P.O.V. No.8 - Articles

Wings of Desire
Space, Memory and Identity

Søren Kolstrup

  • The idea of a site
  • The concept of sites of memory
  • Which sites for which memories?
  • To remember and to forget
  • Homer
  • Peter Falk
  • The angels
  • Conclusion
  • Literature

    Wings of Desire can be understood also as a film about memory, about time and about identity. Which memory for which identity?

    The idea of a site

    "America" always means two things: a country, geographically, the USA, and an idea of that country which goes with it. [The] "American Dream", then, is a dream of a country in a different country that is located where the dream takes place... "I want to be in America", the Jets sing, in that famous song from West Side Story. They are in America already and yet still wanting to get there. (Wim Wenders 1989, quoted in Morley 96, p. 94)

    What is Berlin geographically and what is the idea associated with it? Is there a dream of Berlin? Wenders himself, according to Morley and Robins, has pointed out a marked difference between the German "Heim" and the American "home", the German word meaning a fixed place, the American word only "at home" or "where you belong" (see Morley 96, p. 94).

    This may seem a pointless distinction, but to belong (to belong somewhere) is the fundamental problem or desire of the protagonists in Wings of Desire. How do you belong somewhere? Wenders takes up the problem which other Germans have treated over and over again, where do we belong, what is (German) identity, what is our historical identity or German historical identity? In Wings of Desire, it may be noted, none of the protagonists are Germans!

    The concept of sites of memory to the top of the page

    It is normally said that you have to be fixed in space and in time if you want to belong somewhere. The sites of memory are, in the proper sense of the word, crucial. They are crossroads. They are the points where space and time meet memory. Piere Nora has tried to define a difference between milieu de mémoire and lieu de mémoire. The sites of memory are the "milieux", the real environments of memory, but today, with our lack of memory, we have to be content with lieux de mémoire, places which remind us of the past, of a (broken) memory. (cf. Morley, p. 87)

    The German film director Edgar Reitz has put it this way:

    It is our history that is in our way. In 1945 the nationís "zero hour" wiped out and created a gap in peopleís ability to remember [...] an entire people had been [...] unable to tell stories, because our memories are obstructed [...] we are still afraid that our personal stories could recall our nazi past and remind us of our mass participation in the Reich. (Reitz, quoted in Morley, p. 97).

    The implication of what Reitz says is that the lieux de mémoire should be of a particular kind in Germany, that there might be a lack of true sites of memory (milieu) for a specific period, the years from 1933 to 1945 (or even later, especially in the five new states) because of the lack of memory of this period.

    Which sites for which memories? to the top of the page

    If Nora is right, we should have no milieux de mémoire, only more or less faked monuments, which incarnate the idea of one or other particular nation. Thus even the most memory-loaded space is no milieu de mémoire, simply because we have forgotten what we should remember, what we want to forget. Following Reitz we should have to admit that the monuments, even tourist kitsch, have taken over: Copenhagenís mermaid, Moscowís Kremlin, St Peters in Rome. They have been created as, or have been turned into, stereotypes replacing true memory. What has Berlin got? The wall when it existed was never a stereotype like the Eiffel Tower. After the unification it has been destroyed as a bad memory, as an unbearable and shameful memory and its remains have been turned into a futile lieu de mémoire. Was, however, the wall a milieu?

    Could we say that Wenders uses these stereotypes by changing them in an attempt to reconcile the monuments with a true investigation of memory? How does he (re)create sites of memory for Berlin? What is Berlin? Wenders takes the most banal parts of the town, elements which could hardly be turned into national, historical or heroic stereotypes. Wendersí Berlin is as far from heroism as were the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit, who ridiculed heroism and lifted the banalities of our existence into the sphere of significant objects.

    The Gedächtnisskirche is the portal to Berlin, but in the opening scene it is linked to an anonymous town with people walking or riding bicycles. After penetrating the clouds, the camera plunges into a totally anonymous part of the town. It is a town without monuments with these two exceptions: the church and the wall. However, Wenders uses all the elements of the town and turns their banality, their anonymity into lieu de mémoire, if not into milieu de mémoire. Which elements? How does he choose them? In fact Wenders constantly returns to specific sites, to specific visual themes throughout the film. This is one of the basic lines of the story. In this context, by pointing out banal houses and other sites, Wenders wipes out the stereotype sense of the sites.

    The empty space with the circus.

    A space surrounded by anonymous houses and populated by people without roots: the circus artists. The film is filled with an incredible number of houses seen at a distance, houses without inhabitants, houses pointed out at first hand as sites, though not as sites of memory.

    No manís land

    Above all, however, the empty spaces, the no-manís-land, are the true spaces of memory, a vanishing memory. The non-existent Potzdammer Platz is the true milieu de mémoire,that is, within the framework of the film. Memory creates the site.

    The bridges, the canals, the streets

    In Berlin, bridges are links and frontiers. They are sites to be filled with symbolic and historical value. Normally the streets are not crowded, as they would be in stereotyped representations of a metropolis; Berlin appears as a jigsaw puzzle of anonymous houses and streets.

    The wall

    The wall could have become the lieu de mémoire. Three years after the release of the film, the wall was pulled down. A sign that two much memory was attached to it is that Wenders makes the wall as anonymous as the rest of his Berlin. It becomes the border, the frontier of an enormous backyard, as dull as any backyard in any degraded industrial city. Only from this viewpoint can the film build up the wall as a milieu de mémoire.

    The Luftschutzbunker

    The ruin appears as a set for film shooting, although it is a genuine ruin from World War II. Itís the site for confrontation of todayís attempts to grasp the past, with all the problems of verdrängungen, of misinterpretations, and it is the place where Peter Falk draws, in an attempt to capture todayís thinking of yesterday.

    The "concert hall"

    This is the only crowded place (as well as the circus), crowded however with totally isolated individuals.

    The circus.

    The circus and its artists symbolise people without any fixed place, people living in mobile homes. They leave, they return, they stay as long as they can, that is, as long as they have paid for their electricity.

    The children in the circus are less isolated. They act together, they seek something outside themselves, or they have not yet discovered the frontiers, like the Turkish girl, who feels the presence of Damiel.

    The library

    This is, par excellence, the site of memory, of any memory, not only of Berlinís past. It is the site where the angels gather; it is the place where Homer seeks the information he already has.

    The "imbisses"

    The only place where we see people eating, eating the most anonymous food you can get, poor food, as poor as the houses and especially the surrounding ground. In most cases the imbiss is isolated, the only place with human life. However, the imbisses are the sites where Peter Falk encounters the three other protagonists. The imbisses are the sites where the important decisions are taken or refused. The Imbiss is the place where Damiel fully realises his new status as a human. Wenders thus fills the most insignificant and anonymous spots with metaphorical symbolic values!

    This is a choice of the sites of the film. By and large we discover that they begin to mean something, that they may have a specific significance, that they are linked together and begin to tell stories. These sites are the opposite of what blocks our stories.

    To remember and to forget to the top of the page

    So these humble sites are where Wenders builds up, or rather helps us to build up, a memory He does this by confronting different ways of keeping memory, of building memory, of losing memory. To build up a (new) identity, you not only have to remember, but also to forget. Anderson quotes the French philosopher Ernest Renan:

    The essence of a nation is that all the individuals (forming this nation) have much in common and also that they have forgotten many things [...] Every French citizen must have forgotten the night of St Bartholomy, the massacres in the Midi in the 13th century.
    (Anderson, p. 199)

    This is a film about remembering, but there is no remembering without forgetting (see Anderson, pp. 198-201). Forgetting things is as necessary as remembering them.

    Homer, Peter Falk and the Angels each have their own way of remembering, as do the readers in the library, and the film itself.

    Homer to the top of the page

    Homerís project is utopian; he works to tell the stories, the blocked story, as pointed out by Reitz. Homerís problem is the historical element of the story: how to conciliate war and peace in his story.

    Meine Helden sind nicht mehr die Krieger und Könige, sondern die Dinge des Friedens, eins so gut wie die anderen.

    However, storytelling without anti-heroes is impossible, be it fiction or reality:

    Was ist denn am Frieden dass es nicht auf die Dauer begeistert und dass sich von ihm kaum zu erzählen lässt. Wenn ich jetzt aufgebe dann wird die Menschheit einmal ihr Erzähler verlieren. Und hat die Menschheit einmal ihren Erzähler verloren so hat sie auch ihre Kindschaft verloren.

    Without memory, there is no humanity. Humanity is childhood, identity. Yet Homer continues his research for at least one site of memory, a true milieu de mémoire for him:

    Ich kann den Potzdammer Platz nicht mehr finden.

    After this he makes a list of the shops of the Potzdammer Platz and of the people walking there, but he stops where he is about to tell a war story with its warriors and victims:

    Und dann hingen plötzlich Fahnen, dort. Der ganze Platz war vollgehängt mit. Und die Leute waren gar nicht mehr freundlich und die Polizei auch nicht.

    Aber ich gebe so lange nicht auf bis ich den Potzdammer platz gefunden habe!

    This is utopia, tragic utopia. He will never find it again. He can look at the photos in the book Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts by August Sander. His story has been wiped out by the flags and the unfriendly people of 1933. History has blocked his story. The rest is, if not silence, at least the meaningless objects in the souvenir shop of the Potzdammer Platz. Yet does he give up? He is a true Sisyphos.

    Peter Falk to the top of the page

    He is the wise one! He is the one who knows the price of the search for memory. He warns the young boy against the dangers of the easy, sensational story as opposed to the true search for memory, The story about the fake Hitler mentioned by the boy is disgusting and even dangerous. Itís stupid, itís dopey.

    Peter Falkís drawings are his way of keeping the memory of the past and even of finding memory. Above all, however, Peter Falk knows the value of everyday life, of the apparently insignificant events, like rubbing your hands to be warm.

    The angels to the top of the page

    The angels keep the memory of things, but in a different way. There is no tragic dimension in their search. Everything seems to have equal importance, with the risk that nothing really matters. (Damielís problem is that he has realised that to achieve consistency, he must attain human status, he must acquire weight, become attached and be like a child:

    ich möchte ein Gewicht an mir spüren das die Grenzenlosigkeit in mir aufhebt und mich erdfest macht.

    What the angels notice is from a historical point of view sometimes triviality, whereas from the individual point of view, just the contrary, such as the retreat of the glaciers or the arrival of the first human beings. They remember and notice what people do, what happens or what happened to ordinary people. Everything is of equal importance.

    An der u-Bahn Ė Station Zoo rief ein Beamter statt des Stationsnamens plötzlich das "Feuerland" aus.

    Conclusion to the top of the page

    The documentary shots of the film are glimpses of memory. If not treated they cause anguish. They are signs that the past has not yet been processed, in German, "Vergangenheitsbewaltigung".

    These glimpses of the past, the cold shivering houses and the empty places, are the Berlin offered by Wenders, and yet... and yet the film has a moral. It is (also) a film about how to cope with the past, about how to build up an identity that has taken this past into account (dixit Homer). It is not an easy moral, but it is there. In this cold world, look at the past, relate the past and then abandon it, attaching yourself to what is around you, to the people around you. In fact, the film fulfils Homerís project: to make the poem about die Dinge des Friedens. Then we are not blocked by the past: wir sind eingeschifft.


    Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities.

    London, New York: Verso, 1996.

    Morley, David and Robins, Kevin. Spaces of Identity.
    London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

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