What angels can teach us about being human

Angels amaze and dismay us, and for good reason: They are intelligent, powerful, immortal and invisible. You could walk through one and not even know it. You could talk to one and have no idea who or what you had just met. There is a slippery, shape-shifting quality to angels that fascinated the authors of the Scriptures. Think of the three mysterious visitors to Abraham’s tent in Genesis or the strange and fable-like Book of Tobit, in which the angel Raphael disguises himself as a man in order to rescue a good family that has fallen on hard times.

The author of Tobit, in particular, established a key fact about angels that would later be taken up by Christian theologians and—much later—by directors and writers of feature films in the 20th century. Angels, we learn in Tobit, do not have bodies. Whatever they seem to do with their bodies is an illusion. “Even though you saw me eat and drink, I did not eat or drink anything; what you were seeing was a vision,” explains Raphael after revealing his true identity to Tobias, Tobit’s son (Tob 12:18).

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In ‘Wings of Desire,’ Damiel is tired of pretense, tired of spending eternity as a pure spirit. 

But do angels ever imagine what it might be like to have a body or wish they could live in the world as humans do? In Wim Wenders’s film “Wings of Desire” (1987), the protagonist, an angel named Damiel, ruefully describes an angel’s bodyless existence as “pretense.” He and another angel, Cassiel, are sitting in a new car on a display room floor, invisible to passersby, engaging in one of the many existential discussions that drive the dialogue of the film. “Every time we participated, it was a pretense,” Damiel says. “Wrestling with one of them and allowing a hip to be put out in pretense, catching a fish in pretense, in pretense sitting at tables, drinking and eating in pretense. Having lambs roasted and wine served in the tents out there in the desert, only pretense.”

Damiel is tired of pretense, tired of spending eternity as a pure spirit. He wants to experience the world in a body, as a human—wants to love the beautiful trapeze artist at the local circus who has captivated him with her exquisite yet uncertain grace. “Wings of Desire” skillfully plays on the tensions between pretense and experience, spirit and body as it follows Damiel and Cassiel through the air and streets.

If the premise of “Wings of Desire” sounds vaguely familiar, that is because it inspired the 1998 film “City of Angels,” in which Nicholas Cage plays an angel who casts aside his immortality for the sake of Meg Ryan. Though “Wings of Desire” includes a love story, it is far less concerned with romance than its descendant. It looks at humans through the eyes of angels, bringing to our attention the ephemeral yet effulgent sensations, sights and sounds that only we can fully perceive. What is more, it does so with a keen, Catholic sensibility, upholding the value of bodily existence even in the midst of pain and shadows. As the worth and parameters of human life increasingly come to dominate our public discourse, “Wings of Desire” reminds us what a gift it is to breathe.

The foreign-language film is set in a divided Berlin during the Cold War.

The foreign-language film is set in a divided Berlin during the Cold War. World War II still scars the landscape: Cassiel follows an old man who wanders through an empty, muddy field and wonders if this is where Potsdamer Platz once stood. Damiel and Cassiel wear long black trench coats and scarves, perhaps reflecting the broader aesthetic of the somber, postmodern city they have been set to patrol.

The improbable grouping of lead actors makes this film a piquant delight. Damiel is portrayed by the recently deceased Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, best known to American audiences for his harrowing depiction of Adolph Hitler in the 2004 film “Downfall.” Peter Falk, of “Columbo” and “The Princess Bride” (1987), appears as himself—an actor supposedly making a film about Nazi Germany in Berlin—and lightens the production with his characteristic “Aw shucks” demeanor. Cassiel, Damiel’s friend, is played by Otto Sander, formerly a jaded submarine captain in “Das Boot” (1981).

Critics have applauded “Wings of Desire” for its portrayal of the wonders of everyday life.

Critics have applauded “Wings of Desire” for its portrayal of the wonders of everyday life: for the way it casts a luminous, mysterious glow on acts as simple as holding a cup of warm coffee. “You’re seduced into the spell of this movie,” wrote Roger Ebert in a four-star review in 1998. “It moves slowly, but you don’t grow impatient, because there is no plot to speak of, and so you don’t fret that it should move on to its next predictable stage. It is about being, not doing.”

It is easy to assume that the “spell” of the film is largely secular. Damiel and Cassiel rarely allude to God and do not convey much love or respect for him when they do. Indeed, the arc of the film—an angel rejecting his nature in pursuit of forbidden knowledge—is, essentially, a story of sin. After all, there are no good “fallen angels” in the Christian tradition, no matter how sympathetic Damiel seems.

The film’s symbolic use of color contributes to a secular interpretation. Scenes registering the point of view of the angels are shot in black and white; scenes capturing the human perspective are shot in color. This can create the impression that Damiel has bettered his lot by becoming a man.

“You’re seduced into the spell of this movie,” wrote Roger Ebert in a four-star review in 1998.

Yet, as Damiel’s allusion to Tobit makes clear—“eating and drinking in pretense”—“Wings of Desire” also deeply engages with a Catholic theology of angels. Wenders, the director, was raised Catholic and now describes himself as an “ecumenical Christian”; he directed last year’s critically acclaimed “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.” Tapping into a centuries-old Catholic tradition, Wenders uses the relationship between angels and humans in “Wings of Desire” to illustrate certain truths about our two kinds and about the world.

One can trace a fairly direct line from “Wings of Desire” back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who found angels to be a rich subject of analysis and speculation in the Summa Theologiae. He moves through a series of questions about the substance and nature of angels—“Whether an angel is altogether incorporeal?” “Do angels have bodies naturally united to them?”—and it becomes clear that a discussion about angels is also, to some extent, a discussion about humans. The body and what it means to have a body quickly emerge as central points of contention in Aquinas’s text.

We probably do not need Thomas Aquinas to tell us that we exist in bodies. What is interesting are the reasons why he concentrates on this fact. Though he identifies human souls and angels as “incorporeal” or “intellectual substances,” Aquinas observes that the human soul must be housed in a body because “it is imperfect and exists potentially in the genus of intellectual substances, not having the fulness of knowledge in its own nature, but acquiring it from sensible things through the bodily senses.” In other words, there are limitations to the human soul, such that it requires a body to take in necessary information from its surroundings.

One can trace a fairly direct line from “Wings of Desire” back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who found angels to be a rich subject of speculation.

In order to argue that angels do not need bodies and do not have them, Aquinas goes on to claim that angels must not have bodies because we, as humans, do. “Now whenever we find something imperfect in any genus we must presuppose something perfect in that genus,” he says. “Therefore in the intellectual nature there are some perfectly intellectual substances which do not need to acquire knowledge from sensible things.” Human souls, as imperfect examples of “intellectual substances,” point the way to angels—perfect, disembodied intellects.

Aquinas uses human nature and the human body as a way to envision or access angels. An underlying comparison between body and spirit runs throughout his commentary, such that humans and angels emerge as something like foils to one another in a theological drama. Humans use their bodies to take in and process information—to sense. Angels do not have bodies, and when they appear to have bodies, they do not use them in the same way humans do. Angels, as pure intelligence, are infinite. The bodies of humans are, as Aquinas puts it, “limited to ‘here’ and ‘now.’”

It is this “now” that Damiel is so desperate to experience. His dialogue often reflects Thomistic theology, even as his character chafes against it. “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds,” he says to Cassiel as they sit in the car in the showroom. “But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don’t want to always hover above. I’d rather feel a weight within, casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth. At every step, every gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say, ‘now,’ and ‘now’ and ‘now.’”

If Aquinas often moves from the human and familiar to the angelic, “Wings of Desire” moves from the angelic to the human.

Wings of Desire” casts human beings as creatures of “now,” of sensation, true heirs to all the wonders of the world. We can see that Damiel understands the immediacy of human experience when he comforts a man injured in a motorcycle wreck, not by giving any words of reassurance but simply by naming places and things. “The Southern Cross...the Far East...the Great North...the Wild West…the Great Bear Lake,” he intones, until the man, roused from his pain, takes over the chant, clearly reminded of all that is worth living for: “The morning light. The eyes of a child. The spots from the first drops of rain. The sun. Bread and wine. Hopscotch. Easter Sunday. Veins of leaves. The billowing grass. The colors of stones.”

If Aquinas often moves from the human and familiar to the angelic, “Wings of Desire” moves from the angelic to the human. Wenders’s film imagines how angels might feel about humans, making us strange to ourselves. We learn that Damiel and Cassiel have inhabited since time began the space that is now the city of Berlin and witnessed the first arrival of man from Africa. “Remember how one morning, out of the savannah, his forehead smeared with grass, the biped appeared, our long-awaited likeness?” says Cassiel. “Its first word was a shout. Was it ‘ah,’ or ‘oh,’ or merely a groan?”

In picturing humans as “bipeds” who are “smeared with grass,” “Wings of Desire” captures our earthiness, our sheer animality, in comparison with the eternal intellect of angels. This vision is at once degrading and uplifting—the angels clearly admire the vitality of creatures that could announce themselves with such full-throated gusto.

“Wings of Desire” is not naïve and seldom shows us the beauty that its chief characters purport to find in the world. We see cluttered, unlovely apartments, trash, disorder. A man muses about how he never loved his mother; parents mull over conflicts with their children. “My God, what will become of that boy? Music’s all he’s got in his head,” thinks a father, mentally wringing his hands. These are the thoughts that Damiel and Cassiel listen to as they “testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds.” Hearing them, we wonder why Damiel would choose to tie himself to this world.

Yet the film leaves us with the distinct impression that life is precious and not to be taken for granted. That much becomes apparent when Cassiel tries to soothe a man on the brink of jumping to his death from a roof, laying a hand on him to disrupt his manic train of thoughts. But the man drops out of sight over the edge of the building anyway, and Cassiel lets out a sudden roar of anguish—“Nein!”—that is the single loudest sound in the film. This death is a tragedy, and we sense that Cassiel is disturbed and grieved as he flies through the city to the discordant noise of strings.

Ultimately, “Wings of Desire” seems to reflect a sacramental view of the world, one in which grace abounds in the barely registered miracle of being alive. By the end of the film, one is almost tempted to pity angels for what they lack—for their inability to grasp the richness of the “now.” To do so, however, would be to misinterpret the relationship described by Aquinas and dramatized by Wenders. Angels and humans may seem to be opposites, but they are actually complementary. Taken together, they capture the fullness of the divine vision, prefiguring the union of heaven and earth.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James O'Connell
1 month 2 weeks ago

It's an odd thing to read a newly-published review of a thirty-two year old film, without mentioning that the co-writer, Peter Handke, won the Nobel Prize in Literature just last week. Notably, the dialogue and especially the featured poem, "Lied Vom Kindsein" ("Song of Childhood" in English) were written by Handke: "When the child was a child…".

It's also important to mention Handke's grotesque support of murderous dictators and authoritarian regimes -- even giving the Eulogy for his friend, Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. Of course, art exists independently of the creator, and should not be judged by the mores of the day (Oscar Wilde, for example, would be an unknown today, were that so).

Is it a 'Catholic' film? No. Does it contemplate Truth and self-reflection in a Catholic manner? Possibly. But why ascribe to Catholicism what may be natural to the Human mind and heart within anyone regardless of faith?

Phil Lawless
1 month 2 weeks ago

You misunderstand the nature of angels. Acquinas put them between God and humans for their pure spiritual nature. That is incorrect. The Incarnation of God puts human beings at the top rank of Thomas's creation. So where do angels fit in?

Quite simply God-angels-humans mirror the Trinity itself,. Angels are the personificatication of God's love for each human person. Every person has a guardian angel, according to Scripture. Angels are said to be messengers. Who would be afraid of a messenger from God who resembles himself/herself in such a familiar way?

The main Scriptural basis for this are the Annunciation accounts. Gabriel says to Mary, "Do not be afraid." We should thereby assume that Gabriel is the personification of God's love for Mary, no matter his other roles in Scripture.

Let us acknowledge that we do know little about angels, but this image fits much better than others.

One of the consequences is that fallen angels have no reason for being. God continues to love all people, no matter their depravity. They continue to have guardian angels. God does not relate to evil . Satan does not exist as the Devil. Satan in Job is the challenger, the adversary, whatever that means as a being. It is unlikely to mean Satan is an angel.

Rebecca Dono Healy
1 month 1 week ago

This is one of the most visually stunning films you will ever see. Do not be put off because it is a foreign language film. The angels hear what ever language is native to the person they are observing, so the film has large passages in French and English as well as German - part of the fun is picking out all of the different languages. I saw Wings of Desire in the theater when it was released and to this day it rates as the most beautiful film I have ever seen.

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