The only thing that the angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire have in common with those found in the writings and worldviews of the world’s most prominent religions is that they are eternal beings. They don’t intervene with world affairs. They aren’t relationally connected to any deity. They have no sense of purpose or duty in their existence. They just observe humanity. They are able to hear the innermost thoughts of people, but they can’t do anything about what they learn. They just keep hearing, and they just keep existing.
Like many of my other favorite foreign films (including Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7) and two of my favorite American movies (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life), Wings of Desire is not as much of a story as it is a meditation. Wings of Desire is a meditation on loneliness, of being a spectator of life rather than a person who fully lives and engages with reality. There was an American remake of the film in 1998 starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan called City of Angels that I never saw, but based on the two very popular songs from the movie’s soundtrack, it’s obvious that the filmmakers completely Americanized it, gave it a story, and missed the remarkable feel of this great film. That’s not to say the remake is bad, I haven’t seen it, so I won’t do that, but I do know that it is definitely a completely different artistic vision and a complete different experience for viewers.
The Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris” is the romantic story of willingness to sacrifice eternity for the woman he’s in love with. But the angel in Wings of Desire doesn’t give up his immortality for a woman. He does experience romance after becoming human, but he gives up his immortality to experience anything, to drink a cup of coffee, to feel the sun, he even mentions wanting to feel pain, not just to experience romance. He gives up his mortality so he can feel and experience and be far removed from the isolated role of inactive observer that he has held for eternity past.
The Alanis Morisette song “Uninvited” is a very dark song about the horrendous price to be paid if the character makes the decision to sacrifice his immortality. But the angel in Wings of Desire doesn’t have to make a sacrifice at all. It’s obviously a difficult decision, if it wasn’t it wouldn’t have taken him millennia to make it. But he decides that knowing that he will die some day is a good price to pay for having the opportunity to live. That’s a very rational decision. The Alanis Morisette song suggests that the remake probably added a Judeo-Christian idea of angels to the story, bringing the sacrificial part of the story in making it so that becoming human would not be a rational decision for its character.
Wings of Desire creates its own world where angels just exist and observe. These angels are a metaphor for the tendency so many of us have to watch the lives of others, to compare ourselves to others, and to seek what we observe in others so intently that we miss out on living the lives we were created to live. We get so busy with things that don’t matter that we miss the miracles in simplest things of life. Watching the angel shake a man’s hand and enjoy his first cup of coffee are reminders of how the simplest of joys can be ways that we learn to really live.