P.O.V. No.8 - Articles

Like a Film, Like a Child
Knowledge and Being in Wings of Desire

Morten Kyndrup


According to Schopenhauer, what characterizes the individual, principa individuationis, is its position in time, space, and causality.[1] That is, an individual is subjectively situated in one and only one time, and it is situated in one and only one place at a time, and the following-one-another of events takes place in only one way. This has certain decisive consequences for manís perceptual possibilities in relation to himself as well as to other human beings. One is able to look at other human beings from the outside but unable to see them from the inside. One can see oneself from the inside being the one who sees, but one can never regard oneself from the outside. Consequently, one can never see oneself see. You cannot, as Wolfgang Iser puts it, "be yourself" and "have yourself" at one and the same time.[2]

Narratives may be construed as a sort of bridge between being embedded in time and regarding oneself being embedded in time, between subjective time and cosmic time – as put by Paul Ricúur among others[3] – because all constructions of fiction necessarily establish an access road to the world which they unfold (a world which is fictional, and that also applies to so-called authentic stories). A world has to be seen from somewhere in order to be perceived as a human world.


In Wim Wendersís Wings of Desire (1987), the access to the human world (Berlin of that time) is effected through characters who do not perceive in an ordinary, human way. These characters, angels, move through space without any physical or mental obstacles. Quiet, grey men and women of indeterminate age, wearing anonymous coats. While they are invisible to all adults, children can see them. The angels themselves have no physical substance and possess the special ability to communicate directly with the internal worlds of human beings. They are able to hear what people think, which is represented in the movie by the voices of individual human beings in this endless monologue, this stream of consciousness working in all of us all the time. The angels may be anywhere, but unable to be everywhere at the same time, they are always in one place. Nor can they hear the inner world of all human beings at one and the same time – actually they could, but they have to tune in to one specific consciousness at a time in order to separate one voice from the choir as a whole.

The angels move around in the space over the city and in the spaces of the city. Spaces full of sounds. They watch what happens and listen to each individual human beingís voice of consciousness. They may bring comfort to a human being by their presence, and by trying to turn the inner monologue in an alternative direction,but the angels are unable to change events of the physical world. They cannot prevent a suicide, a traffic accident, or a vicious action.

The angels write down and mutually interchange the (parts of) individual stories they witness. The angels themselves, however, have no individual history.


In Wings of Desire the knowledge of the universe presented has been distributed as follows: We have a world full of human beings, each with its own individual history of life lived, from which it looks at the world. Now the angels look at these human beings looking, one by one. The beholder, that is, the position of the implied recipient, sees the angels looking at the individual human beings looking. We follow two different angels, Damiel and Cassiel, on their way through the spaces of the city, experiencing them experience ordinary human beings from within.Thus we experience our own way of experiencing the world, seen from the outside. This position truly knows everything, knows all events, all secrets, all fates; it notices just how every human being is a prisoner of his own story and unable to see anything but that. But on the other hand, this position does not itself know what it is like to be a prisoner of time, space, and causality.

The so-called epistemic competence (knowledge about what goes on in fictional space) of Damiel and Cassiel is on the one hand immensely high: in terms of facts, they are omniscient. On the other hand, what might be called their existential competence as regards the spaces they know so well is infinitely low. They know everything but they know nothing. So on the one hand the movieís presentation of this Berlin through the experience of the angels is as "realistic" as possible, including everything anybody experiences and representing it on a one-to-one scale, but on the other hand this presentation itself is no real narrative.


The above discrepancy is due to the fact that a narrative must be human, must (re)construct a human gaze at the presented world. A human gaze means looking from a certain position; looking from a certain position implies that there is also something you do not see. A narrative, in other words, requires an act of narrating (one or more narrators), someone who talks. Furthermore, it requires focalizing, "focalization": one or more who sees.[4] As a construction of a world assumes this humanoid form in order to become a narrative, it is, however, hit by the definitive condition of such a construction: the closer you are to being in the world, to taking part in the game, the harder it is to regard it from the outside. Genuinely inside the game, you are subject to any individualís condition of time, space, and causality, that is, "history". What you see you see exclusively from the inside. You do not see yourself see. In that sense there is an almost constitutional contradiction or complementarity between knowledge and being, between watching and participating. We know that from everyday life. To know anything at all about something presupposes objectivation, distance. Conversely, the more subjectively engaged you are in a game, the harder it is to avert your actual position and interest.

The movie Wings of Desire establishes a narrative about the angels Damiel and Cassiel regarding the stories of life in Berlin. But Damiel and Cassiel are unable to turn their own regarding into a narrative. To us as well, these life stories present themselves as an infinite, additive assembling of parallel moments. Narrating and studying narratives is not the same thing.


This condition becomes unbearable to the angel Damiel. He envies the human beings their history, their "now", their captiveness, and he decides to become human, to let himself fall. From infinity to finality, from being anywhere to being just where you are, from being immortal and eternal to having exactly one life. In other words, from the prison of total freedom to the prison of being inscribed in a history, in your own mortal story.

Damielís action thus corresponds exactly to the movement which any movie goes through. To make a movie always means turning many possible times into one certain time – namely, that of the movie – not only if the movie is to become a narrative, but quite concretely, in a physical sense.

Film as an art form seems to have acquired this knowledge, also historically. From consisting of isolated spaces and places mounted side by side, film gradually became a conscious temporal art. A movie mounts a number of local spaces and times into one time, most often as a narrative. The self-reflexive reference both to this very movie and to the art form as such stands out explicitly and consciously in Wings of Desire. Not only does the movie change from black and white to colour – just like in real film history – as Damiel gives up his angel perspective, but in the credits it is even stated "Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej". There is reason to suppose that this applies to the master directors with the family names of Ozu, Truffaut and Tarkovskij, respectively; a (master) director, it seems, is a fallen angel. To make a movie is to choose a history, to establish one time. To choose a story is also to opt out of the possibility of choosing between innumerable stories. Jacta alea est.


Wings of Desire, it seems, is an explicit allegory on the fundamental genesis problematics of film and thus furthermore on this movieís own production. Not only does this movie tell the story of a person choosing to get – and thus engender – himself a story, but the movie also does what it tells. It becomes a story like that itself. From paratactical counting of parallel fates seen from a birdís eye view and in black and white, it lands in the middle of one story seen from within that very story, in colour. The incoherent similarity of singular situations organized according to spatial principles is replaced by a narrating vision-avec organized according to time, according to the course of events. Marion and Damiel get each other.

This transformation at all levels of the movie is indeed overtly staged. This overtness implies that within the enunciation of the movie, this transformation is not just reflexive. The calculated exaggeration makes it reflexive in a double sense. The distance between the overt reflexivity of the expression and the implied position responsible for expression creates an objectivation, or re-doubling of reflexivity, which is also obvious in the movie as an ambivalence.


"Nous sommes embarquées", it is stated almost triumphantly in Marionís voice at the end of the movie. Now the story can begin, and the end title even announces "To be continued", the classic formula of the feuilleton. In other words, the emphasizers of "narrative" are so redundant and so blatant that the picture starts trembling under its own weight. The switch to Technicolor points in the same direction. To be sure, it is also motivated inside the diegetical space (angels are supposed to be unable to perceive colours; a chance passerby has to explain the names of the colours to Damiel after he has become a human being). But this switch also seems closely linked to the implied narrator of the movie as such, among other things because it also represents a clearly technical choice.

The ambivalence is also obvious from the almost too explicit chiasm in the relationship between Damiel and Marion. He becomes a child, literally a child, finally a child, with all the implications of, for instance, needing care. She, on the contrary, becomes a grown-up, finally – "finally lonely", as it is put. She is attracted to Damiel as an angel: his quietness, his timelessness, his odour of eternity as a counterweight to her own superficial adhesion to history. He, however, is precisely attracted by her being captured inside this history of the no-way-out of her inner monologue.

Consequently, the two seem to rush by each other in one and the same movement. This is made immediately obvious in the changed character of Damiel. Having been a creature of reticent, incarnate goodness, of cool sublime quietness, he is changed into a yodelling Tyrolese, into a type talking loudly to himself in the street, contacting strangers in a way which would make most of us cross the street in order to avoid him. Even though the metaphysical attraction across all the spheres does work the first time Damiel and Marion meet physically in the Technicolor reality, one spontaneously questions the possibility of continuation. And, as mentioned, through the end title the movie does so too.

But the movie also gives rise to a different kind of question. Its enunciation includes a sort of framing construction within which Damiel writes down the story (simultaneously narrating it orally, sometimes just as voice-over). Each sequence starts with "Als das Kind Kind war" ("when the child was a child"), itself a paradoxical twisting of temporality and figure. In case the child was a child, it is not a child any more. But we may be dealing with a child (Damiel) who has become a child, and who also wishes to have been a child, which it has not; in other words, who wishes to conquer a story, a childhood. Many details confirm that the framing construction is meant to be thorough, that in other words the narrative of the movie is set as an illustration of what Damiel writes; that is, after the events, in vision-par derrière. One of the sequences is even told in Marionís voice, pointing out a possible common perspective after the events. If that is correct, it means that the "I-trap" does not only catch Damiel during the course of events; qua the narrative construction he has been caught even before the narrative begins. Thus, the whole story is basically told personally, (intra) diegetically, and from Ďbelowí – by a child, so to speak. That raises the fundamental question of the reliability of the narrative, once again emphasizing the ambivalence.


Further dispersal of the statement is made by one of the subsidiary characters within the fiction, a subsidiary person nevertheless posited as a leitmotif, even having the last word of the movie: Homer, the old man and storyteller, again and again stating the importance of telling stories. Or: of history being narrated. Old, senile and broken down, he insists on his mission (although we never hear him tell a story himself). In practice, he is tumbling around – just like a child – in the centre of Berlin at what was once Potsdamer Platz, now bombed out terrain vague between the two zones of the city.

Homerís evocation of the narration of history touches above all upon the German problem, at once very present and strangely remote in this movie. In one sense it means everything: the divided city, the cuts to warís indescribable horrors of loads of bodies and burning houses. And then: the same human beings as extras in an American film production thematizing the Nazi past. Or: the angelsí unworried and uninterested crossing of the border and the wall; to them this historical problem is utterly marginal. As the inner monologues show, marginal it is also to ordinary peopleís ordinary stories. Homerís cry of distress is an exception. The angel Cassiel nicely takes care of the demented old man stumbling around at the bomb site. But the message of Homer is not really being treated by the inner plot of the movie. Instead it points out of the diegetical space, out into its bursting greater form, out into its cooly mounted ambivalence, or perhaps polyvalence.


The movie carefully mounts its own discursive disorder as an undecidability. There is no solution to the dilemma. On one side, we have the carefully organized distribution of epistemic competence by the diegetic space, and the story about the transformation of this competence. On the other side, we have the double reflexivity of the whole movie through a self-commenting level along the construction of enunciation and a sort of correcting alternative to it, enclosing it in quotation marks, as it were. "Look, what a movie", it says.

On the one hand, Damielís story is possible. It is possible to transform olympic, multi-spatial knowledge with all its distance, into personal participation and a story, into one mortal time with all its loss of insight. "Columbo" is a helper. Being a child is good. In other words it is possible to make movies, to create film. This is the movieís celebration of film.

On the other hand, Damielís story is, nevertheless, not possible. The transformation from self-controlled, chronically benevolent consoler to babbling Tyrolese, primarily absorbed in his own immediate satisfaction of needs – that transformation is neither reliable nor any probable delight to anybody in a greater perspective. "Columbo" is thus an unpleasant temptator when he keeps trying to persuade passing angels into becoming human beings. In that perspective it is characteristic that only one of the two point-of-view-carrying angels gives in and is transformed. The other, Cassiel, resists the temptation, and even proves (diegetically) necessary to make Damielís transformation work. He has to carry him out of the sight of the VOPOs at the time he is materializing. And he has to see to it that Damiel indeed meets Marion, since the circus has left. Damiel himself has become powerless. Consequently, it is not possible to make movies, save that when the perspective is confined to babbling kitsch, to something vulgar and unpleasantly overcoloured. Being a child is not good. This is the movieís critique of film.


This dilemma is kept open. Absolute knowledge and being human exclude each other. You canít have it both ways. But the downward movement, the very de-positioning of epistemic competence to persons inside closed human stories, that is possible, that can be done.

In its total gesture, this may be what Wings of Desire says. The movie – this movie like any other movie – must in all cases capture the space within a time, make itself a child. This has certain costs. It is, however, possible to construct this movement of closure in such a way that the process of this capturing movement itself becomes part of the presentation. Thus the loss of knowledge may be turned into something explicit, into événement, into a becoming-child.[5] And this turning-explicit itself may create virtual bifurcations of the time designed. These bifurcations in turn may convincingly represent many things, including for instance different spaces. But also this openness has certain costs.

Or, to put it differently: Any movie is always already a meta-film, anyway. This has irreversibly been made obvious, among others by the above "fallen angels" of film history. Therefore, film could first as well as last accept this destiny and calculate these costs at both levels by including them into its filmic expression, making them part of its own aesthetic gestalt.

This message of Wings of Desire we may have known for a long time. The special thing is that here this knowledge is literally formed at all levels. Wings of Desire not only knows its own form, it is its form; it is congenial with itself without being identical with itself. This movie carries into effect an imposing, reiterated becoming-child, which makes it a masterpiece as a movie, as film, as world experience.

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1 The Schopenhauer reference here is quoted from Th.W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt am M.: Suhrkamp, 1970), p. 208

2 See Wolfgang Iser, "Representation: A Performative Act", in The Aims of Representation. Subject/Text/History, ed. With an Introduction by Murray Krieger (New York: Columbia UP, 1987), pp. 227ff.

3 See Paul Ricúur, Temps et récit, t. III, "Le temps raconté" (Paris: Seuil, 1985).

4 The distinction between narration and focalization has been worked out thoroughly by Gérard Gennette, see his Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), pp. 203ff. Seymour Chatman has proposed the terms "slant" and "filter" for roughly the same distinction in relation to film, see his Coming to terms. The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 141ff.

5 Événementisation" and the notion of "becoming" as a mode of existence (as opposed to "being") obviously hints at the philosophy and aesthetics of Gilles Deleuze, see for instance his Le pli. Leibniz et le baroque (Paris: Minuit, 1988), p. 71.

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