Nolte: ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987) and the Upside of Woke

The Criterion Collection

The left’s ongoing era of woke fascism turned a rewatch of Wim Wenders’masterpiece Wings of Desire (1987) into something special.

We’re all human, and as human beings, we tend to take things for granted. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Youth is wasted on the young, they say. I disagree. The joy of being young is taking your youth and health for granted. To award youth to someone jaded and experienced like myself would be a waste. Not for anything would I trade away those glorious decades of assuming I would live forever, nor would I strip others of that pleasure.

Still, taking things for granted is both human nature and a curse, especially when one of the primary keys to happiness is gratitude. Think about that… When you examine all the miserable people in our culture, they share one thing: ingratitude. They want-want-want… All they can do is want-want-want… They want everyone to be what they want them to be. They want money. They want fame. They want free college. They want life to be easy and accommodating, and affirming.

And they appreciate nothing.

Even in the miracle of this bountiful culture of ours, where the poor live better than the pharaohs of old with air conditioning, iPhones, Netflix, central heat, refrigeration, hot and cold running water, microwave ovens, cable TV, and enough food to cause an obesity “crisis,” they appreciate nothing. It’s all taken for granted. Hence, their misery and their twisted need to make the rest of us miserable.

Losing something certainly helps us to appreciate what we had… and that’s another curse. It takes wisdom, maturity, and experience (sometimes a terrible experience) to appreciate what one has instead of what one had or what one wants. That’s why you should call your parents now—right now, why you should play with your dog now—right now. And before they quit college on you, why you should revel in your small children.

Put down the phone and go for a walk. Risk a little boredom to appreciate the trees, the air, the way your neighborhood looks now—right now, because someday you’re going to return to it, and it will look very different, and you will wish you could go back and take that walk one more time.

The first and only time I saw Wings of Desire, I didn’t appreciate it. Twenty years ago, I found it a little dull, a little slow, a tad too intellectual. The love story worked, but the movie took its time to get to that. More than an hour passed before the plot revealed itself. Nevertheless, something about the movie stuck with me, but I still didn’t appreciate it.

Last night, I did.

If there’s a more beautiful love letter to the human race than Wings of Desire, I have yet to see it.

Over the city of a still divided Berlin, there are angels. They’re not guardian angels (a pretense I’ve always found absurd). They’re more like observers. They watch us. They listen to our thoughts and write them down. Although God is never mentioned (Wenders was a few years from becoming a Christian), you can sense that these angels are part of the Lord’s omnipotence. Through them, He knows everything, including our thoughts.


As stewards of God, like God, they do not intervene in the natural world. For example, one angel helplessly watches a desperate man (whose last thought is of the woman he loves) jump to his death. Another angel witnesses a man succumbing to a motorcycle accident. The only thing these angels seem capable (or willing) to do is place a comforting hand on our shoulder and nudge our thoughts to a better place… perhaps to what’s already good within us? I don’t know, and I’m glad it’s not explained. It’s more satisfying to ponder, to wonder why the touch of an angel shifted the doomed motorcycle rider’s thoughts from blind panic to…

The veins of leaves. The blowing grass. The color of stones. The pebbles on the stream’s bed. The white tablecloth outdoors. The dream of the house in the house. The dear one asleep in the next room. The peaceful Sundays. The horizon. The light from the room in the garden. The night flight. Riding a bicycle with no hands. The beautiful stranger. My father. My mother. My wife. My child.

Like real life, life in Wenders’ Berlin is endlessly mundane, the usual-usual of routine, and it’s here where Wenders spends most of his time and methodically lays down his cards in a way that sneaks up on you. In the thoughts of these everyday people, we expect to hear drama, darkness, and evil—this is a movie, after all. We expect to come across adulterers, child molesters, thieves, murderers. Instead, we hear the following from a man visiting his mother’s apartment after her passing…

Still smells the same, only dustier. She collected everything. Trading stamps, postcards. Even tickets. She never threw anything away. She just couldn’t. Mother—she never was my mother. My father—my father was my father. She’s dead. No tears, no grief. Maybe later. God, I feel old. My sister’s coming. I have to get out of here.

Elsewhere a father worries over his son and how he feels about the boy…

My God, what will become of that boy? Music’s all he’s got in his head. No, I can’t take this anymore. What more does he want? I already bought him a guitar. Now he wants drums too? That would cost a fortune. I’m getting fed up. Is he ever gonna come to his senses? I’ve had it. This can’t go on. This really has to stop. I can’t go along with this anymore.

So too, does the mother…

No wonder. He only learned rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe he’ll get a grip on himself one day. One can only hope

Here are the thoughts of a lonely and luminous trapeze artist who’s discovered she’s out of a job tomorrow…

So, it’s over. Not even a season. Once again, no time to really get anywhere. My circus dreams — just memories ten years from now. Tonight’s the last time I’ll do my good old number. It’s a full moon, too, “and the trapeze artist breaks her neck.” Be quiet! … And then I’m a waitress again.

Wenders understands that we humans are mostly good and that this goodness turns us into a bundle of anxieties, worries, stresses, insecurities, questions about why we’re here, and contradictions as we attempt to find a way to not only do right but control the dark corners of our thoughts. Above all, Wenders understands how these non-stop anxieties swamp our heads, our whole beings, and undermine the unending pleasures of being human.

To bring us to our senses, the director asks us to see ourselves through his angels, the immortals who have been here since the beginning, since the tide found the shore. These beings can fly… They never feel pain and never worry about making the rent or cancer or a leaky roof… And yet, they envy us. The very beings we exalt envy… us.

I’m not going to spoil one of the movie’s more satisfying reveals (you can spoil it yourself and watch the scene here), but in the most unexpected way, we are told the story’s moral through a human who was once an angel. This angel surrendered himself to the ravages of time thirty years ago and regrets nothing:

Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together, it’s fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things.

Our protagonist is an angel named Damiel (the late great Bruno Ganz). He’s seen the best and worst of humanity and still longs to be us:

[I]t would be rather nice coming home after a long day to feed the cat, like Philip Marlowe, to have a fever and blackened fingers from the newspaper, to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck by an ear. To lie! Through one’s teeth. As you’re walking, to feel your bones moving along. At last to guess, instead of always knowing.

Most importantly, he wants this:

I’d like, at each step, each gust of wind, to be able to say “Now. Now and now,” and no longer “forever” and “for eternity.”


And after Damiel becomes human, he seeks this:

First, I’ll have a bath. Then I’ll be shaved by a Turkish barber who will massage me down to the fingertips. Then I’ll buy a newspaper and read it from headlines to horoscope. On the first day, I’ll be waited upon…

Yes, there’s a love story, a beautiful and moving one, but nowhere near as inexpressibly beautiful as the reminder—from angels, no less—that we have so much to be grateful for and that in gratitude, the key to happiness is found.

Wings of Desire isn’t telling us to reach for the stars or to chase our dreams, or do anything other than appreciate life as it is, as we are living it right now. And all I can say to that is amen.

Can you imagine a movie like this being made today? A movie that teaches us to appreciate mankind instead of portraying us as a disease and parasite…? A movie that says the love between a man who wants to support and protect a woman who feels empty and alone without a man is a blessing and not sexist and regressive?

Earlier, when I wrote about failing to appreciate what you have, that’s what I meant…. I’ve always loved and appreciated movies, but one benefit of this anti-art, anti-human era of woke is an even stronger appreciation for the cinematic humanism I once took for granted.

There’s so many good things.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


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