Wings of Desire (1987) is an ambitious, poetic work about an angel’s desire to become human in West Berlin. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) spends his days eavesdropping on the thoughts of Berliners with fellow angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), looking down at teeming humanity from atop churches and walking among the despairing and the hopeful. When Damiel discovers lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) and falls in love, he knows he must exchange immortality for humanity.
German director Wim Wenders’ 14th feature – and the first in his home country after eight years in America, where he made films such as Paris, Texas (1984) – it examines ineffable themes, including what it is to be human, love and ageing, as we delve into the average thoughts and dreams of everyday folk. A powerful, beautiful work shot mostly in gorgeous monochrome, it also has a mischievous sense of fun, largely due to Peter Falk, who plays a version of himself.
To tie in with the UK release of the restored film, Wenders sat down with us in London to reflect on the unscripted making of the film, how his beloved Berlin has changed, and Nick Cave’s part in the film. An open, thoughtful interviewee, Wenders was in good humour, having been in Oxford the night before, where he enjoyed hanging out with Lenny Henry (“A good man,” according to Wenders) – the pair among nine of the great and the good to receive honorary degrees from Oxford University.
You’d been in America for eight years before you went back to Germany. Why did you make Wings of Desire when you got home?
I missed my own language. I was starting to dream in English and realised that wasn’t a good thing to happen to me. So I started to read more in my own language, and what I consider the most beautiful German are the poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Seen from the US, I really wanted to go back ‘to Europe’, and from all the possible cities I picked Berlin, which was the city closest to my heart.
As I walked around Berlin, I saw angels all over, as monuments or sculptures or reliefs in public places, more than in any other city. I was really looking for a story that could help me to tell the city’s story. I certainly didn’t want to make a documentary about Berlin. I was looking for a character through whom I could tell the city the best. Eventually my night reading being populated by angels, and the angels I photographed and encountered all over the city, led me to the realisation that I wouldn’t find any better characters for my project. So I started to come up with a story that had guardian angels as protagonists.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought I was crazy. “You want to make a movie with angels!?” But the idea opened so many possibilities to look into so many different lives, because these angels could be anywhere. They could cross the bloody wall. They could meet anybody and be perfect witnesses of life in the city of Berlin. I finally had a point of view that was all-encompassing. Not that I really believed in angels, but I liked them as a metaphor.
Was there anything else that drew you to angels?
I loved their ability to listen to people’s thoughts. I imagined their huge love for people. I wanted a loving look at this city that in ’87 was divided, suffering, quite grey, quite down. It was a place like nowhere else in the world. There was no other city with a wall running through it. And there was no city that was the capital of two countries.
I read that Berlin was your favourite part of Germany. Were there specific reasons why?
It was a unique place. There was so much history and, at the same time, so many open wounds. Berlin was one of the cities that still showed its wounds and even showed them proudly in its no man’s lands, its firewall facades. History was an open book in Berlin. Most other German cities were rebuilt and had no traces of the past left. My own city, where I was born, Düsseldorf, had been destroyed by 80%. You couldn’t see the past anymore. And as Berlin was divided, it was also showing the state of the world. There was still a cold war. Berlin was, in a strange way, the centre of the world – a little miserable sometimes but, at the same time, an island for amazing people from all over the world. Even some crazy punks from Australia decided it was a great place. There were lots of musicians, painters and writers, and it was quite a free city; also a city without arms basically. In Berlin you couldn’t have any arms; you couldn’t get in and out of the city with them. You would be caught, anyway. There was not much violence in Berlin then. It was a very peaceful city.
In the film, Potsdamer Platz is a wasteland, but it’s now the centre of the Berlin Film Festival and surrounded by skyscrapers. What do you think about the way the city has changed since you shot the film?
You slowly get used to this, 35 years since we made it. The wall is gone. They had to rebuild parts of it because tourists wanted to see it. At the time we shot, in 1987, it was a completely different place. A few years afterwards, it was different again; a complete, total mystery to us that the city of the film no longer existed. That was something we never thought we’d see happen in our own lives. When the wall went down, it became the only city in the world that had a no man’s land as its centre. Potsdamer Platz was a prairie, a fantastic place for birds. Children loved it, and there was always some sort of circus on it because it was empty. We didn’t think that would change so drastically when the film was released.
In this no man’s land we wandered and stumbled around with Curt Bois, our old actor, who had lived in Berlin when Potsdamer Platz was the centre of the roaring 20s, the Times Square of Berlin of the time. Now he was looking for any sign of recognition, and he just couldn’t find any. And then only a few years later there were skyscrapers and there was a city centre again. It was mind-blowing. The film is a document of a place that doesn’t exist anymore. I didn’t want it to be that, but it became that.
The wall was a major part of the city and a major part of the film. But I understand you weren’t allowed to shoot the actual wall and had to recreate it.
That is correct. The wall was two walls and a minefield of 50 yards in between. You had to climb over two walls and cross the deadly stretch in between, so the wall was off limits for us. We could shoot it from the west side, but we couldn’t go into that no man’s land. That’s what I was mostly interested in – that open land with lots of rabbits and other wildlife. I was always attracted by the idea of crossing it. But, of course, it wasn’t possible.
I also tried hard to get a permit to shoot at Brandenburg Gate, which was in the east. It was my dream for the angels to convene on top of the Brandenburg Gate, in that strange little stretch of no man’s land between east and west, but of course I didn’t get a permit. No way. I even went to the state minister of cinema. He had seen my films before and actually invited me a few years earlier to show Paris, Texas in East Berlin. It was one of the few German films that was shown to East Germans, because for some reason they decided it was an anti-capitalist movie.
How did you work with Peter Handke on the writing of the film?
We wrote some of the angels’ dialogue, but none of the interior thoughts. Peter didn’t write a script. Peter tried to help me when I told him the story and asked him if we could work together on a script. He said, “I’m in the middle of the process of writing my own novel. That story that you just told about the two angels and one of them falling in love with a trapeze artist, you got to handle it yourself. That’s out of my range.” So, he sent me home, but a couple of weeks later I started getting letters from him and he wrote: “I’m so sorry that I had to let you down. I realised from the story that you were going to need a number of dialogues anyway.” Peter wrote them just from the memory of the story. I told him some situations, and the rest I had to just fill up on my own, especially what people were thinking.
Did other ideas work their way in?
I stole from lots of funny conversations I overheard, and I also used ‘The Weight of the World’, for instance, a beautiful book which Peter wrote. It’s just short notes and observations that I used for Marion’s thoughts. All over the film, you hear little pieces of people’s thoughts as the camera passes them. Especially in the library you have all these people thinking. Every person is a universe all by itself, if you listen to their thoughts. It was so much fun to come up with that part of the film.
You had photos of Solveig, Bruno and Otto on your office wall while you were developing and making the film. How did that influence what you were creating?
I didn’t know anything when we were starting because the film was largely done without a script. We did it from one day to another. The script was a huge wall in my office with all the places in Berlin I wanted to shoot. On the other side of the room, I had all the scenes that we could possibly shoot. Every night I was picking a scene, and then I was looking for the place where it could happen.
I didn’t know much what to tell Bruno and Otto about their angel characters. Actors always want to know motivations and want to have biographies: “Who am I? What’s my story?” But if somebody plays an angel, he didn’t have an unhappy childhood and he doesn’t have a mean father or whatever, and he didn’t ever want to kill either father or mother. So there’s little psychology.
Bruno and Otto reacted so differently to that state of not having a past. Bruno really got into it and into the idea that he was all kindness and all love. Otto was dreaming of becoming a human and could finally be nasty, and curse and do bad things. He said so much goodness is too much for me. Otto’s character was almost the rejection of being an angel.
Is it true that Claire Denis, who was your assistant director, suggested Peter Falk for the role?
Claire Denis was with me when we stood one night in front of these walls in the office and I said, “Do you realise our movie is not really funny? Angels being what they are, they’re not really comedians. We have nobody who’s going to make this a little more amusing. Don’t you think we have to add a character?” She said, “Yeah.” And I said: “Well, don’t you think the most fun would be if there was somebody who was an ex-angel and had the same experience that Damiel was having?” I thought, wouldn’t that make the whole film less serious?
What was it like working with Peter? It looks like fun.
It was. Peter understood exactly what he was supposed to do. The part wasn’t written. And that’s why he accepted the role. I got him on the phone in the middle of the night, a few hours after Claire and I had said we needed to add a character. By deduction, we came to the funniest guy we could imagine as an ex-angel. I got Falk’s number from John Cassavetes. Amazingly, he answered himself, so I said: “You don’t know me, I’m a director from Germany making a movie in Berlin. We need to add a character and I thought of you.” Peter laughed for a while and said, “You are making a movie and you’re calling me to tell me that I should join you because there is an unwritten part? What is it?” I said “An ex-angel.” He laughed for another long while and then he said, “I’ll do it. I did my best work this way.”
When you watch the film, Nick Cave is a cool guy in a great band making brilliant music. Some 35 years later and somehow the pinnacle of cool is still Nick Cave. How did he get involved?
Well, he’s a great singer. He is a masterful poet now, and one of the great living singers. I’m a subscriber to his Q&A web-dialogue ‘The Red Hand Files’ – I love them. At the time, of course, he was more of a rebel. His image was quite rowdy: the Bad Seeds only lived at night, and they were heavily into drugs. I saw them so often in the middle of the night; they never played before midnight, or let’s say before two o’clock. If you wanted to talk to Nick, you had to go to a certain bar at three o’clock at night; then he might show up. I finally got hold of him and he liked my proposition. Making a movie in Berlin at that time without Nick Cave was a sin of omission. He really symbolised the spirit of the city. Adventurous, dark, unique. That was Berlin. Nick was gorgeous, and we struck up a friendship.
Would you ever work with him again?
Any time. I would do anything to work with Nick again and we will. I hope.
The 4k digital restoration of Wings of Desire is currently in cinemas, including BFI Southbank.