Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe it leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poems. This week it’s Wim Wender’s 1987 film Wings of Desire and Peter Handke’s poem “Song of Childhood” and I can’t write this without mentioning the poet Rilke.
It’s been a long and hard year and I don’t trust myself to write anything coherent about one of the most studied films in popular culture. There has been so much written about the amazing and critically applauded Wings of Desire there is no reason for me to repeat it so this is my personal reflection to this iconic film about culture, humanity and love. Peter Falk (Columbo) and Nick Cave have important artistic roles in it. It stars Otto Sander as the angel Cassiel, Bruno Ganz as the angel Damiel and Solveig Dommartin as Marion the trapeze artist. It is a love story between an angel and a mortal woman. It is also about poetry itself, with the old poet (Homer – played by Curt Bois) playing an important central drive of the film. It is also about Berlin, war, films, acting and being.
As a poet I want to reflect on the the importance of this film as a film-poem, very much as a response to Erica Goss writing in Moving Poems magazine https://discussion.movingpoems.com/2019/04/wings-of-desire-is-a-poetry-film/.
Goss states that the very collaborative nature of Wenders and Handke’s process in writing the film mirrors that of film-poetry itself. Handke wrote the poem “Song of Childhood” for the film and it becomes the film.
The script becomes poetry, lacing Handke’s poem through the film. The images flicker across the words and we move from colour to black and white, from gritty post war Berlin, to hyper real colour evoking Technicolor dreams. The central question in the film becomes ‘Which is more real?’ as well as ‘who is telling the story?’. This is poetry. Returning to Wings of Desire after 25 years, as a published poet led me to ask some new questions of the film. One of these questions was about narration and Rilke.
Wenders reading of Rilke sparked Wings of Desire into being. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist, one of the most highly lyrically intense German-language poets at the cusp of the 20th Centaury. The film, much like Rilke, bridges
the gap between traditional and modernist poetics.
Rilke’s well known The Duino Elegies (1923) was the inspiration behind Wings of Desire, and contrasts beauty with existential suffering. Rilke’s idea of God was that of ‘life force’ and it is that idea that Wenders channels through Wings of Desire. Handke’s poem “Song of Childhood” can be read as the embodiment of what the life force of childhood is like, rather then naivety or ‘innocence’ it is a desire to experience the world as it appears. Through the poem the questions of childhood appear,
How can it be, that I, who am I,
before I became, wasn’t,
and that someday I, who am I,
will no longer be I, who once became?
These words are spoken as the angels can listen in to the human minds, their million thoughts and concerns, their million desires and the angels feel warmth and empathy towards the humans. They feel their pain and suffering yet they can not eat an apple, feel the sting of blood, have sex. The angels can walk through time and space; they can go unseen. They can look, sometimes their presence can be felt.
The theme of looking and desiring is also sewn into the film. Marion is a glorious and glamorous woman but she is also alone and feels life is mere co-incidence, flitting from one person to another.
When the child a child was,
it played whole-heartedly
and now, things are much of a muchness,
for these things make work.
The film takes us visually – much as the poem does lyrically, through the idea of becoming. The child becomes a person – much like it becomes a reality through the event of its parents having sex. This can not only remain an idea – for the child to be born.
The film takes us through what it means to be become and be born through our stories too. The old poet, Homer senses the angel at his side, walks as a man lost in time through Potsdamer Platz, reliving the history of Berlin, through the years of flags and when people became ‘no longer kind’. A world where children die. The poet wonders why we are so hung up on tales of war, and what would our tales of peace be like. This gives us a different narrative. Where the storytellers are the poets, the angels. Peter Falk is also a man in disguise, an actor in a film about the war, he marvels at the ‘extras’ – “they are so patient” he says.
The poem weaves its way through becoming, the solidifying that needs to happen to be a person, the openness to pain, love and fear. The film asks; who sees this journey into being, who is looking and who is being observed? This observation is art itself. The child is life.
When the child a child was,
it threw a stick as a lance against the tree
and there it still quivers today.
Handke is a well known poet and controversial too. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature in 2019 with a furore about his views on genocide in Kosovo. I’m not getting into it, save to say that it seems from my brief look at his poetry – he writes about compassion. However, there may well be a responsibility in the storyteller to carry the world’s stories. As Wings of Desire shows who bares witness makes all the difference to the end of the story.
Such a unique approach writing a poem for a film. Appreciate the research into the background of this startling poem.