Let It Bleed
Chris Wisniewski on Wings of Desire

I am blind, you outsiders. It is a curse,
a contradiction, a tiresome farce,
and every day I despair
I put my hand on the arm of my wife
(colorless hand on colorless sleeve)
and she walks me through empty air.

—From “The Blindman’s Song” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire begins by reflecting on childhood from the perspective of the eternal. We hear, in a youthful sing-song: “When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and the puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn't know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one.” This introduction is a nod to the exuberant creativity and curiosity of a young mind. The poem, reportedly written by Wenders’s co-screenwriter, the novelist and playwright Peter Handke, continues later in the film: “When the child was a child, it was the time of the following questions: why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?” Wings of Desire’s protagonist, who transcribes the poem onscreen, his pen framed in close up tracing the script as he reads the words in voiceover, knows nothing of the childish curiosity or uncertainty it describes, of what it means to naively ponder the very nature of being. He is an angel, omniscient yet existing at a remove from our mundane reality. He knows the answers to these questions.

Despite his ontological privilege, however, the angel is bereft. Though he can feel, in an emotional sense, he cannot feel in the physical sense. He cannot touch or taste or smell. These singular, sensual pleasures are denied this creature who lives—if this can be called a life—in our world but also outside it. If he seems to know everything about the lives he observes, he knows nothing about how it feels to be alive.

This angel is bereft in another sense, too. While Wenders’s protagonist, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), can see—indeed sees more than any mere mortal could hope to, floating over and through the streets of Berlin, his perspective suggested in a barrage of dizzying point-of-view shots in which Wenders’s and DP Henri Alekan’s camera drifts, careens, and veers in near-constant motion, pausing occasionally to linger on lost souls—he sees only in black-and-white. Metaphorically, it feels appropriate that this all-knowing figure should perceive the world in such starkness: Damiel lives in a state of certainty that doesn’t require shades of gray. But there isn’t really a philosophical logic to his color-blindness. It’s a conceit—not so much a narrative conceit as a cinematic one. It doesn’t seem to have a literal connection to an idea of what it means to be an angel, ontologically. Instead it has everything to do with making us, as moviegoers, understand the existential torment that Damiel experiences, the torment of watching rather than participating in life, because it takes us out of the world as we typically perceive it and leaves us, like Damiel, at a level of remove that is achieved aesthetically rather than narratively. As he explains to his fellow angel Cassiel (Curt Bois) while they trade notes in a car dealership, their job is “to live by the spirit, to testify day by day for eternity, only what's spiritual in people’s minds.” The black-and-white photography is a cinematic flourish that helps to communicate that notion, just as the close-up of a human Damiel’s hand drenched in crimson blood that comes later in the film serves as a definitive counterpoint to this depiction of angel Damiel’s spiritual existence.

Wenders thus illustrates his character’s existential torment through the language of film, while establishing a filmic alignment between Damiel and audience. Wenders’s angels are, after all, like movie watchers: spectators who are constrained by their position as such. We also frequently have the privilege of witnessing the private actions of characters onscreen and sometimes even to listen to their thoughts. The glorious overhead shots of the city, the camera that floats from room to room of various apartment buildings, the extremely intimate voiceovers (the dying man, pondering the smell of gasoline after the accident that will cost him his life; the nervous woman riding on the bicycle, “no longer crazy, no longer alone”) all instantiate an observational position that is supernatural in Wenders’s filmic universe but common for us as viewers. But when we watch a movie, we are also, like Wenders’s protagonists, condemned to observe, powerless to intervene, and unable to act. By contrast, Wenders’s black-and-white photography is so effective because it disrupts a common visual code. It takes something away that we would otherwise expect to have; it makes us, like Damiel, bereft.

The black-and-white becomes a more acute structuring principle after the first instance of color in the film. Damiel observes a trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), as she practices a routine in which she is costumed as an angel. The camera studies her in medium and long shots as she struggles to convey her angel’s weightlessness. She cannot quite capture the sense of weightlessness her coach wants her to achieve, though; she’s too physical, too human. Then, as she swings, Wender’s cuts to a low angle color shot of her against the backdrop of the circus tent—and the tent becomes a flash of brilliant blue and red that shocks for its unexpectedness. The shot is clearly not from Damiel’s point-of-view, since he watches Marion from above rather than from below. It’s as though Wenders wrestles the film away from Damiel’s perspective only for a little over ten seconds, to remind his viewers of the sensuousness that Damiel’s existence lacks, before returning to him. In the next scene, Marion ponders news that her circus is closing while she strips and sits on her bed. She thinks about colors and neon lights, about men’s glances. Damiel observes her, longing to pick up a rock or to stroke her neck. His desire is carnal (and it introduces an uncomfortable masculinist voyeurism to the film’s visual logic), but it is also, more defensibly, only carnal in a meta sense: he longs to understand what carnal desire is, what it means to want something—a meal, a sympathetic ear, or a sexual partner. Then he vanishes, and the color returns. Marion’s introduction thus establishes a set of binary oppositions—between a spiritual and a physical existence, between an existence of knowledge and certainty and one of confusion, anxiety, and loss, between mise-en-scène of crisp black-and-white and one of vibrant blue and red.

From this first glimpse of color, red becomes the definitive shade that marks Damiel’s transition from angel to man, his decision to take an existential leap into mortality. Damiel awakes in front of the Berlin wall—graffitied in red, purple, and green. Armor falls from the sky, striking him in the head. The wall is the perfect backdrop for this transitional moment, not simply because it plunges Damiel into his physical existence in a manner that, through its iconic imagery alone, places him into a specific geographic place and historical moment, radically situating him in a temporal and mortal human existence, but also because it marks a definitive visual break. Damiel begins to walk and realizes his head is bleeding. He touches it, and stares at his hand, stained with red blood. Wenders lingers on the hand in close-up. Blood, so overburdened in the popular imagination as a symbol for practically anything, is here reduced to something elemental and physical, understood through his new human senses. He puts his finger to his mouth, and utters one word: “schmecken,” “to taste.” “Now I’m starting to understand,” this formerly omniscient fallen angel admits. Then he accosts a stranger, “Is this red?” The sweet taste and rich red color of his blood thus initiate him into humanity itself.

Wenders and Handke drew inspiration from the work of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in conceiving Wings of Desire. The influence is apparent: amongst the many themes that ran through his work, Rilke often pondered the relationship between the spiritual and the physical and the nature of solitude, love, sex, and faith. “Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue;” Rilke wrote, “it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing.” Thus Rilke posits sex, taste, feeling, and sight as a kind of “knowing of the world,” and Wings of Desire seeks more than anything to capture the reverie of this knowing, perhaps best expressed by Peter Falk in the film. Playing himself as a fallen angel like Damiel, Falk speaks of the pure, extraordinary pleasure of rubbing one’s hands together in the cold or sipping a cup of coffee. His enthusiastic account of these simple human pleasures has an inspiring and thrilling quality. Any movie watcher knows these tastes and sensations, can imagine them while sitting alone, quiet in the dark of a theater, just as any movie watcher can understand what Damiel tastes when he puts his bloody finger in his mouth.

But in the quiet, dark contemplation of spectatorship, this empathy requires a certain level of abstraction, the invocation of a memory. The reintroduction of color into Wenders’s mise-en-scène is something different altogether, immediate and more powerful. “Is this red?” Damiel asks. After the close up of his bloody hand, the audience, having previously seen Wenders’s Berlin in cold, colorless black-and-white, shares the wonder he feels upon gazing at this color for the first time.