Angels in the library in ‘Wings of Desire’

I am following up on another reader question from my call earlier this year for reader questions and ideas, a question posed by Kvennarad, who left a comment that contained several very intriguing post ideas, including this one:

‘Wings of Desire’ is an amazing film, with lots of footage set in a library… No reel/real reason why I include this, it just haunts me.

Here was my initial response to Kvennarad’s comment, in my reader Q&A follow-up post:

Yes, this film was already on my Foreign Films reel librarians list. I have also written an analysis post on City of Angels, the (inferior) U.S. remake starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. It would be interesting to do a post about Wings of Desire, and then perhaps a follow-up comparing the two films and their two reel libraries/librarians. Adding this to my ideas list… 

And here it is, at least the first part of the idea to analyze Wings of Desire (1987), which is a truly haunting film.

Plot and atmosphere

The original title of this primarily German-language film is Der Himmel über Berlin, which translates to “The Sky over Berlin.” I actually prefer that title, rather than the more generic-sounding Wings of Desire. We see humanity through the wanderings of angels throughout Berlin, including one particular angel, Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz), who begins to fall in love with a mortal woman. Peter Falk also stars in the film, playing a version of himself. I can’t say anymore about the plot, as I want to avoid any spoilers. This is a film to savor watching the first time, if you have not already seen it. (And let’s just say, it has almost nothing in common with its American remake, City of Angels, THANK GOODNESS, except for the barest of plot lines and the angels’ penchant for long coats. I analyzed the library scene in City of Angels in this post.)

Here is a trailer for the film, set only to music:

There are so many beautiful moments in this beautiful film, including every time a child looks up and smiles in recognition of an angel. I tear up just thinking about it. None of the adults notice the angels’ presence; only the children notice them and share knowing smiles.

I had passively resisted watching this film until now, in part because of the *awful* American version of it. I suppose I thought the film would be too “arty” and depressing (the bulk of it is in black and white), but that’s what I get for assuming! The film is ultimately uplifting, and the director, Wim Wenders, sustains an atmosphere of bittersweet wonder with the lightest touch… like that from angels’ wings? 😉

In short, this film is special. See it now — for the first or 100th time.

Library scenes

There are three short scenes set and filmed in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library), where angels often go to hang out with humans. Another reason to love the angels, who obviously have such good taste — and not just in overcoats!

There is no reel librarian character that I could see, so this film does end up in the Class V category of films with no identifiable librarians (although Class V films might mention librarians or have scenes set in libraries). But that does not take away the significance of the library in this classic film, as I demonstrate in detail below.

Library scene #1

Sixteen minutes into the film, Damiel and his friend, Cassiel (Otto Sander), visit the Staatsbibliothek. The scene lasts 7 minutes in total as the angels and the camera wind their way around the shelves and different levels of this eye-catching library.

Reel Librarian | Library scene in 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

Angels visit the Berlin State Library

Reel Librarian | Library scene in 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

Angels like to read over people’s shoulders in the library

Here’s how this online review at DVD Talk describes this scene:

“There are wonderful scenes on a plane or in the public library where the sound mixers scroll through the gathered people, moving from one inner monologue to another the way we flip through channels with our TV remote. In the library, there are almost as many angels as there are mortals, all looking for something interesting to commit to memory or maybe scribble down in one of their little notebooks.”

The sound throughout this scene is a hushed murmuring of voices/thoughts layered on top of choir-like singing. The effect is like that of visiting a church, and indeed, this library has soaring ceilings to match the soaring vocals. The director and the angels treat this space like a sacred space. In the book The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, Laura Marcus argued that in Wings of the Desire, the angels’ affinity for libraries do indeed make the library a miraculous place.

This is very obviously a well-used library, filled with people — and angels! — in all corners. It also showcases that a library provides space and resources for many different kinds of needs and different kinds of users.

Reel Librarian | Library scene in 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

A well-used public library

The scene comes to a close as Damiel takes notice of an old man slowly climbing the stairs, pausing every few steps to catch his breath and wipe his face. We see this man, the storyteller, throughout the rest of the film. His inner dialogue feels appropriate for such a setting:

“Tell me, muse, of the storyteller… Those who listened to me became my readers…”

Library scene #2:

This same older man is our link to the second library scene, when at 39 minutes into the film, we revisit the man sitting at a table in the library. This table is filled with a collection of globes of many sizes, and he is enthralled with a rotating solar system. The camera then cuts to the old man sitting at a different table in the library, this time thumbing slowly through a large book of photos. The angel Cassiel follows the old man through the library, just as the reader does.

Reel Librarian | Library scenes from 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

An old man finds treasures to enjoy in the library

This scene lasts only two minutes. But as Marcus points out in The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, Wenders highlights the library as a tool of “memory and public space.” This is especially evident in this scene.

Library scene #3:

The final scene in the library lasts only a minute, but it is a memorable minute. Cassiel remains in the library, but this time, the tables and desks are empty.

Reel Librarian | Library scene in 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

One is the loneliest number

The library is closed, the only mortals the cleaners, yet the angels still seek solace within the library walls.

Reel Librarian | Library scene in 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

The library after hours

Real-life library, trivia, and significance

The movie was filmed on location at Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, Germany. This library is also featured in two other German-language films, Agnes and His Brothers (2004) and the TV movie Götterdämmerung – Morgen stirbt Berlin (1999).

Reel Librarian | Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Berlin State Library

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, screenshot from the DVD featurette

The DVD features include an interactive map that also highlights the library, as you can see in the screenshot below.

Reel Librarians | Interactive map on DVD of 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

Interactive map on DVD of ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987)

The library clip on the interactive map lasts less than 30 seconds, but it reveals why the public library location was chosen for the film:

“The Staatsbibliothek was built between 1967 and 1978. It is one of the largest libraries in Europe, with a collection of over 8 million books and manuscripts. The quietness of the library, due to its acoustics, makes it an ideal place for the angels to tune into our thoughts.”

Here’s a look at that acoustic ceiling in the library:

Reel Librarian | Library scene in 'Wings of Desire' (1987)

Acoustic ceiling in the public library

Wings of Desire was both a critical and financial success, and as per its Wikipedia entry, “academics have interpreted it as a statement of the importance of cinema, libraries, the circus, or German unity, containing New Age, religious, secular or other themes.”

I will end with this thought, that Kvennard is certainly not alone is being haunted by the library imagery in the film. Indeed, the German news publication Der Tagesspiegel recently highlighted the film’s memorable imagery, in particular the library scenes:

“A film lives on such images that get stuck in the memory of the audience.”

Have you, too, seen the film and been haunted by its imagery? Have you seen the American remake? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

Lippold, Von Markus. “Engel, die auf Menschen starren (Angel Staring at People).” Der Tagesspiegel. 4 February 2016.

Marcus, Laura. “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery.” The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Rich, Jamie S. “Wings of Desire – Criterion Collection.” DVD Talk, 3 Nov 2009.

Wings of Desire,” Wikimedia Foundation, is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Wings of Desire [dvd]. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk. Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.

Wings of Desire – Official Trailer (1987),” uploaded by 2AM Ltd, Standard YouTube license.

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2 comments on “Angels in the library in ‘Wings of Desire’

  1. popegrutch says:

    Minor typo. Under “library scenes,” the last sentence reads: “But that does take away the significance of the library in this classic film, as I demonstrate in detail below.” You mean to say “does NOT take away from…”
    I have an odd relationship with this film, since I lived for a while in parts of Berlin where it was shot. I always find myself thinking, “well, it doesn’t really look that nice in person.” Partly, things have declined in that area since the movie was made. Partly, Wenders is idealizing it for the audience. I never actually went into that branch of the Staatsbibliothek and the branch I did use was decidedly underwhelming (stuck into an old pre-war school building with bad lighting). I guess I’m more “haunted” by my own memories than by the movie.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love Berlin and I’d jump at the chance to go back. It just isn’t quite the place I’d expect to meet an angel.

    • Thanks for the catch on the typo! I’ve corrected it. 🙂

      I think that’s a very profound statement you made — “I guess I’m more ‘haunted’ by my own memories than by the movie.” Movies have the amazing power, through its visual media, to inspire — or recall — our own visualized memories. Our memories are very powerful. And I kind of like that Berlin is not the kind of place anyone would expect to meet an angel — that’s part of the magical juxtaposition, yes? 🙂

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