The Fundamental Core of Human Life is Comprised by its Simple Aspects

Abundant in abstract messages cleverly embedded within its 127 minutes runtime, Wim Wenders’ “Wings Of Desire” was released in 1987 to critical acclaim and went on to gross $3.2 million worldwide at the box office.

To this day, “Wings of Desire” remains one of Wenders’ most famous and trademark pieces of work and has received widespread praise amongst critics of all ages.

Hailed as “enchanting” and a “whimsical realm of myth and philosophical pretence, dense with imagery” by publications such as “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times”, “Wings of Desire” is no stranger to extolling reviews.

Upon first viewing the film, audiences may immediately notice the distinct lack of emphasis on an engaging plot. In its place are metaphorical messages delivering philosophical contentions.

While there may be countless discussions and arguments about the message Wenders is actually striving to propagate through the film, it is undeniable that “Wings of Desire” can be seen as Wenders’ attempt at elucidating what it means to live life as a human. Thus, to sum up the plethora of concepts explored and themes communicated through his enlistment of symbolism in the film, Wenders’ primary contention can summarised in one sentence:

“While life is different for everyone it is constituted by its simplest aspects, with the abstraction of love being the centrepiece of our existence.”

1) The quintessential aspects of human life are derived from its seemingly insignificant details that we experience everyday

To begin, Wenders communicates to audiences, using elements of symbolism, that human life is characterised by the various features of everyday life that we often take for granted. He executes this via his utilization of various film techniques to depict Damiel’s wonder at the array of seemingly random experiences he enjoys upon his transition from an angel into a human.

The first of such techniques is mise-en-scene, which Wenders skillfully employs by deliberately manipulating the most evident aspect of the film: its initial monochromatism.

Having previously purged the film’s earlier half of almost all colour, Wenders’ decision to pivot and reintroduce a diverse range of different hues and shades onto the screen of viewers immediately catches their attention. This sudden transformation that coincides with Damiel’s conversion into a human alerts audiences to Wenders’ message that colour, a frequently overlooked attribute of daily life, forms a crucial part of human existence.

This 2 second long shot marks the first time in the film where audiences are shown the seamless transition from a monochromatic world to one with polychromatism.

Compounding upon his argument that life is defined by its simplest aspects, Wenders contends that the human senses, such as smell, taste and sight, further exemplify how banal experiences in life are responsible for its unique identity.

To convey this, Damiel is involved in Wenders’ subsequent implementation of acting to display the character’s innocent delight at his newfound discovery of the human senses upon becoming a mortal. This is evident when Damiel appears astonished upon the sight of his own blood before proceeding to lick it and grin, ecstatic at his revelation of the gustatory and olfactory senses. To further consolidate this point, Daniel can be heard proclaiming “it’s got a taste”.

After having had his armour dropped on him as he “arrives” on earth as a human, Damiel begins bleeding for the first time and his gratification at being able to experience the human senses is unquestionably apparent.

Moreover, supplementary features of life which Wenders accentuates and emphasizes as being surprisingly vital to human existence include everyday social interactions and commodities that we consume each day. These are signified respectively by Damiel’s first conversations with a passerby and a man painting the Berlin Wall whom he compliments, as well as Damiel rushing to purchase a coffee upon his transformation into a mortal and his relief in the experience of drinking a plain cup of coffee.

Damiel’s joy at drinking a cup of coffee for the first time asserts Wender’s view that something as mundane as coffee in a plain plastic cup is an experience unique to human life.

Wenders even attempts to encapsulate the feeling of walking through the implementation of camera techniques which allow him to better illustrate the characters’, more specifically Damiel’s, point of view. He achieves this by maximising his usage of ground-level shots during the first few minutes of Damiel’s life as a human, a stark contrast to the plethora of bird’s-eye shots at the beginning of the film when the audience is first introduced to Damiel as an angel.

Both shots can be seen within the first 5 minutes in which Damiel is seen as an angel (top) and as a human (bottom).

2.) Life’s beauty is in its diversity, with each individual maneuvering their way through the different stages of their own unique life at distinctive paces.

Wenders’ inclusion of editing in “Wings of Desire” comes into play in this second sub-category of his aforementioned primary contention. This is exemplified at the beginning of the film where seemingly unrelated shots of different individuals are interwoven to produce a montage of sorts.

Within a minute, the film goes from a shot of a bored boy, annoyed at the lack of interesting television shows, to a man grieving a loved one’s death, before proceeding to a prostitute smoking a cigarette and shifting straight back into a bird’s-eye shot of a group of carefree children innocently playing in the garden.

The lack of correlation and relevance between the multitude of different characters, never to be visited again throughout the rest of the film, helps underscore Wenders’ aim of highlighting the fact that life looks different for everyone and varies from one person to another. To consolidate the delivery of this message, Wenders includes a long stretch of unrelated narratives that have been forcefully sewn together to form approximately the whole first 10 minutes of the film, thereby amplifying its significance in the eyes of the audience.

Furthermore, Wenders adds to this by hinting at the inability of people to comprehend that the life of others is not always what it appears to be on the surface. Thanks to the myriad of different aspects of life which are more complex and that do vary between different people, thereby defining our individuality, we may never truly understand the lives of others. Especially since we as humans struggle to fully refrain from applying our own lens on life, that we gained from our personal experiences, to view the world and its other inhabitants.

Wenders’ utilisation of intellectual montage within “Wings of Desire” as seen in the scene of a depressed boy considering suicide and his father who misunderstands him, aids him in accomplishing this.

The consecutive shots of the boy in an enclosed room and what appears to be a bedroom door as suggested by the household furniture is an example of an intellectual montage in the film.

By switching from the frame of the downcast boy inside an enclosed room to a shot of a door with a tilted sign hanging off it and household decorations surrounding its proximity, the audience is prompted to realise that the boy is in his bedroom and the door they see belongs to that room. While this epitomizes the Kuleshov effect in “Wings of Desire”, the sign on the door aggressively proclaiming “Kuhe!”, meaning “Quiet!” in German, also helps strengthen Wenders’ contention that because life is not the same for everyone, even someone as close as a parent, at a different life stage, may never truly sympathise with nor understand the life of their child.

Overall, Wenders implies that the diversity of life can mean that we may never truly fathom what life is for others. He illustrates this via the depressed boy’s vulnerable and melancholy inner thoughts being polar opposites to the rebellious teenage image portrayed by the sign on his door, as well as how his father perceives him: “My God, what will become of this boy? He’s only got music in his mind.”

3.) At the centre of life is love which remains its biggest purpose and the best that it has to offer.

Wenders’ final proposition of life in “Wings of Desire” is that ultimately, life is driven by what he suggests is the best it has to offer: Love.

To highlight this point, Wenders intentionally makes Damiel’s desire for trapeze artist Marion the final incentive that eventually drives him over the tipping point and motivates him to give up his immortality to become a human. This emphasizes love’s position as the ultimate desire of Damiel that human life can satisfy, hence him making the decision, which thereby insinuates to audiences that love is truly the best life has to offer.

Damiel goes from shuffling between random human lives to observe at the start of the film, to investing most of his time admiring Marion from his angelic form, his gaze always fixated on her.

In addition, Damiel is also last seen at the end of the film helping Marion, his lover, practise her trapeze routine. Considering the fact that film endings are often associated with a character’s achievement of their overarching and primary goal, this effectively suggests to the audience that Damiel attaining love through his relationship with Marion is truly the final satisfaction of his wish to experience life as a human. Thus, love is once again further affirmed by Wenders to be life’s ultimate and most precious feature.

Cassiel, who remains an angel, can still be seen in black-and-white (symbolic of non-human existence), unable to experience but rather forced to observe love in isolation.

Final thoughts

In summary, “Wings of Desire” is a medium through which Wenders expresses his views on what actually defines and constitutes life. This explains the scarcity of generic narratives to captivate the attention of the audience. It seems that his intention is to shift the viewer’s concentration towards the more abstract themes and arguments that he avers.

Wenders achieves this using a vast array of different film techniques such as mise-en-scene, intellectual montage and various camera techniques to present his primary contention; that while life is different for everyone, it is characterised by the same banal aspects that we all share and is given meaning by the elusive presence of love.

“While life is different for everyone it is constituted by its simple aspects, with the abstraction of love being the centrepiece of our existence.”


Yes, that’s a Lyrebird on my profile pic.