An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film

The following, written in 1986, is from the first treatment for Wings of Desire.

And we, spectators always, everywhere,
looking at, never out of, everything!
—Rilke, “The Eighth Elegy”

At first it’s not possible to describe anything beyond a wish or a desire.

That’s how it begins, making a film, writing a book, painting a picture, composing a tune, generally creating something.

You have a wish.

You wish that something might exist, and then you work on it until it does. You want to give something to the world, something truer, more beautiful, more painstaking, more serviceable, or simply something other than what already exists. And right at the start, simultaneous with the wish, you imagine what that “something other” might be like, or at least you see something flash by. And then you set off in the direction of the flash, and you hope you don’t lose your orientation, or forget or betray the wish you had at the beginning.

And in the end, you have a picture or pictures of something, you have music, or something that operates in some new way, or a story, or this quite extraordinary combination of all these things: a film. Only with a film—as opposed to paintings, novels, music, or inventions—you have to present an account of your desire; more, you even have to describe in advance the path you want to go with your film. No wonder, then, that so many films lose their first flash, their comet.

The thing I wished for and saw flashing was a film in and about Berlin.

A film that might convey something of the history of the city since 1945. A film that might succeed in capturing what I miss in so many films that are set here, something that seems to be so palpably there when you arrive in Berlin: a feeling in the air and under your feet and in people’s faces that makes life in this city so different from life in other cities.

To explain and clarify my wish, I should add: it’s the desire of someone who’s been away from Germany for a long time, and who could only ever experience “Germanness” in this one city. I should say I’m no Berliner. Who is nowadays? But for over twenty years now, visits to this city have given me my only genuine experiences of Germany, because the (hi)story that elsewhere in the country is suppressed or denied is physically and emotionally present here.

Of course I didn’t want just to make a film about the place, Berlin. What I wanted to make was a film about people—people here in Berlin—that considered the one perennial question: how to live?


And so I have “BERLIN” representing
I know of no place with a stronger claim.
Berlin is “a historical site of truth.”
No other city is such a meaningful image,
so exemplary of our century.
Berlin is divided like our world,
like our time,
like men and women,
young and old,
rich and poor,
like all our experience.
A lot of people say Berlin is “crummy.”
I say: there is more reality in Berlin
than any other city.
It’s more a SITE than a CITY.
“To live in the city of undivided truth,
to walk around with the
invisible ghosts of the future and
the past . . .”
That’s my desire, on the way to
becoming a film.

My story isn’t about Berlin
because it’s set there
but because it couldn’t be set
anywhere else.
The name of the film will be:
because the sky is maybe the only thing
that unites these two cities,
apart from their past
of course. Will there be a common
“Heaven only knows.”
And language, much invoked,
would seem to be shared also,
but in fact its plight
is the same as the city’s:
one language comprises two
with a common past
but not necessarily a shared future.
And what of the present?
That’s the subject of the film:

In, with, for, about Berlin . . .
What should such a film
“discuss,” “examine,” “depict,”
or “touch on”?
And to what end?
As if every last particle
of Berlin hadn’t been
tapped, taped, typed.
Not least because it’s now
750 years old
and has been promoted to
which, while not unreasonable,
doesn’t do anything to clarify
the condition “Berlin,”
rather the opposite.

The sky above it is the only
clear thing you can understand.
The clouds
drift across it, it rains and snows
and thunder-
and-lightnings, the moon sails through it
and sinks, the sun shines on the divided city,
today, as it did on the ruins in 1945
and the “Front City” of the fifties,
as it did before there was any city here,
and as it will when there is no longer
any city.

Now what I want is starting to emerge:
namely to tell a story in Berlin.
(With the right stress—not for once
a STORY but:
A story.)
That requires objectivity, distance,
or, better yet, a vantage point. Because
I don’t want
to tell a STORY OF UNITY but
something harder:
one story about DIVISION.

Oh, Berlin isn’t easy.
You’re delighted to find moral
support on the back of the catalog
for the exhibition Legendary Berlin,
in this sentence from Heiner Müller:
“Berlin is the ultimate. Everything else
is prehistory.
If history occurs, it will begin
in Berlin.”
Does that help?
In the film, of course, it’s not HISTORY
but A story, though of course
a STORY may contain HISTORY,
images and traces of past history,
and intimations of what is to come. Anyway:
You need the patience of an ANGEL
to sort all that out.
STOP! It’s right here at this point
that the film,
into my mind, begins:
with ANGELS.
Yes, angels. A film with angels.
I know it’s hard to grasp,
I myself can hardly grasp it yet:


The genesis of the idea of having angels in my Berlin story is very hard to account for in retrospect. It was suggested by many sources at once. First and foremost, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Paul Klee’s paintings too. Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. There was a song by the Cure that mentioned “fallen angels,” and I heard another song on the car radio that had the line “talk to an angel” in it. One day, in the middle of Berlin, I suddenly became aware of that gleaming figure the Angel of Peace, metamorphosed from being a warlike victory angel into a pacifist. There was an idea about four Allied pilots shot down over Berlin, an idea about juxtaposing and superimposing today’s Berlin and the capital of the Reich, “double images” in time and space; there have always been childhood images of angels as invisible, omnipresent observers; there was, so to speak, the old hunger for transcendence, and also a longing for the absolute opposite: the longing for a comedy!

I’m amazed myself.
What’s a film going to look like—what can it look like—possibly
a comedy, that has angels as its main characters?
With wings and with no flying??


I’m not after a “screenplay” here. All I can do is go on describing what’s “ghosting around” in my imagination.

Inter alia, a WORKING METHOD for this film.

First I’ll write down everything I want it to be, my ideas, images, stories, and perhaps something like a rough structure, as well as a lot of research on Berlin, old newsreel footage and photographs. I’ve already begun on a street-by-street recce.

Then I’d like to shut myself away with the main actors and a writer for several weeks, and together mull over this material on “angels” and “Berlin,” extend it, test it, adapt it or reject it, and finally come up with something we can all agree on, from which we can go on to make the film.


I spoke to Peter Handke about the project, and he agreed to be involved, provided it was the kind of film you could pull out of your hat.

I agreed.

If my angel story is possible, then it is not as a calculated and sophisticated special-effects movie but as an open affair, “something pulled out of your hat.”

Particularly in Berlin, the city of conjurers.


If I were to give my story a prologue, it would go something like this:

When God, endlessly disappointed, finally prepared to turn his back on the world forever, it happened that some of his angels disagreed with him and took the side of man, saying he deserved to be given another chance.

Angry at being crossed, god banished them to what was then the most terrible place on earth: berlin.

And then he turned away.

All this happened at the time that we today call: “the end of the second world war.”

Since that time, these fallen angels from “the second angelic rebellion” have been imprisoned in the city, with no prospect of release, let alone of being readmitted to heaven. they are condemned to be witnesses, forever nothing but onlookers, unable to affect men in the slightest, or to intervene in the course of history. they are unable to so much as move a grain of sand . . .


An introductory passage might go something like that. But there will be no introduction. All will gradually be brought out in the film and make itself felt. The presence of the angels will explain itself.

(But that too is still at the stage of scheme and desire.)


After the prehistory, the story itself.

The angels have been in Berlin since the end of the war, condemned to remain there. They have no kind of power and are only onlookers, watching what happens without the slightest possibility of taking a hand in any of it. Previously, they had been able to influence things; as guardian angels, they could at least give whispered counsel, but even that is now beyond them. Now they are just there, invisible to man, but themselves all-seeing.

They have been wandering around Berlin for forty years now. Each of them has his own “patch” that he always walks, and “his” people, of whom he has grown particularly fond and whose progress he follows with more attention than that of the other people he watches over. The angels don’t only see everything, they hear everything too, even the most secret thoughts. They can sit next to an old woman on a bench in the Tiergarten and hear her thoughts, or stand behind a solitary train driver on the underground and follow his thoughts. They have access to people in prison cells and hospital wards, and there is no business or political conference so secret that they aren’t able to overhear it, nor any confessional, any psychiatrist’s couch, or any brothel. And if anyone lies, the angel can right away hear the difference between the thought and the spoken word.

People are unaware of their presence. Sometimes a child will catch a glimpse of an angel, and immediately forget it again. A grown-up can see them only in dreams, but on awakening he will forget them and dismiss them as a dream.

The years have gone by for our angels in Berlin imperceptibly, in a recurring rhythm. They have seen almost two generations grow up and die, and soon it will be a third. They know every house and tree and shrub.

And more too:

They see beyond the world that manifests itself to people today. They can see it as it was when God turned away from it and they were banished, at the beginning of 1945. Behind the city of today, in its interstices or above it, as though frozen in time, are the ruins, the mounds of rubble, the burned chimney stacks and facades of the devastated city, only dimly visible sometimes but always there in the background. There are other ghosts from the past too,
shadowy presences visible to the angels: previously fallen angels and grim demons that had rampaged through the city and the country and put on their worst and bloodiest spectacle. These past figures are also hanging around Berlin; they too are unhoused and even more accursed. Admittedly, they have hardly any effect on the present, which apathetically lets them glide by. Unlike the angels, these spirits are indifferent to present-day life. They keep their own company in gloomy corners and past strongholds. Or they ride around in armored personnel carriers, on motorbikes with sidecars, in tanks or black limos emblazoned with swastikas. When our angels appear, these figures run like rats. But there is hardly any contact or interaction, certainly no violent altercation between them and the angels.

Also dimly visible are the people of those times, queuing for food, on their way to the air raid shelters, the “women of the ruins” standing in long lines among the rubble, passing buckets from hand to hand, the abandoned children and the buses and trams of the time.


This latent past keeps appearing to the angels on their turns through present-day Berlin. If they want, they can brush it away with a wave of the hand, but we know: incorporeal and timeless, this yesterday is still present everywhere, as a “parallel world.”


Even though the angels have been watching and listening to people for such a long time, there are still many things they don’t understand.

For example, they don’t know and can’t imagine what colors are. Or tastes and smells. They can guess what feelings are, but they can’t experience them directly. As our angels are basically loving and good, they can’t imagine things like fear, jealousy, envy, or hatred. They are familiar with their expression but not with the things themselves. They are naturally curious and would like to learn more, and from time to time they feel a pang of regret at missing out on all these things, not knowing what it’s like throwing a stone, or what water or fire are like, or picking up some object in your hand, let alone touching or kissing a fellow human being.

All these things escape the angels. They are pure CONSCIOUSNESS, fuller and more comprehending than mankind but also poorer. The physical and sensual world is reserved for human beings. It is the privilege of mortality, and death is its price.

So it can’t come as a complete surprise that one day an angel has the extraordinary notion of giving up his angelic existence for a human life!

It’s never been done. Perhaps the angels know as much. But the consequences are unknown.

The angel who had this astounding idea was falling in love with a woman, and it was his desire to be able to touch her that gave him the idea, with all its unpredictable consequences. He talks it over with his friends. To begin with they are shocked. But then they think about what it might entail, with the result that several of them agree to take the step together: to exchange their immortality for the brief flame of human life.

What persuades them is not the new experience they might have, or wanting to put an end to their troublesome impassivity, but the hope that something important might flow from their “changing sides”: the hope that by renouncing everlasting life they might cause prodigious energies to be released, which they hope to be able to collect and invest in one of their number, the most respected of them, an “archangel,” whom banishment reduced to the same level of powerlessness as all the others. He is the angel who lives in the Angel of Peace, and the great hope is that by releasing this energy, he might become a real “angel of peace” and help to bring peace to the world.


Anyway, the first (black-and-white) half of the film takes us to this point: a group of angels go over to human life and leave a transcendent, “timeless” city for the actual Berlin of today.

One night, during a terrible storm, these new arrivals turn up in the city. Each in his own way, as befits his new human identity: one of them spins his car round a corner into a mercifully empty street, another finishes up on a roof, a third in a packed bar, others in a cinema, in the gutter, a bus, a backyard . . .

So now they are there, finally and irrevocably there. And it’s in the second half of our story that the most extraordinary and thrilling things happen. For a start, everything is in color. Not that it’s “more real” than previously. On the contrary. Perhaps the “all-seeingness” of the angels was “truer” than the colorful, three- rather than four-dimensional vision they have now. Anyway, their new type of seeing excites these recent earthlings. In fact, everything is thrilling, all these fresh sensations of the things they thought they were familiar with but had never felt. Like Berlin itself.

As angels, they knew it better than any human did, but now they learn that it’s all really completely different. Suddenly there are obstacles, distances, regulations and restrictions, among them the wall itself, which has never previously been a barrier to them. That takes some getting used to.


But first come the “sensations” of living. Breathing. Walking. Touching things. The first bite of an apple, or perhaps a hot dog at a corner stall. The first words addressed to a fellow human, and the first response. And finally, far into that first night: the first sleep. The bewilderment of dreams! And waking to the reality of the following morning.

All these “feelings”!

They assail our adventurers like viruses attacking a man with no immunity.

There is fear, previously unknown to them. Nothing in their angelic existence had prepared them for it. In eternity, there was no fear; now, in this death-shadowed world, it’s there. Several of the angels despair at it, one in fact almost goes mad, and another soon takes his own new life. But most adapt. Especially when they remember there was one human faculty that, as angels, they had had a particular admiration for: a sense of humor. “You’ve just got to laugh”; now they understand why, and they feel liberated by it. They realized earlier that it does no good to a man to take everything seriously.

All in all, they still know a lot of what they knew as angels. And they know about all the other spirits around them—though they are no longer visible. They know their old friends are there, and they know they are continually being watched and “shadowed.” They walk their old “beats,” insofar as they are still accessible to them. And they talk to the angels, knowing they are there and merely unable to reply. They tell them about their new experiences, both joyful and painful. Because of their conversations with angels, they are looked at askance by their new fellow humans.

I hope that won’t befall the author of this “story with angels.”

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