Theology through film: Wings of Desire (1987)

Wim Wender’s greatest film, Der Himmel über Berlin (English title: Wings of Desire), is a profound, poetic meditation on the nature of reality and what it means to be human. There is no single plot narrative; rather, the film addresses the qualitative difference between the world as experienced by immaterial angels and the world as experienced by everyday human beings. The film’s treatment of personhood will be addressed according to the following motifs: (1) childhood; (2) narratives, both individual and communal; (3) memory; and (4) sensuousness and sensuality.

1. The film opens with and is connected throughout by a poem called “Song of Childhood” (written by co-screenwriter Peter Handke), in which the experience of a child is unpacked in its various dimensions. The poem emphasizes that a child is an experiential being, one who takes in the world through sensory experience, processes it, and (in time) reflects upon that experience. Unlike angels, the child is able to “choke on spinach,” to taste “fresh walnuts” and “reach for cherries”; the child is able to be a part of the world and to grow up in it. Throughout the film, the angels are the ones who are incapable, due to their immateriality and transcendence, to experience the earth like a child. Unlike children the angels are not innocent or naive (because they see all the horrors of the world), but like children they lack the wisdom that comes from years of experience, since they are incapable of living and growing through personal difficulties. Angels cannot mature; they can only observe. The angels are merely messengers. They are passive onlookers, but never active participants.

2. Without personal experiences, one also lacks a personal narrative. Narratives are an important theme in the film. On a communal level, the importance of narrative is expressed by a Homeric figure, an old man full of memories (see below) and knowledge about the world. He is the story-teller, the one who keeps alive the stories of the past which shape the present and the future. He represents humanity’s essential need for narrative, for the continuity of human life provided by narrative. Correspondingly, stories are also essential on an individual level; each person’s experiences come together in adulthood to form a narrative upon which one may reflect and through which each person is connected to other persons. Without the experiences of the child, the angels are thus prevented from having any narratives of their own. The most important scene in the film occurs when Damiel (the angel) comforts a man close to death from a driving accident. To comfort this man, who is all alone, the angel brings to mind the experiences and images which are important to this person: bread and wine, Easter, family. The thoughts reconnect him with his life’s narrative; he is brought back into the complex web of relations with others past and present. In other words, the angel helps make this abandoned person really a person again. Even in death, the man is reminded of the richness of life through memories and sensory experience, all of which remains inaccessible to the spiritual angels.

3. I have already mentioned that memory is an essential characteristic of humanity, but its significance must be further highlighted. Memory is a definitive element in human personhood, since it alone gives a human life narratival continuity. Without memory, a human is only what he or she experiences in the present moment; thus, without memory, the child remains a child permanently and becomes a merely sensory being. One’s personhood is lost when the ability to thread events and experiences together into a single human life is no longer possible. On a broader scale, human society is also threatened by the lack of memory, as attested to by the figure of Homer. When society loses its memory, it loses the opportunity to develop, change, grow, and improve; the past is lost as an object of ongoing importance, and the future is lost as an object of hope. As a result, humanity becomes timeless and placeless, and therefore inhuman—or angelic, in the case of this film.

The human faculty of memory is theologically significant as the basis for another characteristic aspect of humanity—viz. the capacity to forget. In order to forget willingly, a person must be able to remember. Because humans can forget, they can also forgive. We ask people to “forgive and forget” for an obvious reason: when something is forgiven, the crime is rendered obsolete, forgotten, non-existent. To be truly human means to be capable of remembering what should be remembered (the goodness of life through experience), and to be capable of forgetting what should be forgotten (that which is forgiven). The category of memory thus reveals the personhood of God as well as of humanity: God is the one who alone perfectly remembers and perfectly forgets, in that God remembers the covenant made with humanity (Gen. 9:15-16; Lev. 26:42-45) and forgets the sins that are forgiven for all eternity (Ps. 32:1-2, 103:12l; Jer. 31:34).

4. The film’s primary narrative involves an angel (Damiel) who longs to be human, and in the end realizes his deepest desire (thus, wings of desire). Damiel’s longing revolves around his love for a particular woman, a lonely trapeze artist. He seeks after both human sensuousness—the capacity to experience the world through one’s senses—and sensuality, as the highest of all sensory experiences. In this sense, the film elevates (perhaps too romantically at times) the unifying love of man and woman as the pinnacle of personhood. This is not theologically inappropriate, but merely misleading from the perspective of human relations. A theological-philosophical perspective can appreciate the film’s insistence upon the deeper themes of personhood and identity in this outwardly romantic love story. Damiel’s transition from angel to human is a decisive affirmation of concrete immanence over against immaterial transcendence. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that Wings of Desire is an excellent example of the modern immanentizing of all life, the film stresses the goodness of creation and the value of particularity. Damiel chooses to be located within a particular time and space, no longer capable of traversing the cosmos from the perspective of eternity. He has thrown his lot in with the temporal and the transient. He has opted to be this-worldly, rather than other-worldly.

This transition from transcendence to immanence is latent with theological meaning that needs to be explored further. For now, it must suffice to note that Wings of Desire is a film that praises the worth of human particularity, and as a result, the film has clear christological overtones (although the film rightly avoids any presentation of the angels as salvific on the level of Christ). According to the film, a truly human person is free from the impulse to contain and control the universe by reason or power or status. A human person can take joy in the small things of life, in the memories of family, in the love and embrace of another human person. A human being is thus a relational-narratival being designed to live in relation with the world, others, and with God, whose experiences form an individual narrative as one story among and connected with others. A person who lives in this way will be grateful: he or she will be known as one who gives thanks for the small (and large) things in life—for all of creation, for family, for the bread and wine, for this day, for this moment.

Cf. Fanny & Alexander (I. Bergman), whose primary theme is the affirmation of the small things in life, portrayed in the context of theater as a “small world” for which one should give thanks.


Kerry said…
I used to show "Wings" in a philosophy seminar I teach all the time, but finally cut it from the syllabus when I came to the conclusion that I didn't have the slightest idea what the film was about. Thanks for your remarks. They're insightful!
a. steward said…
Great review. I'm moving it up to the top on my que.
Dan Morehead said…
I'll give it a look.