A hymn to finitude – on Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin

Ecrit par Sjoerd van Hoorn le 29.03.14 dans La Une CED, Les Chroniques

A hymn to finitude – on Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin


How do works of art enter a life? No matter what education-authorities say, it is not only the consultation of an argued reading-list that leads one to pick up a book. Books enter our lives by being whispered about, by their titles fluttering by within earshot, by insinuating themselves like a tune that you suddenly find yourself humming as you make the bed.

It is not just books that find their way into a life like a memory that one suddenly finds is there. It is films as well. I had heard its title a number of times, read about it in passing, come across the director’s name mentioned reveringly – it was Der Himmel über Berlin, a film from 1987 directed by Wim Wenders, known internationally as The Wings of Desire, but that title, reminiscent of romance-novels, scarcely does it justice. Whispers play a role throughout the film too. A scene that is at the heart of the film one of the lead characters, played by Bruno Ganz, wanders through the Berlin public library.

The huge reading-room is filled with people whispering to themselves: fragments of English, some words from an account of how Walter Benjamin came in possession of Paul Klee’s painting of an angel, the first lines of B’ereshit (the book of Genesis) recited in Hebrew, a man whose inner monologue is a mythical tale of a contemporary Homer, calling on the Muse. It is this whisper, these streams of consciousness expressed in several tongues sotto voce that take the viewer along in what is as much a literary as a cinematic achievement – the film’s script was written by Wim Wenders together with the writer Peter Handke.

Wim Wenders’ film, set in the West-Berlin of 1986, is the story of two angels and a circus-girl. The angels have tired of just being witnesses, of being only spiritual rather than corporeal beings. In a wonderful dialogue consisting largely of an enumeration of poetic scenes and details of lives, one angel, Damiel, tells another “ich möchte einmal nur ahnen statt immer alles zu wissen” (I would like for once just to guess instead of always knowing everything). This angel, played by Bruno Ganz, is restless, finding the desire to experience encroaching on him. He wants most of all to have common human feelings, sensations, moods. Der Himmel über Berlin is a hymn to the body and the senses seen from the point of view of spiritual beings who find they lack something. Their lack can only be put into word by listing details from the observed lives of others. As a list always points to what isn’t on it, these gorgeous, almost exhaustive enumerations suggest the ineffable desire to have a body. That is to say, this film says to us, how wonderful to feel the sheets caress your feet as you wake up, to taste a coffee, even to find out that you bleed as you have cut yourself.

The other angel, Cassiel, gently and pensively portrayed by Otto Sander, does not make the jump but Ganz’s Damiel does. The angels don’t lack empathy, in fact exactly the opposite is the case. They go wherever people are in pain, psychological trouble or spiritual agony. The angels’ task is to guide people through their pain and to console them. However, they do not have these experiences of imperfection themselves. Being perfect witnesses they yearn for full-bodied imperfection. One reason is his discovery of the melancholy circus-girl Marion, played by Solveig Dommartin. Marion is a little lost, looking for love. Unlike Damiel Marion certainly has a body. Damiel is enchanted by her rehearsal for her circus-act on a trapeze. As he follows her from the circus-tent into her trailer he is even more enchanted by the sight of her bare shoulders and back, looking on as she takes off her acrobat’s costume. Although Damiel has come to comfort Marion, who is about to lose her job as the circus has gone bankrupt, he finds himself helpless in front of the young woman’s wistfulness.

The film is a hymn to imperfection tout court, evoking the beauty of what is not entirely whole, the dilapidated, the old, the broken. In a way it is a very German beauty as Wenders has shown it in more than one of his films – take the melancholy undercurrent in Falsche Bewegung or the very palpable sense of loss that yet leads to creation in Wenders’recent homage to the choreographer Pina Bausch. How does one deal with an irrecoverable but impossible loss? In the case of both the earlier and the later film Wenders enacts the loss – in the case of Bausch by dancing parts of her choreographies again. In Der Himmel über Berlin the loss of a purely spiritual perfection is a necessary loss for the attainment of a more meaningful imperfection. What is at stake here is a spirituality of the body, the meaning of the flesh.

The movement of the camera, being wielded masterly by Henri Alekan, shows the movement of the narrative, starting with wide, sweeping movements from the sky over Berlin, via swooping in arcs during Marion’s trapeze-performance to ever more horizontal lines of movement when Damiel has finally become a man. Human meaning, Wenders seems to want to say, is found primarily in horizontal lines, that is to say, in relations to what is like us, imperfect.

Wenders could even be seen to have given an answer to a passage Walter Benjamin wrote in his very last work, the 1940  Zum Begriff der Geschichte, inspired by the above-mentioned painting of an angel by Paul Klee.


Es gibt ein Bild von Klee, das Angelus Novus heißt. Ein Engel ist darauf dargestellt, der aussieht, als wäre er im Begriff, sich von etwas zu entfernen, worauf er starrt. Seine Augen sind aufgerissen, sein Mund steht offen und seine Flügel sind ausgespannt. Der Engel der Geschichte muß so aussehen. Er hat das Antlitz der Vergangenheit zugewendet. Wo eine Kette von Begebenheiten vor uns erscheint, da sieht er  eine einzige Katastrophe, die unablässig Trümmer auf Trümmer häuft und sie ihm vor die Füße schleudert. Er möchte wohl verweilen, die Toten wecken und das Zerschlagene zusammenfügen. Aber ein Sturm weht vom Paradiese her, der sich in seinen Flügeln verfangen hat und so stark ist, daß der Engel sie nicht mehr schließen kann. Dieser Sturm treibt ihn unaufhaltsam in die Zukunft, der er den Rücken kehrt, während der Trümmerhaufen vor ihm zum Himmel wächst. Das, was wir den Fortschritt nennen, ist dieser Sturm.

(A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.)


As the characters of Der Himmel über Berlin wander through the city, they certainly come across heaps of the debris of history. The film abounds in images of ruins. Wenders’ own images are interspersed with photos and footage from the second world war. The old man Homer, played by Curt Bois, who alternates between reminiscences about the 1930s and poetological comments, is seen leafing through a book containing some gruesome photographs showing the carnage of war. By weaving these images of death and destruction, often seen as if filmed in a narrow pathway, Wenders shows the reality of a hideous loss – the loss his characters must not seek to do away with by taking to the worship of perfection. Rather they must glue together the fragments of what has been broken in their lives. Wenders shows that his angels (including Marion, the circus-angel), by giving up their angelhood, can do precisely what Klee’s angel could not do according to Benjamin, “die Toten wecken und das Zerschlagene zusammenfügen” (wake the dead and make whole what has been smashed).


Sjoerd Van Hoorn



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Sjoerd van Hoorn


Sjoerd van Hoorn a obtenu un master en philosophie (thèse sur David Hume) à Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen (Pays-Bas).

De 2006 à 2011, Il a été maître assistant en philosophie des sciences à Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Ses travaux de recherche portent actuellement sur la philosophie de Leibniz et Kant. Il est journaliste et critique littéraire.