This is the question the Angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) wonders from his eternal perch on high surveying, subtly steering, and always listening. He sees humanity’s joy and laughter, jealous of their ability to live, feel, and touch. Even amongst the ruins of West Germany with its now-crumbling wall soon to come down lies promise and hope rather than despair. There’s a tiny, infectious grin perpetually on his lips responding to the small moments of life happening around him that he wishes could be his. And it isn’t even just the love cultivated for a beautiful trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) that sparks his transformation. It’s the pain, longing, and sacrifice too—the sorrow necessary to make that love powerfully worthwhile.
Damiel has caught a bug like we all do when our minds wander in pursuit of something greater than our lives have yet to experience. He’s been on the sidelines too long; he’s ready to enter the game because if not now, when? The clearly heard thoughts of strangers’ minds at ground level are both good and bad in passionate voices and introspective tones with true weight and consequence like he’s never known. Well, that’s probably too broad a statement since he does obviously understand the hardships man has faced under its own volition and rage. Damiel and friend-in-arms the Angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) know the abject sadness of Earth too well, their comforting embraces attempting to cleanse darkness from depressed souls—attempts that don’t always succeed.
This is where the two see differently. Cassiel isn’t averse to the pleasure of dream and imagination when it comes to pretending he may one day walk among the humans, he simply sees it as fantasy and less important than his duty to watch and record, heal and bear witness. Damiel felt the same way at one time too, but he’s become infatuated with those beneath him—their vigor and freedom. He’s lost himself along their paths of meandering woe and excitement, stumbling upon a seasonal circus and the young woman at its center wishing for the loneliness necessary to make her whole so she may then search for someone else. Damiel discovers he’s entered his own existential crisis in the wake of listening to so many others.
The journey forward through Der Himmel über Berlin [Wings of Desire] is one of poetry, both verbal and visual thanks to director Wim Wenders and co-writers Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger‘s internal dialogues unfolding as disembodied voices steeped in emotion rather than commenting on action and Henri Alekan‘s gorgeous cinematography split in two—black and white filtered through a stocking for the Angels’ gaze and color for man’s. Eighty percent of the words spoken aren’t done so aloud, these fleeting thoughts and memories inspiring Damiel and Cassiel. They are sustained by the desires of these people trapped in a city bombed by war and sectioned by politics, people still somehow surviving, bouncing back, and enduring the struggle of reality to be better than the generation responsible.
We become voyeurs, witnessing a city lost in history and the inhabitants willing themselves to come out the other side as unscathed as possible. We watch like the Angels—the camera lens making us one of them, providing a window for eyes to pierce through the fourth wall into our own like we are walking by Damiel and Cassiel’s side. What first is delivered as compassionate curiosity with constant smiles of knowingness and selfless assistance for the humans ignorant of our presence soon morphs into faces of somber lament in response to some men proving incapable of salvation. It’s here that we wonder if the Angels’ job is a futile one, our penchant for self-destruction rendering anything they can offer moot. Perhaps Damiel is right to escape for that control.
The metaphor is sound for humanity’s default setting to stay in the background and not get involved when chaos reigns too. We often watch from afar, keeping to ourselves so as not to be seen and thus thrown into the fight. We shout from our soapboxes about travesties and persecutions, but only a select few find the strength to do something about it with eyes open and jaws set. This goes for love too. Who hasn’t regretted being too shy to talk to someone he/she liked? Who hasn’t stopped themselves from taking a leap of faith due to the fear of failure or embarrassment? That’s not life and neither is being the bystander living vicariously through another. Damiel’s done with this disconnect and lack of physicality to be seen.
To be human is to accept who you are and act. It’s about experiencing things, entering the world to discover what it offers without prejudice. As the tellingly cognizant Peter Falk says, (playing a version of himself in Berlin on a job and constantly recognized as Columbo), that’s the fun of living. We can’t learn by watching or listening to what someone else says. Those things can better prepare our expectations, but until we’re face-to-face with whatever is on the horizon we’ll never know its true power or potential. To know coffee isn’t to drink it; to feel the cold brisk air is drastically different than reading about it in a book. And love: its overwhelming passion and heart-wrenching defeat is abstract nonsense until its ache is yours.
Wenders ensures we feel every bit of emotion and wonder with the two senses he can control through film—sight and sound. There are beautiful transitions whether Angels materializing from thin air, the switch from black and white to color, or a room of unseeing people proving a mix of flesh and specters alike via eye contact. The sound’s muted except for myriad thoughts running into each other in a low murmur with one singled out to be understood. Then it’s blasted into our eardrums courtesy of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Crime and The City Solution drowning out everything but the body’s movements and uninhibited reaction to stimuli. Screams are silent and silence deafening, each character met with hope and tragedy in equal measure.
In the end it’s our flaws as a species that makes us unique. It’s our mortality that gives our lives value, our empathy giving them meaning. There’s so much in the world that we cannot understand until we’re positioned to experience it. We can no longer sleepwalk through existence in the belief that everything will be okay. Things will be eventually—even Berlin found redemption and restoration after its darkest time—but way wait when we can do something to avoid the pain? It’s time to wake up and live as the free citizens of the world we are. It’s time to take a chance and risk everything. If it doesn’t work you simply take another and keep moving forward. Nothing is more energizing than embracing the unknown.