Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wings of Desire (1987)

Last night I watched Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire (1987) with a friend. It is quite an interesting movie, with a fascinating premise and a unique perspective. The film follows two angels who watch over the people of mid-1980s Berlin, listening to their thoughts and attempting to comfort those whose distress is great. One of the angels is seemingly dissatisfied with the eternal, disembodied existence and yearns to the experience the varieties of transient, physical existence. He falls in love with a trapeze artist who is part of a failing circus, and the decision to become human is ultimately undertaken in order to pursue her.

The film is obviously a celebration of the peculiarities of human life, in a time and place where so many persons seem utterly overwhelmed by life's difficulties. The angels listen to the thoughts of the various persons they guard, and each one seems more troubled than the rest: parents over their children, men and women about their lovers, etc. Interestingly, too, though Berlin is so large a city and its population so great, nevertheless many of its members seem lonely and utter absorbed by their own thoughts, troubles, and pains. The angels are free of all this: they are neither mortal and so do not feel the troubles of a finite, limited existence. Yet strangely enough, one of the angels wants to become a human to see what it is like.

This is an interesting application of the old adage that "the grass is always greener on the other side." Though we may find many things to be troubled about in the world, it would seem Wenders is trying to get us to see beauty and pleasure in the small things of human life, things about which the angel fantasizes: the feeling of curling your toes, being surprised at some new and unexpected thing, the taste of coffee, the physical sensation of grasping a stone, etc. For someone who doesn't have these things, they are the object of fantasy and yearning. The message seems to be: we have plenty to enjoy in this limited life! He especially communicates this through the selective use of color in the film: the angels see the world in a bland black and white, but when the angels aren't looking, or when one of the angels finally assumes humanity, the cold world of post-war Berlin takes on a rich panoply of vibrant, living colors. Wenders, then, teaches us to appreciate what we have by imagining deprivation: the angels, lacking the peculiarities of our life, long for it; colors are newly appreciated once they have been taken away for so long.

What is the best in life? The answer in Wender's film is obvious: love, and specifically romantic love between a man and a woman. The angel becomes a man and eventually comes to meet the trapeze artist he loves. She has been waiting for him, it seems; she had a dream about meeting him and she immediately recognizes him. The closing monologue of the film describes the ecstasy the angel felt when united in such a profound manner with the woman, both spiritual and physical. They became one. He writes: I now know somethings that even the angels don't know.

This film is simultaneously a celebration of human life and a lament over the violence and loneliness which so often characterizes it. In fact the one informs the other: precisely because human life can be something so beautiful, so sublime, it is therefore the greatest tragedy when it is wasted. The way out of war, the way out of the violence and meaningless loss of life which characterized history, is evidently to appreciate the simple beauties of life and to live in love.

The theological vision of the movie is very interesting as well. The angels are only visible to children, who always perceive their presence in a non-threatening way. It is this kind of innocence and trust which characterizes children, and yet it is lost as children develop into adults confronting life's difficulties. Perhaps the implicit message is that this innocence and raw appreciation for life has to be won back for the human situation to change. In Jesus' words, perhaps the only way to receive the Kingdom of Heaven is as a child.

How is it that an angel can fall in love? Presumably the angels do not reproduce, since they are immortal and their race continues indefinitely. They lack bodies and so cannot engage in any kind of reproduction. Yet the angel falls in love with the trapeze artist. It seems to me this is possible because there is a deep recognition that at the very bottom, Love is the truest reality. This is a corollary of the Christian teaching that God is Love: the Creator of the whole world, the rock bottom of reality, the realest and truest thing out there is Love. So too the angels can feel love, can desire the good of another. Correspondingly, life is lived at its fullest and truest in love: a life apart from love is a descent into nonbeing, away from God, away from existence, away from the good. Anything with any resemblance of God subsequently can resemble God as regards Love, since this most accurately and completely describes his being.

The image of the trapeze artist, floating above the earth and moving freely, beautifully, with utter delight and pleasure -- that's the image that Wenders wants to give us about the potentialities of human life. It is possible to rise above it all and to live in sublime freedom in love. And we do this together with other people. If we separate from one another, physically or emotionally, we construct our own private hells: thence spring forth wars and strife.