Sun or moon. Black or white. Rain or shine. Day or night. These are all opposites, describing two polar ends of specific spectrums involving color, nature, space, and time. These are all broad gestalts, but it is because of their major differences that we often are forced to choose between the two poles. We recognize that there are mediums between these poles, being noon, the color grey, a clear night sky, and an overcast day. It is the choice between the two poles; however, that choice encourages us to look at the middle.
Wim Wenders introduces two figures in The Wings of Desire that represent two other poles: present and past. Damiel and Cassiel are two angels that overlook the residents of a Berlin Wall-divided Germany. After watching and listening to the hopes and dreams of a melancholic trapeze artist, Damiel begins to consider trading his immortality for a regular life amongst the rest of the humans that he and Cassiel watch over. Cassiel does not share this same desire to trade in his immortality and debates Damiel about the worth of becoming human in the context of all the tragedies they have had to witness. Wenders uses the angels to represent two sides of humanity, with Damiel being the incarnation for hope and love for the present and Cassiel being the depiction of humanity’s disdain and constant looking-over-the-shoulder-motion toward the past. With these two contrasts, Wenders is able to demonstrate how living in the moment, rather than staying in the past, is what helps to bring about a full, meaningful life.
The core difference in the fundamentals of the two angels can be seen in the people they choose to interact with. Damiel, our angel of the precious present, is often seen watching over smiling young children such as a young girl coloring on an airplane (Wenders, 00:04:12) and another girl sitting next to him at the circus (Wenders, 00:56:58). Both children appear to acknowledge his presence and smile at him as if they can actually see him, despite the fact that the angels are not typically seen with the naked eye. Cassiel, on the other hand, is viewed less often with smiling children and more so with somber adults reminiscing about the misery of the past, such as Homer, an old man who recollects about how Berlin used to look prior to World War II and the rise of the Berlin Wall (Wenders, 00:42:11).
While the elderly people Cassiel follows focus more on the past perils of Berlin, the children Damiel watches tend to focus more on playing games and being entertained. These kids are too preoccupied living in the moment to worry about the past. There is some purity in that only the children notice the angels’ presence – they lack a closed off imagination and desire to dwell on the past. This is analogous to those who can appreciate life’s beauty and those who cannot. The children do not know as much pain as the elderly since they have yet to experience any real tragedies. Ariana Farajollah best describes this idea in her blog post on Taking Giants Steps Press, stating that “the children, not yet corrupted by the limits of the rational mind, easily sense the comfort emitted by Damiel” (Farajollah, par. 7). Although naive, there is something simply beautiful about this; the children still have hopes and dreams to fill and are able to be in the present.
Damiel is more interested in objects in the moment and entranced by the normalcy of human life. This is why he chooses to surround himself with happy, young children rather than the same depressed folks that Cassiel watches. In fact, when Damiel invites Cassiel to watch the circus discussed earlier, he is seen moving further away from Damiel and the kids as opposed to getting closer to the lively show (Wenders, 0:56:58). He appears significantly less excited to watch the performance and be around the youthful children than Damiel does. Instead of following and watching Homer with Cassiel, Damiel imagines twirling around a pen with his fingers in Homer’s library (Wenders, 0:19:44). He studies the pen as Cassiel listens to Homer think about how much Berlin has changed. As observed in how he watches Homer from the upper level of the library, Cassiel constantly distances himself from humans. Damiel, on the other hand, is willing to walk alongside the humans and get close to them. This distancing from the present is representative of how we humans tend to distance ourselves from the moment. Wenders uses a constantly “drifting camera” to further establish Cassiel’s distance from the present (Singer, par. 7). Once Damiel becomes human, the audience gets less of a bird’s eye view and more of a “dynamic, street-level” look at the present alongside Damiel (Singer, par. 7).
The difference between Damiel and Cassiel is ever more apparent through Wenders’s use of color. For the majority of the film, the viewers see through the monochromatic lens of the angels. Henri Alekan, the cinematographer of Wings of Desire, is responsible for this artistic decision, as the “sepia-tinged black-and-white imagery [depicts] the angels’ muted vision of the world. Ironically, [Alekan’s] rich, creamy monochrome might appear too gorgeously tactile for the angels’ non-sensory world” (Singer, par. 5). This observation makes sense because the only times the screen flips to vibrant color is when Damiel gets physically closer to Marion, the somber trapeze artist from the circus (Wenders, 00:35:17), and when he eventually becomes human (Wenders, 01:31:38). This never happens to Cassiel, however. In fact, when Damiel firmly admits his desires for becoming human, he and Cassiel turn around and notice that there is only one set of footprints behind them now (Wenders, 01:31:28). This is emblematic of Damiel’s transformation. The footprints and color of Damiel’s new life are representative of how life becomes more vibrant when one chooses to live in the moment. Cassiel’s constant black-and-white lens harkens back to how old Hollywood films use to only be in black and white. Like these old movies, Cassiel is still looking back instead of looking forward, following around old remnants of Berlin, and continuously recollecting on the people and scenarios he witnessed centuries ago.
It is those who tend to look toward the past rather than live in the present that live some of the most painful lives around. Both Cassiel and Damiel deal with individuals near death in the film. While Damiel chooses to comfort a victim of a crash through reaching out and petting his head (Wenders, 00:36:30), Cassiel tries to prevent a man from jumping off the top of a building. Damiel does not intervene from the impending death of the person he is with. Cassiel, however, completely tries to use his powers to get the person he is observing to not jump off the roof. He tries so hard to prevent this tragedy from occurring that when the man does jump, Cassiel screams in anguish at the top of his lungs (Wenders, 01:09:00). This is the only time in the entire film where Cassiel appears to show any emotion. He is upset because he had to witness someone willingly throw away their life. His reaction leads one to question whether this is the first time he has had to witness such a harrowing event. Cassiel takes a more preventative approach rather than just letting things happen naturally, as his counterpart would. While it is sad watching a person take their own life, this situation shows how we cannot always prevent the past from reoccurring or the present from occurring. We have to let things happen naturally, even if it will lead us down a painful path. Cassiel’s attempt to avoid this pain makes the viewer see how hard it is to not let the world unfold as it appears to do so. Sometimes, we have to let the chips fall where they may and just be there in the moment when it all comes crashing down.
The first scene of the film is Damiel looking over the city with a silhouette of his wings. The very last scene of the film, conversely, is Cassiel looking sadly over the city on the same building his counterpart was on (Wenders, 02:04:31). His friend is finally able to feel and experience all the things they never could do as angels, from drinking coffee, to running in the street, to feeling blood course through their veins. Damiel is clearly so much happier back down on Earth walking amongst the citizens and holding Marion in his arms. The difference between the two perspectives of the angels can better be described by Peter Handke’s poem, “Song Of Being a Child.” Handke writes about the mind of a child when it is young versus when it grows old:
Many people seem beautiful to [the child]
And now not so many and now only if [the child is] lucky
[The child] had a precise picture of paradise
And now can only conceive of it at best
[The child] couldn’t imagine nothingness. (41-45)
Lines 41, 43, and 45 perfectly describe Damiel’s attitude and demeanor; he sees all the beauty in the world and is so full of life because he is able to appreciate the “paradise” of the present. On the contrary, lines 42 and 44 seem to better fit Cassiel’s narrative. In the places where Damiel sees beauty, Cassiel only sees pain and what will eventually become future tragedies. He lacks the same amount of optimism for humanity that Damiel has. Similar to writer Michael O’Malley, Damiel genuinely believes that “humanity is naturally good… everywhere there are people who naturally feel inclined to help each other, even if they are strangers” (O’Malley, par. 2). Cassiel clings to the cynical mindset that based on the past events of history (especially World War II and the Cold War), humanity is not some sort of paradise. The past will only continue to repeat the same tragedies over and over again until the end of time. This is why he connects so much with Homer– his thoughts about how Berlin has come to ruins only further supports Cassiel’s misgivings about mankind.
It is understandable to be wary of the past like Cassiel. That is why we study world history, after all. Humankind has made so many erroneous blunders over the course of time that it makes sense as to why Cassiel would rather watch from a distance as he sees the world crumble and boil into an abyss of agony, bound to repeat the same mistakes we made centuries ago. One must not always be this pessimistic, though. There are so many beautiful things around us that if we continue to dwell on the past, we will forget about how amazing the present is. We may forget to relish in once-in-a-lifetime moments because we worry too much. This is no way to live life. We have an entire lifetime to worry about our past mistakes and the ones we might make in the future. That is why we must choose Damiel’s pole: the present. Appreciating the simple things about life, like Damiel desired for so long, is how we become more positive individuals. Each moment only happens once in your entire life, so live boundlessly and lovingly. Today is the youngest you will ever be from now on and the oldest you have ever been. Enjoy the precious present and take your mind away from the painful past.
Farajollah, Ariana. “It Is the Little Things That Make Life Big.” Blogspot. N.p. 21 Sept. 2017, http://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2017/09/it-is-little-things-that-make-life-big.html. Accessed 3 May 2019.
Handke, Peter. “Song of Being a Child.” Peter Handke – Song of Being a Child, edited by Poetry Bar. Wordpress.com, 2009. Accessed 7 May 2019.
O’Malley, Michael. “Comfortably Numb with an Infected Humanity.” Blogspot. N.p. 31 Oct. 2018, http://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2018/10/. Accessed 3 May 2019.
Singer, Leigh. “Five Visual Themes in Wings of Desire – Wim Wenders' Immortal Film about Watching.” British Film Institute, 14 Sept. 2016, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/five-visual-themes-wings-desire-immortal-film-about-watching. Accessed 6 May 2019.
Wenders, Wim (Dir.). Wings of Desire. Perf. Bruno Ganz and Solveig Dommartin. Road Movies, 1987. Accessed 7 May 2019.