Der Himmel über Berlin is called Wings of Desire in English, and on the commentary track included with the DVD, the director Wim Wenders says that the English title is the one he prefers.

At the start we observe many Berliners and overhear their thoughts. We share the perspective of the angels, particularly Damiel and Cassiel, as they watch over the city and its inhabitants. Why are they there: to witness, to gather evidence, to testify to the inhabitant’s spiritual existence.

Peter Falk is in Berlin to make a film about the Second World War. Very little happens. Damiel thinks about becoming human, to feel the weight of things, to experience rather than to observe.

It is wonderful to exist as pure spirit and day after day and for eternity, to bear witness to what is solely spiritual in people – but sometimes my eternal spiritual existence becomes too much for me. I then want no longer to hover above, I want to feel a weight within me, abolishing limitlessness and binding me to the earth…

But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Now! Now! and Now!’ And no longer say: ‘Since always’ and ‘Forever’…

Finally to “suspect”, instead of forever knowing all.

He is drawn to Marion, the trapeze artist at a travelling circus. After an encounter with Falk at an Imbiss he follows through on the idea of becoming mortal.

Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it’s fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things! But you’re not here – I’m here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. ‘Cause I’m a friend. Compañero!

It turns out that Falk, the only other person apart from the children who can sense the angels, was himself once an angel and that there are many former angels living among us. Cassiel witnesses a young man committing suicide and is tormented by the idea. He meets Falk in similar circumstances but does not take his hand. He will remain an angel until the second film in the sequence. Marion also meets Peter Falk at an Imbiss. There is no significant moment. She is awkward and star struck.

The film was shot without a script. The Austrian write Peter Handke provided the poem “the song of childhood”, the dialogue for the angels, and Marion’s monologue at the end; text which he mailed in instalments to Wenders. Peter Falk improvised his interior monologues over the phone, as the ideas Wenders had sent him didn’t seem to work. Wenders uses footage that the Americans and the Russians had shot when they entered Berlin at the end of the war. The US footage is in colour, a strident interpolation in a film where colour is used to indicate the absence of angels. Until near the end, when Damiel becomes mortal and sees things through human eyes, only two other sequences are shot in colour; the moment when Damiel leaves Marion alone in her caravan and a sequence where Falk is shown thinking. The switch to colour indicates that no angels are present. The idea is that the angels see into the truth of things whereas humanity sees the surface colour.

The film was made in 1987 and the Berlin it portrays is now largely gone. In the film, Potsdammer Platz is a wasteland, bombed out in the war and then divided by the wall. Homer, the old storyteller in the library, goes searching for the place that he remembers. The remains of the Hotel Esplanade were used to film the concerts and the meeting between Damiel and Marion in the bar. The circus was set up on one of the many wastelands in the city. The angels appear to gather in the reading room in the Staatsbibliothek at night.

There is surprisingly little dialogue in the film and I think this gives it its characteristic texture. The angels compare notes in a car showroom. The circus performers discuss the future when the circus is forced to close. That is more or less it. Otherwise there is always a distance. When they meet at the Imbiss, Falk senses but cannot see Damiel and talks at him rather than to him. When Damiel seeks him out after becoming human, their discussion is snatched at across the barrier between the street and the film set. When Damiel and Marion finally meet in the bar, only Marion speaks. Damiel was unable to speak to her when he was an angel, and he doesn’t speak to her now, because she silences him when he tries to speak.

I must put an end to coincidence! The new moon of decision! I don’t know if there is destiny, but there is decision! Decide! We are the present now. Not just the whole town, the whole world is taking part in our decision.

We two are now more than just two.

We embody something.

We are seated at the Square of the People, and the entire square is filled with people

who wish the same as we do.

We decide the game for everyone!

I am ready.

It is your turn now.

You have the game in the hand.

Now or never.

You need me. You will need me. There is no greater story than ours, of man and woman. It will be a story of giants, invisible, transferable, a story of new ancestors. Look, my eyes! They are the image of necessity, of the future of everyone in the square.

Last night, I dreamt of a stranger, of my man. Only with him could I be alone, open up to him, completely open, completely for him, let the whole of him enter me completely, surround him with the labyrinth of shared bliss.

I know that it is you.

Listening, sometimes overhearing, rather than conversation or discussion is the dominant form of communication. The words for the most part float above the photography, rather than being set into it.

In something of the same way, the crafted film floats over the city of Berlin observed at this moment in history. The Australian bands Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were based in the city at the time. The locations are mostly places rather than film sets, even when a place has been recreated as a set, as the scene within the Berlin Wall requires. The famous actor is Columbo.

Even Marion’s performance on the trapeze has a documentary feel. Solveig Dommartin, who was Wenders’ girlfriend at the time, learnt the trapeze and completed the performance as it is shown, without a double or a safety net. The sequence is too long, much longer than is required for the film, but Wenders wanted to show what she had accomplished.


There is a lot of material on the film at the website: