P.O.V. No.8 - Interviews

"It's images you can trust less and less."
An interview with Wim Wenders on Wings of Desire

Richard Raskin

RR: If we could start with what I think is a wonderful innovation in Wings of Desire, there are a number of shots which slip into or out of a character's point-of-view. There are shots in the library, for example, which begin with our seeing through the eyes of Damiel, who then unexpectedly enters the frame. Or the shift can go the other way as well, with a shot in which Damiel - on camera at the start - moves out of frame and the camera then takes on his point-of-view. I've never seen anything like that before.

WW: It's something I've done in other films, earlier.

RR: I did notice one or two examples at the beginning of Paris Texas.

WW: Yes, there's already a shot like it in The Goalie's Fear of the Penalty. A p.o.v. turns into a shot where the supposed subject of the p.o.v. walks into it.

RR: Is this just a kind of cinematic contraction, combining in a single shot what is usually done in two, or does it have a deeper significance, having to do perhaps with getting beyond subject-object distinctions?

WW: I'm sure we did it several times in different movies, and certainly in Paris Texas, because I remember discussions I had with Robby [Müller] about the implications of starting a shot like a p.o.v. and then the person that's supposedly looking enters the shot himself - yeah, not herself, it's always himself - and we discussed the meaning of it, that strange switch of position.

Most of my films are exclusively designed from somebody's point-of-view, like for example The Goalie's Fear, also Paris Texas, so to break the pattern every now and then, and very rarely of course, is a sort of a mental jump. I always liked it because I think it does something to the person watching just as it does something for the character seeing from the point-of-view. It creates a strange distance all of a sudden and it turns the point-of-view from the character back to the audience, i.e. everybody who is watching the film. Every single pair of eyes that is looking at the film all of a sudden becomes the new point-of-view.

The point-of-view is passed on to the audience. They first think this is what Trevor is seeing and all of a sudden it's what they are seeing. That was always the thing I tried to do: to pass on the p.o.v. to the audience.

RR: There is at least one shot in Wings of Desire in which the camera behaves as though it were filming a p.o.v., but I can't imagine whose point-of-view it could be: the shot where you track back and forth in front of the dying motorcycle guy. Did it just "feel right" to do it that way or was there a specific reason for this camera movement?[2]

Shot 2060

WW: I think it had to do with Damiel's pain. The scene comes at the end of the driving shot that precedes it. At first, we wanted to do it in one shot, to come around with the driving shot and stop in front of the dying man. And then it turned out that we just couldn't handle the curve when coming around because the camera was mounted on a camera-car in front and we couldn't manage to come around all the way. So we had to devise two shots for what was initially planned as only one.

And then we tried to find a position for the frontal shot and we looked at it from the left and right so that the dying man was either on the left or on the right hand. By going back and forth just to find the position - as I did with my viewfinder, from left to right, and then again from right to left - I thought that going back and forth sort of showed more what Damiel was actually doing, in the way that he is - as the man is dying - that he's taking him over, so to speak. In a way, in a strange way, this "action" as well as the pain that came with it, were in that camera movement.

But obviously it was hard to explain it and I remember that I discussed it with Agnès [Godard] who was afraid that it wasn't justified because all the other camera movements were so to speak justified.[3] But I thought that in that particular case, as it was somehow about a transition between life and death, it did translate something: not so much his p.o.v., more a mental attitude. Damiel's tenderness and his care for the man were in that back-and-forth movement.

RR: Did you use different film stock for the color shots and the black-and-white portions of the film?

WW: In Wings of Desire we did use black-and-white negative stock. We used Double X for most of the b/w shots. There are only the two cases when the color desaturizes and becomes b/w that we shot on color stock and in the laboratory then, going over a separation negative, took out the color.

First Henri had devised a way to do that in the camera. Henri Alekan, who is such an inventor, had devised a method whereby we could do it directly - with a mirror and two cameras, one shooting in b/w and the other one in color. And both being in the same axis, where the mirror-one could shoot the scene in b/w and the other in color, so that you could then segue from color film to b/w film. But it turned out to involve too much machinery with the two cameras hooked together with a mirror. For instance, one scene where we wanted to do it was in the trailer, when Damiel has visited Marion and then he leaves and color comes back. In that trailer, we just didn't have enough space to be running two cameras with a mirror. So Henri reluctantly had to give up on it.

So those shots where color comes in or goes out were done on color negative and everything else that's in the film in b/w was shot on b/w negative. And then obviously for the printing of the film, all b/w negatives had to be transferred to color negatives, so all the prints of the film are done from a second generation negative. Obviously, you can't intercut with b/w and color negatives, otherwise you have splices in your print. So the print has to be done on one single color negative. It turned out to be extremely difficult to get good results with color prints from b/w negatives. Black and white always had to have a slight color tone, but depending on the density of the negative, it was either bluer or redder and impossible to correct.

RR: You've already answered one of my questions when you said that color returns when Damiel leaves the trailer. That means that there are at least two or three different things that the passage from b/w to color indicates. One is as you've just said: as a sign that the angel has left the scene. Another one that you've mentioned in a number of interviews is that it's a time where the human feelings take over in the angel. Now if we think of the scene where Damiel becomes a human, there you chose not to show that he sees in color, but we see him in color. And from that point on, there are also other scenes where the presence or absence of color indicates whether somebody is an angel or human. Had you considered the possibility of doing it the other way around, of having him see in color?

WW: Never, no.

RR: There are other color shots I wanted to ask about. The scene where Peter Falk watches himself on TV is also in color. Was there a special reason for doing that scene in color?

WW: It was a lone, private moment, so to speak. He was not being observed. "Man alone."

RR: There are two documentary shots in color. Did you use them because in these cases, it is humans who are remembering: once when Homer is thinking back and once when the woman extra is thinking back? Or did they just happen to be archive shots in color?

WW: We used film stocks from Russian cameramen and from American cameramen. The Russians had shot an incredible amount of footage when they came into Berlin, while they took the city as well as afterwards, after the end of the war. The Russians shot every-thing in b/w 35mm. All the footage we had from Russian cameramen was in 35mm and everything was done on tripod. Even the action scenes, the tanks going into the streets, everything was clearly done from tripods. Therefore everything looked like it was done in a studio. It's very strange. And some of it was clearly staged. Some camera point-of-views were only possible if the cameraman had already arrived. So we then found out that the Russians actually had taken streets, gone back, and shot their arrival on the street once more. It was actually rehearsed, so to speak. Especially the day when they took the Reichstag, they shot that scene with the guy putting up the flag over thirty times!

Whereas the Americans - well, of course they arrived later - when they arrived, they shot everying in 16mm, color. So the strange thing is that the Russians, who really "directed" their shots, and really sort of did fake documentaries, made it look very documentary. And the American footage, although really shot handheld 16mm, because they shot it in color, looked completely as though it had been shot in a studio.

So paradoxically, the American footage that was clearly true documentary footage, looked like it was filmed on the back-lot of an American studio, and the Russian footage that was clearly staged, looked like true documentary. And it felt wrong to interfere there and take the color out of that very early color stock from the Americans.

So it was not quite logical and we considered after the zero print that maybe we should have taken it out, but then the material seemed to forbid that.

RR: I was very interested in the prologue you had written in the first treatment, where God was fed up with mankind and banishes the angels that had taken man's side.[4] Was that a kind of framework that you needed at the beginning to get things rolling but that didn't play any role from then on in guiding your work on the film?

WW: Obviously you always have ideas that seem of high importance during the conception, in the very early stage, and that slowly then sort of fade out because some other ideas take over. And that prologue was already obsolete when we were writing the script.

RR: What about the idea of the angels being "unemployed"? Was that idea also eventually dropped?

WW: The angels feel a little useless and they complain about it. They complain about the lack of activity. But their being unemployed was like the prologue - something that didn't hold water and was not really useful once we were shooting. It was more like an intellectual thing in the very beginning when ideas are more important, and after a while, ideas are no longer carrying the film, but concrete feelings and intuitions.

RR: Did the transformation of the character who was originally an archangel into Homer take place during your initial meeting with Peter Handke in Salzburg?

WW: Yes. I think it's basically Peter who didn't know what to do with my archangel idea - the archangel being sort of the storyteller - and couldn't get into it. And in a way, we had already eliminated the character. Then all of a sudden, Peter did send pages with dialogue for a storyteller, saying that he hadn't been able to write anything for the archangel but to introduce Homer. Peter's inspiration had come from a postcard of a Rembrandt painting that he had on the wall, in front of his desk.

As the texts that he had written for Homer were so beautiful and as we were already shooting at the point when his pages for Homer arrived, we reintroduced the archangel, now become "Homer" and cast it with Curt Bois.

Curt Bois as Homer

RR: The idea of the film-within-the-film, was that present at an early stage, or did you introduce that as a reason for your actor to be in Berlin?

WW: In a way, that idea came with the casting of Peter Falk. Peter had been cast also after we had started shooting. For a while, the idea for the former angel had been somebody else. I had tried to get in touch with Willy Brandt at the time but couldn't. And then, we had been involved with another actor who felt like he couldn't do it for lots of reasons.

And then, with Claire [Denis], my assistant, we were sitting in my office every night thinking that we still had to find the former angel. We were shooting and could only develop ideas at night, and every night, we came back to the same question: do we need that character or do we not need it? Especially Claire insisted that we needed it, and I felt we needed it too but I had run out of ideas, until Claire brought up Peter Falk one night and then it was obvious. I mean we didn't hesitate for a second. I called Peter that very night. How did I get the phone number? I don't know. Cassavetes? I don't know. Probably. Yes. And he was actually on the phone. The night Claire had the idea, I got Peter on the phone and he actually said "Yes, that sounds interesting, send me something on paper." We translated that night a little treatment because we didn't have a script, at least nothing with that part in it.

RR: I read in one of your accounts that you directed Peter Falk's voice-over via a long-distance telephone call and you mentioned that the lines that you had originally proposed just didn't work. Do you happen to remember what it was you originally intended for him to say?

WW: I had written some material for Peter because we had already recorded a voice-over with him before he had left Berlin. But it had been done when we were still shooting and I didn't really have a clear idea yet where the whole idea with the voices would take us. When we started editing, the elements we had recorded with Peter turned out to be rather useless. So I wrote a couple of pages of material for him, ideas for the voice-over, and Peter tried some of it when he was in the studio and always sort of took off on the basis of the material I had given him and started to ramble on and improvise around the material. And most of what's in the film is now material that Peter improvised. Most of it. Some lines, I think about 20% or 30%, are lines I had actually written for him and all the rest is stuff that he came up with, probably by just closing his eyes and continuing on his own, just associating ideas.

For instance, the Van Gogh improvisation - about yellow. Somehow he got into it via yellow. Or his grandmother. I mean, how a former angel can have a grandmother is still a rather doubtful matter (laughter).

RR: What about the sketching: is that something that he really does?

WW: Yeah, that's something he really does, in his spare time during shooting. We had of course not conceived that, and only when I saw Peter in between takes do sketches of mostly extras and other people, then I asked him if we could use it in the script and he said, "Yeah, why not." And that became the basis for his performance in the new film. He's in Berlin because he has a show of his drawings. He is great at it.

Peter Falk's sketch of the man with eyes like a raccoon.

RR: I know of two scenes which were cut from the first, long version: the pie-throwing scene, and a scene where a woman cries in front of a church. Can you mention some of the other scenes which were cut?

WW: What else was cut? I did cut a lot of scenes.

RR: Do you happen to still have a video copy of the original, long version of Wings of Desire?

WW: We didn't do that at the time. From the next film on, we did record early cuts but with Wings we were strictly working on film. No, I don't have copies of early cuts. Now that we have a[n editing] table with a video camera built into it, we record almost every cut, every stage of the editing, but we didn't at the time, so... That was pre-video. Luckily.

RR: But none of the material that was cut from Wings was used in the new film?

WW: No, nothing, not an inch... Oh, yeah, there was once, there was a scene... Oh, no. It was not from the shooting of Wings of Desire. There was a day of shooting which I did with Otto [Sander] and with Curt Bois in 1989, just after they opened the Wall, when the Wall was still up and everybody was at it with their hammers, and there were hundreds and thousands of people hammering away at the Wall. We shot for one day with Curt and Otto, but we didn't use it after all. Hm, what did we shoot that we didn't use? I would have to look at my own shooting script in order to remember that.

RR: Did you have Curt Bois in mind for the role of the archangel?

WW: No. When Peter [Handke] had written Homer, I remembered the film that Otto and Bruno had done with Minetti and Bois.[5] That's the only film that Otto Sander and Bruno Ganz had done together as directors. It's a documentary about two old actors, about Minetti and Curt Bois. I had seen this film, and when Homer came up through Peter's suggestions, then I thought of Curt Bois and I went to see him together with Otto in order to convince him.

RR: You mentioned also that you ran out of time and money when you were shooting the color scenes. Could you mention any of the color scenes you would have liked to shoot?

WW: Yeah, that's easier for me. I remember more of that. Well, on our wall - because we didn't really have a script except for single scenes - we had all our ideas and the story line pinned up on a big board and the first half of it was b/w and the second half of it was color. So the moment when Damiel became a human being was supposed to be half way through. But I really got there much too late, and even had to interrupt the shooting for several weeks and then shoot the last part with Bruno being a man much later because we had run out of money and had used up all our scheduled time only for the b/w part. It was actually two months later that we shot for another two weeks, everything from Bruno's appearance on to the very end.

Also Cassiel was supposed to appear briefly afterwards as a human being. That's when we had the pie-throwing scene. And then Cassiel had a whole development of his own: he very quickly turned into a gangster. While Damiel was falling in love and getting to know Marion, Cassiel quickly sort of tried out everything you can do as a man: he got instantly drunk and went into a whorehouse and got to know some gamblers and became a criminal very quickly. He had nice scenes. At one point he was going mad and running through the city like one of these people you see in streets who are talking to themselves or yelling at everybody. And Peter [Handke] had actually written a long monologue for Cassiel, sort of erring through the city, shouting at everybody. And Otto had already learned it by heart, it was a long, long piece - two pages of shouting at people in the streets, and that we never got to. Which in fact was one of the reasons why we put "To be continued" at the end, because Otto was really sort of pissed off and sad that he could never deliver this dialogue and that he never made it into a human existence.

RR: I see that that connects with one of the things that he says when he and Damiel are in the car. I think he's the one who talks about evil.

WW: Yes. He's sort of attracted by it already then. He sort of imagines that it must be fun - at least the taste of it.

RR: The dying motorcycle guy mentions Albert Camus among the meaningful things in his life. Do you feel a special affinity for Camus?

WW: In my youth I was a big fan. At one point, I had studied all his books and his biographies that were available. I actually reread everything in French as soon as I was able to read in French. I was 18 years old at that time. It was part of my adolescence. So in that speech of the dying man, when he lists all things that were important to him, we have Camus there.

RR: Is Wings an A-film or a B-film?[6]

WW: I think if anything, Wings is one of the B-films. Especially as it was - strangely - conceived as a time-filler, and really done very quickly, very spontaneously when it became obvious that the pre-production of Until the End of the World would last another year or two, and my company, Road Movies, was on the edge of going bankrupt. And I was on the edge of having to let everybody go because I couldn't handle the payroll anymore for three people. Because we hadn't shot anything since 1983, the shooting of Paris Texas. And from 1984 when Paris Texas was released, through 1986, we hadn't shot anything. And a film company really every now and then has to shoot something... We also had not produced anything by anybody else. Just working on Until the End of the World and hoping to get it together. So in the spring of 1986, it was obvious that it would last at least another year, and that Road Movies just couldn't go on unless we shot something. And that's why I decided very spontaneously to shoot something in Berlin. I guess that is truly the mark of a B-movie.

RR: In calling the circus "le cirque Alekan," I assume that that was partly a gag, and partly a kind of homage to your cinematographer...

WW: Yes, very much so.

RR: ...is it also because in some way, the circus is partly a metaphor for film-making, or am I way off?

WW: No, you're not way off at all. Obviously it was part of the attraction of having the circus. And also because Henri had brought in so much, so much of the film's atmosphere. For instance, the circus. I don't know if I would have even had a circus if Henri hadn't been the cinematographer from the beginning. With the very first idea for the film, Henri imposed himself right away. I think with the idea of the angel, the invisible angel, Henri was the cameraman, from that very first day. That seemed to be exactly what he would love to do and could do best. Because he had suffered so much in The State of Things that he hadn't been able to do any of his "crazy" ideas. A lot of what he had suggested was the sort of thing I had to decline because the film was so sober. And Henri always had all these crazy ideas and was going into more fantastic areas, and each of his ideas for fantastic elements I had to decline. I could see that he was disappointed. And I knew Henri's capacity for invention. So when we had the idea of the invisible angel, that was down Henri's alley. So as Henri was the cinematographer from the very first idea on, I think the circus came a little bit with Henri in mind.

And the circus grew bigger and bigger in the script. In the beginning it had been smaller, and then because Solveig really worked so hard on getting good at it. And then once Henri had lit the circus for the first time, we kept writing more scenes for the circus, because it felt as though Henri was really on his turf there. So, in the script, we never really had intended to shoot so much of the circus, and that's why we called it "Alekan" - when we get to the exterior shots. It hadn't been called "Alekan" before. It was only because we shot so much in it that finally, when we got outside, we said: "Now we have to paint a sign saying "Alekan". Henri really had added a lot to the climate and the atmosphere of the film through his lighting. It would clearly have been a very different film with Robby [Müller] or anybody else. Also because Henri is such a childlike man, in the very best meaning of the word.

RR: Judging from things you said in 1982 [in "Impossible Stories," op. cit.], you were very ambivalent at that time about stories. On the one hand, you said that stories are desperately needed, they give us a sense of meaning and so on - a sense of order. And you also said that they're like vampires, sucking the life out of images...

WW: "The story only exists in stories." Friedrich's famous line [in The State of Things]. He writes a little note, it appears as an insert even. "Stories only exist in stories."

RR: ...I was wondering whether you are still ambivalent, or whether your attitude toward stories has become more positive. I'm thinking both of Homer's role and also of things that Eugene says in Until the End of the World- that he didn't know if there was a cure for the sickness of images, but he knew about the magic and healing power of words and stories. Does that mean that the positive side has become stronger for you?

WW: Very much so. The State of Things was a film trying to prove this thesis: that stories just aren't possible any more. And the film itself was the best anti-thesis for it, and Paris Texas afterwards was the clear proof that one could really be carried by a story once one believed in it. It was just a matter of my own attitude, not the fault of stories, but only my own attitude towards them, that I lost faith in them. But then they taught me to believe in them more and more, and so I started to trust them more and more. And certainly with Wings of Desire and Until the End of the World, and now the new one [Far-away So Near], I think I feel almost strangely the opposite now: that it's images you can trust less and less.

Berlin, 27 July 1993

to the top of the page

[1] An earlier version of this interview, containing neither illustrations nor notes, appeared in (Pré)publications 145 (October 1994), pp. 26-37.

[2]This shot is discussed in detail in my article, "Camera Movement in the Dying Man Scene," which the reader will find in the present issue of p.o.v.

[3]My interview with Agnès Godard, which focuses specifically on the camera movement in question, will be found in the present issue of p.o.v.

[4] In "An attempted description of an indescribable film" [1986], reprinted in The Logic of Images (London: Faber & Faber, 1991; pp. 73-83), Wenders included his first treatment of Wings of Desire, which contains the following passage:

When God, endlessly disappointed, finally prepared to turn his back on the world forever, it happened that some of his angels disagreed with him and took the side of man, saying he deserved to be given another chance. Angry at being crossed, God banished them to what was then the most terrible place on earth: Berlin. And then He turned away. All this happened at the time that we today call: "The end of the Second World War." Since that time, these fallen angels from the "second angelic rebellion" have been imprisoned in the city, with no prospect of release, let alone of being readmitted to heaven. They are condemned to be witnesses, forever nothing but onlookers, unable to affect men in the slightest, or to intervene in the course of history. They are unable to so much as move a grain of sand...

[5]Gedächtnis, 1983.

[6] For Wenders, an A-film is characterized by the following: color; a large budget; production planned to last detail; scripts followed very closely; the endings known well before shooting begins; tightly structured; shot in the traditional hopping-around way, with an eye to the exigencies of a production team; production process characterized by discipline; the actors play fictional characters rather than themselves; the story always assumes control, it knows its course, it knows what matters, it knows where it begins and ends. The B-film, on the other hand, has the following characteristics: black-and-white; low budget; unscripted; never knowing in advance how the film will end; a loose structure; shooting in chronological sequence, beginning from an initial situation that is usually the only known point in the film; a production process characterized by openness; the actors play themselves; the film develops like a daydream and is allowed to follow its own drifting, meandering course in search of its story. See Wenders's "Impossible Stories. Talk given at a colloquium on narrative technique" (1982) in The Logic of Images (London: Faber & Faber, 1991), esp. pp. 55-58.

to the top of the page