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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Snapshot of a Divided Berlin: A City with a Fragmented Body and Mind

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

After living in the United States for nearly a decade, Wim Wenders returned to his home country of Germany to find Berlin a divided city (The Angels Among Us 2003). In an attempt to reconcile his relationship with his language, the place he once knew as home, and an unrecognizable Berlin, Wenders set out to make a film that explored the many facets of the city (The Angels Among Us 2003). To do so, he needed to present a perspective from an omnipresent figure — someone who could be everywhere at once, to see and hear everything. Naturally, Wenders gave the point-of-view of Wings of Desire (1987) to angels. These angels not only hold the ability to transcend the physical limitations of the body, but also hold the power to know one’s deepest worries, hopes, and fears. It is these internal monologues that breathe life into the city’s landscape, revealing the damaged relationship both the people of Berlin and its buildings have with memory and notions of past and present.

Wings of Desire follows two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, as they wander through a dismembered Berlin. Invisible to humans, Damiel and Cassiel drift through the city observing its inhabitants' inner thoughts while offering comfort to the distressed. When Damiel falls in love with a trapeze artist, the film’s relatively loose, nonexistent plot blossoms into a powerful love story as the angel chooses to leave immortality behind in pursuit of a normal, human life. In the film, the angels occupy conflicting meanings as they simultaneously represent ideals of unlimited mobility and repressed existence.

The spacial freedom in which the angels roam is established in an early sequence of the film. This sequence begins high in the sky with an aerial shot of West Berlin. The camera flies across the side of a radio tower until it sets its sights on a housing complex and soars into the building. In a single motion, we enter the complex from a closed window and glide seamlessly into the home of a stranger. Without notice, we float into the flat of another Berliner, then another, and another. At this moment, the laws of physics do not exist as we are able to glide from room to room without the worry of walls or barriers. In his essay, Wings of Desire: Watch the Skies, film writer Michael Atkinson describes this experience as witnessing, “the very first airborne camera” (Atkinson 1). Airborne is absolutely correct. Through the narrative tool of the angels and the utilization of cranes and steady cams to achieve seamless camera movement, we, as viewers, are invited to experience Berlin as mythical beings. Given the physical and ideological divide between West and East Germany at the time of the film’s production and release, this fantastic representation of mobility can be understood as imagining the possibilities of reunification.

Although the angels have the freedom of movement, they are also burdened with an unfulfilling existence. As Damiel drifts from room to room, we experience the film events from his angelic perspective. Shot from his point of view, his physical presence on screen is nonexistent. Instead, we see and hear the flat inhabitants as they are deep in worry. Although we are present for their intimate moments, they never stop to acknowledge us. It is here where we are introduced to the loneliness of angelhood — an existence that is devoid of all of life’s simplest pleasures such as being seen, seeing color, tasting coffee, or talking to a stranger on the street. It is these simple pleasures of life that many other Berliners seem to be missing in the film. While there are multiple sequences of children playing happily on the streets, most of the adults on screen appear to be consumed by darkness and pain.

This widespread internal worry is presented in fragments as we are only able to hear short bits and pieces of people’s thoughts as the angels come into their presence. This fragmented understanding of personal pain and memory is most clearly illustrated in a scene where Damiel rides a public train. In this scene, the camera dollies across the benches of a packed train during rush hour. As the camera drifts from passenger to passenger, the film reveals short portions of their internal thoughts — cutting away to the worries of the next person before we are able to understand any one rider’s complete story. Within the span of a few seconds, we hear the guilt of a man who has not visited a sick friend, the worries of a woman who is struggling financially, the suicidal thoughts of somebody who feels like a failure, and a handful of other incomplete narratives. In these short depictions of internal thought, the memories of these Berliners become unfinished and distorted. This fractured relationship with the past is also reflected through the film’s portrayal of the city’s physical landscape.

When the film goes outside, it chooses to be near the Berlin Wall, emphasizing the city’s desolate no-man’s land expanses, or focusing on sites of emptiness and destruction. This becomes particularly apparent when Wenders intercuts archival footage of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II into his own sequences. In an article for the British Film Institute, film journalist Leigh Singer discusses this editing decision,

“... the film also diligently looks back at earlier, even more turbulent times, with its archive… footage of the capital in its ruinous postwar state. For the angels, this may be a passage of time gone in the blink of an eye; but to late-20th-century audiences, German or otherwise, Wenders suggests that the spectre of recent history isn’t so easy to cast off” (Singer 1).

As Singer suggests, the addition of this archival footage sparks a conversation about Berlin and its complicated past. The inner cutting of these fragmented archival images with the film can be understood as a portrayal of the city’s internal thoughts. These painful images of a postwar Berlin personify the city. This intentional choice of editing showcases that the city itself worries about its memories, its past mistakes, and its unresolved issues — just as its inhabitants do. It is in these moments where the film’s portrayal of Berlin is constructed. It is a city haunted by internal worries left unsaid. It is a city whose physical fabric holds as much turmoil as the minds of its people.

Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire utilizes fantastic storytelling, sophisticated camera techniques, and archival postwar footage to create a powerful cinematic experience of Berlin shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. With its attention to showcasing the desolate areas of nineteen eighties Berlin, the film stands today as a historical snapshot of the divided city just before reunification. Through the strategic use of supernatural protagonists, Wings of Desire enters the collective consciousness of Berlin’s mind and body to uncover a damaged relationship to memories and notions of past and present.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Michael. “Wings of Desire: Watch the Skies.” The Criterion Collection,

Kenny, J.M., director. The Angels Among Us. New Wave Entertainment Television, 2003.

Singer, Leigh. “Five Visual Themes in Wings of Desire – Wim Wenders’ Immortal Film about Watching.” The British Film Institute,

Wenders, Wim, director. Wings of Desire. Road Movies Filmproduktion, Argos Films,

Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 1987.



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