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An SPU Professor and a Filmmaker Praise Wings of Desire

Two perspectives on a tour through a divided Berlin: filmmaker Scott Derrickson and Professor Jeff Keuss


Posted December 9, 2009

Wings of Desire

By Jeffrey Overstreet []

Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection


To mark the arrival of The Criterion Collection’s new edition of Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, Response asked two moviegoers to share perspectives informed by their areas of expertise: a filmmaker and a theologian.

For both of them, it’s important to note that the movie isn’t just about angels, wonder, and love. It is, above all, about Berlin.

Scott Derrickson, the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has collaborated with Wenders before. He wrote a film called Land of Plenty, which Wenders directed, and which featured Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy) in a leading role.

Wings of Desire didn't start out for the director as a film about angels, but rather as a film about Berlin,” Derrickson explains. And Berlin, he notes, was very different in the mid-'80s, when Wenders made the movie. “The movie shows us the whole of the city — divided by the wall — just a few years before the wall came down. You can feel both the incredible beauty of that city, and the dark oppression of the Eastern Bloc. Wim Wenders was looking for a point of view that could help him show the remarkable uniqueness of that city before the wall fell, and angels became the device that allowed him to do it.”

Jeffrey Keuss, associate professor of Christian ministry at Seattle Pacific University, sums up the question at the heart of Wenders’ movie: “Is God — or more generally, 'the Sacred' — present amidst the profane in the world around us?”

He explains, “For American moviegoers, the question of the Berlin Wall is a question of whether Communism is what is preventing people from seeing God — once the wall fell, would we see an explosion of Christian conversion? Unfortunately, what has been seen in Europe has not been a run for churches, but a run for the shopping mall. What makes Wings of Desire so timely for us in the first decade of the 21st century is that we are now watching not communism faith … but capitalism. And still the same question — Is the world God-filled, or God-bereft? — remains."

Keuss says the film brings to mind the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah was writing to Israel after their captivity in Babylon, and their release by King Cyrus to return to Jerusalem. "An entire generation had been raised to hear about the promise of Israel but never seen it," he explains. "Upon finally returning to this promised land, the holy temple and the city laid in ruin after a generation of clans had picked over the remains in the decades of desertion. Zechariah is charged with rebuilding this city as the new Jerusalem and has a series of ‘night visions’ that give an apocalyptic promise to what Jerusalem will ultimately become."

Certainly the people of Berlin in the film have been persecuted and they feel far from "the promised land." How does Wings of Desire speak to this oppression?

Keuss responds: "In one of the most poignant verses — Chapter 4, Verse 10 — Zechariah muses, 'Who despises the day of small things?' In this, Zechariah is saying rather simply that the true Kingdom of God is not found in the grandeur of great empires, massive temples, or vast armies. No, God’s glory will be seen in 'the day of small things.' Wings of Desire reminds us to pay attention to the small things of life — the taste of a hot dog, the dawn of a new morning, the touch of another human being.”

This movie, Keuss says, turns our attention to “the small things of life” in the same way. “People continue to be in awe of the world that Wim Wenders portrays in his angel-filled Berlin. People do not long for the return of national power, economic certainty, living in mansions on the hill or shopping in malls. Rather, whether strolling through a library or sitting in a BWM, the angels dwell on 'the day of small things' that make life worth living and dying for.”

As a result, he says, viewers should watch the film differently than they do other movies. “Wings of Desire should be viewed more like a series of images and moods more than a straight narrative. Think of it as walking through a museum of art — don’t try and understand everything, but think ‘What does this image, this scene, this set piece make me feel and think about?’”

If you do, you’ll have an unforgettable experience. Scott Derrickson says, “To people who are generally not accustomed to foreign films, or independent films that are demanding to watch, I would say this about Wings of Desire: I've never met a person who watched it and didn't love it. And for me personally — as someone who has seen somewhere around 5,000 films — I think this one is the most beautiful of them all. There's nothing else like it, and it enriches the life of anyone who sees it.”


Editor's Note: Read Part One about Wings of Desire.


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