On Wings of Desire

On Film / Features — Nov 9, 2009

The following essay, written in October 1987, after the release of Wings of Desire, originally appeared in The Logic of Images, a collection of Wim Wenders’s writing that was published in 1992.

In the last few years, since Paris, Texas, Berlin has been the place where I’ve stopped off. I started to feel at home there, in spite of the fact that I see the city with the eyes of someone who’s spent a lot of time away.

Up until now, the stories in my films were always told from the point of view of a main character. This time, I rejected the idea of some returning hero who rediscovers Berlin and Germany for himself. I couldn’t imagine the character through whose eyes I would see Berlin; such a person could only have been another version of myself. Besides, Travis had been a man returning to a city.

I really don’t know what gave me the idea of angels. One day I wrote “angels” in my notebook, and the next day “the unemployed.” Maybe it was because I was reading Rilke at the time—nothing to do with films—and realizing as I read how much of his writing is inhabited by angels. Reading Rilke every night, perhaps I got used to the idea of angels being around.

After a while, I began to doubt whether it would amount to a film. I tried to push the idea away, but it was never quite extinguished.

I filled a whole notebook, but it still didn’t add up to a film. Usually, a line soon emerges that enables you to fix on the characters and their relationships. But with angels, you could do anything; there were connections all over the place; you could go anywhere. You could cross the Wall, pass through windows into people’s houses, and anyone, a passerby, passengers in the underground, was suddenly the hero of a potential film. It was scary: there was too much freedom for the imagination. Even more so because there were going to be several angels. Berlin is still governed by the Four Powers, so I thought you might have four angels: American, British, French, and Russian. But that made it too schematic. Then, for a time, the angels were ex-airmen, a kind of aviators’ club, like in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings. By and by, we boiled it down to keep just what mattered: what the angels see. The story’s told from the angels’ point of view—but how do you show what angels see?

There was also another, completely different, starting point for Wings of Desire. At the end of Paris, Texas, there’s a scene between Nastassja and little Hunter in the hotel: he goes to his mother; she takes him in her arms. There was something liberating about that scene for me: it was a feeling I was sure would have repercussions in my next film, whatever it was (The last scene, when Travis walks away: I let him go the way I do, and all my previous male characters left with him. They now live in an old people’s home on the edge of Paris, Texas.) So I badly wanted to have a woman as the main character. For a long time, I wondered about making one of the angels female. But I wanted this angel to become human, and I thought it was more interesting to have the human being a woman and the angel a man who accepts mortality for her sake.

I wanted to start filming in the autumn, but there was no screenplay ready. I always feel a kind of block about writing anything that’s meant to turn into a scene. I tell myself that if I write it, it’ll be ruined as a scene, because there’ll be nothing left to invent.

The angels had to speak poetically, so language became especially important. Having made four films in English, I badly wanted to return to my mother tongue, and I wanted the dialogue to be particularly beautiful. I called my archangel, Peter Handke. He had just finished a novel and said: “I’m completely drained. I don’t have any words left in me; everything I had is in the novel.” But then he added: “Maybe if you come down here and tell me your story, then I can help you out with a few scenes. But no more; nothing structural, no screenplay.” I drove down to Salzburg to see him and told him all I knew about my angels. We spent a week thinking up a dozen key situations in a possible plot, and Peter started writing on the basis of that.

Every week, all through September, I would get an envelope full of dialogue, without any direction or description, like in a stage play. There was no contact between us; he wrote, and I prepared the film. There was a growing gulf between the work Peter was doing in Salzburg and the film that was gradually taking shape in Berlin, in discussions with the actors and the physical preparations. Peter’s scenes—though beautiful and poetic—were like monoliths from heaven. But they didn’t fit: there was a complete discord between his dialogue, the scenes we envisaged, and the locations we’d decided on.

Preparations for the production were not yet complete and the sets not yet ready. The angels had no costumes, no makeup, nothing. We began filming, beginning with the children right at the start. I was absolutely convinced that if we went on preparing, we’d lose everything. Yes, we’ll know exactly what we’re doing, but it’ll mean we’ll make a worked-out film. On the other hand, being in a state of confusion will force us to find something for the angels.

The idea for the film had suggested itself to me in black and white; Berlin needed that, and so did the angels: they were unable to touch things, they didn’t know the physical world, and so it was logical that they had no colors either. Also, black and white is associated with the world of dreams. It was exciting to imagine the world of the angels in black and white, with color appearing at odd moments in the film, as a new experience. I knew that Henri Alekan, who didn’t know Berlin, would reveal a new and unfamiliar view of it: he has the ability to create incorporeal shapes with light, as though he himself has access to this faerie universe through the mystery of light. At the beginning, Henri wanted the angels to be transparent. It was difficult to persuade him that it would make it impossible to tell the story from that premise. His idea of transparency has survived in two shots, where the angel Damiel “steals” objects, first a stone, then a pencil: the objects don’t actually move, they stay put on the table; Damiel just takes their essence.

The names for the angels came out of a dictionary of angels: Damiel and Cassiel. As I was devising the film, filling up notebooks, I never asked myself about the casting: photographs of Solveig, Bruno Ganz, and Otto Sander hung on my wall and inspired me from the beginning.

As in Until the End of the World, Solveig was part of the film from the start; it was clear she would be in it. She had done tightrope work at a circus school in Paris, but as an amateur. A circus is a privileged spot because of the presence of children, and with all the waste ground in Berlin, there is always a circus there: that suggested to me that the woman be a trapeze artiste. Besides, I wanted her work to be dangerous—so that she would charm Damiel, who was never himself in any danger of falling. And so I imagined the girl as a trapeze artiste, flying under the big top with tinsel wings. When the angel saw her, he would laugh, no question. And perhaps fall in love …

When I told Solveig about it, she wasn’t sure if I meant it. But the next day she went back to her trapeze course with Pierre Bergam in Paris. She dismissed the idea of having a double: she wanted to perform the trapeze number herself, like a professional. A few weeks later, I started on the preparations in Berlin; I found a circus and an old trainer, a Hungarian, who’d formerly been a porteur. He’d done work on a Shakespeare comedy with Bruno and Otto at the Schaubühne, and had taught Otto tightrope walking. He was called Kovacs, like all Hungarians. Every day, he worked with Solveig in a real circus, five hours a day. And he said to me: “She’s got talent. Give me six weeks, and she’ll do the part.” He succeeded in making a trapeze artiste out of her. One day, she fell from a height of five meters, onto her back, and Kovacs straightaway sent her up again. She went on with her number in a state of concussion. Two days later, we filmed her trapeze routine.

The parts of Curt Bois and Peter Falk weren’t added till much later, when the filming was already under way. Bruno and Otto introduced me to Curt Bois. (In 1983, they had made a documentary with him and Bernhard Minetti called Memory.) In a very early version of the story that I told Peter Handke, there was the character of an old archangel who lives in a library. Peter had no use for him, but on the wall in front of his writing desk was a reproduction of Rembrandt’s Homer: an old man seated and talking—to whom? Originally, Rembrandt had him speaking to a disciple, but the picture had been cut in two and the storyteller had been separated from his listener, so he’s now merely soliloquizing. Peter was very fond of the painting and changed my idea of the archangel to an immortal poet. Now I, for my part, had no idea of how to integrate Homer into my script. Finally, we had Homer living in a library, and Peter’s dialogue became a voice inside his head. Curt Bois was neither man nor angel but both at once, because he’s as old as the cinema itself.

The last person to join the angelic ranks was Peter Falk. His part was a sort of comedy idea: he had to be some extremely famous figure, and you would gradually realize he was a former angel. At first I thought of painters, writers, and so on, even politicians, someone like Willy Brandt, but you couldn’t film with those people. And he had to be someone so famous that he’d be instantly recognized, and you’d say to yourself: “Ah, so he’s an angel too . . .” In the end, I got around to thinking of actors, and then, by necessity, of American actors. They are the only world-famous actors. One evening I got Peter Falk on the telephone and told him this bewildering story of guardian angels, circuses, a trapeze artiste, and an American actor who charms his former colleagues. There was a pause, and then he asked me if I could send him a script. I said: “No, I can’t. There’s nothing in writing about this ex-angel. I can’t even send you a single page: he’s just an idea.” He liked that; if I’d sent him a script, he might not have accepted. But since there was nothing to go on at all, he said: “Ah, I’ve worked like that before, with Cassavetes, and honestly, I prefer working without a script.”

We spoke only twice on the telephone. He landed in Berlin one Friday night; we talked about his scenes over the weekend and filmed them the following week. He so liked the crew and the work that he ended up staying another week. He kept hoping we might film some more scenes with him. Since he didn’t know Berlin at all, he was forever going for walks. It was a bit like his part in the film: we kept looking for him, and he was always off walking somewhere.