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Jungian Analysis of Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”; 4K Restoration Tours US

November 17, 2018

Thirty years ago, my favorite film of all time was released: WINGS OF DESIRE by Wim Wenders. I will never forget watching it for the first time, alone in the loft of my arts studio at Art City Ventura CA after I stumbled upon the film in the mid-90s at Salzer’s Video. I watched the film over the course of a few nights, loving every moment: the language, the images, the story. It filled me with hope.

So when given the opportunity in grad school in a Jungian Psychology class to write about a film from a depth psychological and Jungian perspective, I jumped at the chance to go deeper into my favorite film, and today, on the even of seeing a restoration of Wings of Desire, I reread my paper to see if I wanted to share it here… and you can find it below the trailer.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE, an angel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). But there’s so much more going on than that. The official synopsis says that “Wim Wenders’ most fully realized cinematic vision follows Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel having pangs of longing as he observes the lives of mortals in Berlin, specifically the beautiful, ethereal trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Peter Falk essentially plays himself, a philosophical film and TV star (often addressed as “Columbo” by other characters!), who is making a movie in Germany and is one of the few people who can sense the presence of the invisible celestial spirits. An achingly beautiful and poetic meditation on life and what it means to be a human being. WINGS OF DESIRE won the 1987 Best Director award at Cannes. In German with English subtitles.”

The new 4K restoration has a 5.1 sound mix provided by the Wim Wenders Foundation and supervised by Wim and Donata Wenders with funding provided by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the FFA, and by the French CNC. It’s currently playing throughout the US and comes tomorrow Sunday Nov. 18 in a 730pm performance at the Egyptian Theatre 6712 Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood, CA 90028.

If you’ve seen the film or are familiar with Jungian ideas, I invite you to read “Transcendence and Individuation Amongst The Angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.”  If you’re not, you’re of course welcome to check it out but it may not be as meaningful to you until you watch the film.

When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke
Wings of Desiredirected by Wim Wenders


A critical application of C. G. Jung’s concepts of the transcendent function, individuation, persona, shadow, and sacrifice as well as the evolution of consciousness and complex theory to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire reveals not only how these operate but how the location of the film, Berlin, also achieves an evolution of consciousness. An analysis of the film, the process by which the film was made and the fall of the Berlin Wall contribute to an understanding of the transcendent function’s “union of the conscious and unconscious contents” (Jung, 1969, p. 69) as well as the role of the mythological in the psyche. “Mythologems exist,” wrote Jung (1969), “even though their statements do not coincide with our incommensurable idea of ‘truth’” (p. 91).

InWings of Desire, two angels consider what it is to be human, making the film a mediation of opposites, human and angelic, expressed through symbols including angel wings, the moon, hats, a mirror, rope, the absence or presence of color, and the Berlin Wall. Through these symbols, viewers understand the complexes or splintered nature of the main characters, and what gets in the way of their ability to behave as independent beings. While complexes, even those of an angel who falls in love with a human, are necessary natural phenomena, they come with positive and negative attributes which help us deal with life as we work through the challenges we experience, and come to terms with that which lives in our shadows.

To protect ourselves, we develop personas or masks that we project into the world.  Jung (1983) describes the persona as “the individual’s system of adaption” with a great danger when people “become identical to their personas” (p. 420). These personas are archetypal in nature, yet we each have access to an infinite variety of personas which can be combined without guile to allow us to confront the world and what’s in it—including our own shadow, or that which is within us that wants to be hidden (Jung, 1983, p. 87).

“If such a person wants to be cured,” wrote Jung (1983), “it is necessary to find a way in which his conscious personality and his shadow can live together…Suppression of the shadow is as little a remedy as beheading is for a headache” (p. 89).

Anything of substance casts a shadow; since angels are not corporeal, they do not and cannot cast a shadow until they transcend to become what they are not—human. The angels achieve transcendence via disobedience, a recognition that he or she is not just the persona of an “angel,” and by embracing the shadowside. To be transcendent, to be complex, and to be resourceful requires what’s in the shadow.  When he falls in love, Damiel (portrayed by Bruno Ganz) also falls into transcendence, and becomes a fallen angel; however, it is overly simplistic to state that Damiel’s falling in love with a trapeze artist leads to his fall.  Damiel is in love with being human. At the end of the film, Damiel sacrifices his immortality and his timelessness to experience human time-limits; he moves from observing others to seeing and hearing his own watch tick. His evolution of consciousness leads to his individuation, his own union of opposites. Edinger (1984) writes, “The union of opposites in the vessel of the ego is the essential feature of the creation of consciousness” (p. 21). As the human Damiel assures his unseen angel friend Cassiel (Otto Sander), “Other wings will grow in place of the old ones, wings that will, at last, astound me.”

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

Wings of Desire takes place in 1987 Berlin, a city dominated by presence—a wall built in 1961 dividing East and West–and by absence –the emptiness created from the bombing during the war in the 1940s between the Allied Forces and the Germans. Filmed in Berlin in 1986, Wenders released Wings of Desirein 1987, not long before the fall of the Wall in November 9, 1989.

In the film, angels live among us, unseen except by children and on the rare occasions described in the Bible which the angels refer to as pretence, not presence. “Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence,” points out angel Damiel to fellow angel Cassiel as they sit in a convertible car in a showroom.  In Wings of Desire, angels pass by as an unfelt presence except when people are in their darkest hours. At these times, angels join the conflicted, laying a hand on a shoulder, resting their heads against the suicidal, guiding the dying into an “invocation,” releasing the fears of the tormented. Angels can “do no more than observe, assemble, testify, preserve!” asserts Cassiel, the angel of who watches the events of the cosmos unfold without interfering and presides over the deaths of kings. The angels witness, record, and celebrate those moments of transcendence and individuation such as when a train conductor announces “Tierra del Fuego” instead of the “correct” city or  “a woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched.”

Incorporeal, the angels are unable to feel rain or to be rained on, unable to touch or move a physical object, unable to experience warmth or cold, unable to stop the suicidal from jumping, unable to hear a mechanical helicopter. However, they know human words, thoughts, memories, and worldly sounds as filtered through human experience; they hear a “chorus” of human music (as composed by Jurgen Knieper) that threatens to overwhelm Cassiel and he covers his ear to block it.“The opposites are initially experienced as painful and paralyzing conflicts, but enduring and working on such conflicts promote the creation of consciousness and may lead to a glimpse of the Self as a coniuntio,” wrote Edinger (1984, p. 31).

Like the Berlin Wall, these angels are not eternal. Wings of Desire and its sequel, Faraway So Close! depict how Damiel and Cassiel “fall” to earth; they die as angels to be reborn as human. “The fact that our age is a time of death and rebirth for a central myth is indicated by the dreams and upheavals from the unconscious of many individuals,” wrote Edinger (1984, p. 27).

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke
Wings of Desiredirected by Wim Wenders

In the commentary to the DVD released in 2003, Wim Wenders explains that Wings of Desiregrew out of his financial need to make a film to keep his company afloat in 1985. Back home in Berlin, and interested in telling a story about his favorite city in Europe, the city of his youth, he read the work of the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke and stalked the streets looking for a story to tell. In Rilke’s poetry, and in his strolls, he became aware of the prevalence and the presence of angels. Examples included the 1864 69 meter tall tower that had an angel added in 1871; two hundred and eighty-five spiral steps lead up to a terrace and observation deck. According to the DVD extras, the Nazis moved the tower and angel to its present location in the center of a traffic circle from Potsdamer Platz. Destroyed in World War II and bisected by the Berlin Wall, the location figures prominently in the film and foreshadows both the fall of the angel and the fall of the Wall. Wender also notes in his commentary the influence of an angel figure at his writing desk.

In a 2012 lecture at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Dr. Glen Slater pointed out that when someone taps into the different layers of the psyche, the universal story invades the personal story in an un-arbitrary way; there is some kind of rhyme or reason. When Wenders realized he wanted to make a film about “the angels among us” (the original title of the film), he asked Peter Handke to write a script. Handke, with whom Wenders had worked before, refused; instead, he sent Wenders scenes, lines, monologues, and poems that the director could use.  Wenders described these texts as “islands”; like a psychopomp, daily Wenders had to build and steer the boat that would ferry the film’s characters from island to island. The process required the director, the crew, and the actors to be engaged with every aspect of what was going on in the film, to shoot chronologically and to allow the film to evolve as the cast and crew did; in this way, the truth of the story shows itself. According to Wenders in the DVD commentary, the truth of a scene in a film might change from when it was written to when it is filmed several months later.

“There are things in the psyche,” wrote Jung (1983), “which I do not produce but which produce themselves and have their own life” (p. 120).

By using this process of shooting without a script, Wenders could continue to draw from the collective unconscious and his and others’ consciousness, allowing for the divided city to speak its desire for unification, for transcendence: for the wall to become as penetrable for the Berliners as it was for the angels.  “The purpose of human life,” states Edinger (1984), is the creation of consciousness” (p. 57).

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people,
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke


In Wings of Desire, Damiel shares with Cassiel his growing curiosity to experience what it is to be human; finally, Damiel starts to become substantial, human, in the dangerous liminal space, the no man’s land between the West and the East. Cassiel notices that Damiel is leaving footprints in the swept gravel where they are standing near East German guards, a place where at least 180 people died trying to escape from the Eastern to the Western side of the wall. Soon viewers see Damiel in Cassiel’s arms as Cassiel serves as a psychopomp as he carries his friend through the Berlin Wall to the “free” side. No longer imprisoned by his angelic being, nor in the treacherous liminal space between angel and human, Damiel lies firmly in the colorful West where his armor crashes down from heaven onto his head, leaving him with a head wound, and the surprising realization that blood has a taste.

Today we know the corporeality and penetrability of the Wall but this could not be spoken in Eastern Germany in 1986 and 1987. In the 2003 director’s commentary, Wenders discusses the response to his permit request to film on the Eastern side of the wall. An unscripted film where angels pass through the Wall would never be acceptable; it was impossible to shoot anything that recognized the Wall as existing. To allow a film that showed the Wall AND its penetrability would not do.

When the child was a child,
It choked on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding,
and on steamed cauliflower,
and eats all of those now, and not just because it has to.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

Since East Germany refused to allow the film to be shot on location, Wenders incurred the greatest expense of the entire production by having a contractor re-create a section of the wall. The day of the shoot they found the Wall had warped and wobbled in the night’s rain.  Inside the film as well as outside it, the Wall was losing its substance. As a union of opposites undermined its foundation and as an evolution of consciousness occurs with individuation of the collective consciousness, the Wall achieves its own transcendence as it falls to earth not long after Damiel does in the film.

The Berlin of today looks very little different from the Berlin in Wings of Desire: the open field where the circus performed is now a grocery store; the desolate Potsdamer Platz of the film now hosts high rises and the huge Sony Center entertainment complex. The sequel to Wings of Desire, Faraway, So Close!, explores how denizens of East and West Germany may have traded one imprisonment for another—that of capitalism, conspicuous consumption, and spectatorship as the route to happiness when they had the opportunity to write their own stories as urged by the aged poet Homer (Curt Bois) in two monologues, one in the library and the other as he crosses the vacant lot and sits on an abandoned chair there. Wenders comments that in the old days, it was impossible to get lost in Berlin: “You always ended up at the Wall.” Without the Wall casting its “shadow,” Berliners are finding it easy to get lost.

When the child was a child,
It played with enthusiasm,
and, now, has just as much excitement as then,
but only when it concerns its work.

From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

Not only can the angels pass easily through walls, they can seethrough them. Usually in a film or literary work, a mirror is a symbol of reflection; when Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the trapeze artist who has caught Damiel’s eye, gazes into her mirror, Damiel, as an angel, sees through the surface of the mirror, just as he sees through the surface of other objects, and into Marion’s soul.

Surprisingly, early scenes in the film don’t show the angels; Wenders had to start shooting before his team had figured out what modern angels should wear. They experimented with every visual they found in art and their imaginations including designing and fabricating a very expensive chest plate of copper armor; finally they settled on trenchcoats with the angels’ hair pulled back smoothly into ponytails, undisturbed by earthly winds. While the long overcoats evoke angelic robes, rarely does the viewer see the angels’ wings. The wings are shown in Marion’s dream when her vision of a visit by Damiel spurs her to her own individuation and evolution of consciousness: “Last night I dreamt of a stranger. Of my man. Only with him could I be lonely. Open up to him. Completely open, completely for him. Welcome him completely into myself. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know it is you.“ Marion’s prophetic dream is what Jung (1983) calls a “big dream” one that is “highly impressive, numinous, and its imagery frequently makes use  of motifs analogous or even identical with those of mythology. I call these structures archetypes” (p. 65).  Edinger (1984) quotes Jung as saying, “The heavy burden the hero carries is himself, or rather the self, his wholeness, which is both God and animal—not merely empirical man, but the totality of his being, which is rooted in his animal nature and reaches out beyond the merely human towards the divine” (109).

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

Several weeks into shooting, Wenders understood that he needed more than an angelic love interest (Marion the trapeze artist) but a “fallen angel” to encourage Damiel, to tell him what is like to be human, and to show him that others have gone before him along this path of individuation.  In a tribute on his website written after Peter Falk’s death, Wenders recalled wondering: “Was it futile to even consider it a remote chance that Peter Falk could be won for this idea, for a film that was shooting already and for a part that was not written, just dreamed up on the spur by the director, overnight, so to speak?” Falk plays himself as an actor working on a World War II movie taking place in Berlin—himself, that is, if he had once been an angel who chose a human existence in the New York City of the 1950s, a city segregated by color, not a wall.

The absence of a script provided for many opportunities for inclusion and improvisation. When Wenders heard Falk describing the challenges of finding a hat for his onscreen character in the film within the film, Wenders told Falk the search for the right hat would be what they shoot the next day. This provides for a comic interlude and offers an opportunity to show how hats serve as visual expressions of the various personas or masks worn by humans; the hats depict and express personas that we try on and use.In more than one scene, Peter Falk’s fallen angel mentions his grandmother. In his essay about Falk as well as in the DVD commentary, Wenders points out that angels, as timeless beings, don’t have grandmothers.  As Jacobi (1959) notes, “Among the symbols of the individuation process there are a few particularly significant ones” which Jacobi says, quoting Jung, include the primordial or earth mother (114).

A grandmother needed a presence in the film, because a grandmother was a key component in the making of the visual experience, the substance, of the actual film, the material on which a movie is made. Wenders had a conception from the beginning that angels would not see in color as humans do, but in black and white because the angels see the “essence” or the “soul” of everything, not the surface where the color resides. The angels, according to Wenders’ DVD commentary, see in a “profound” way: they see the soul of the person, who they are inside, not as they appear.  To create how the angels see, the camera films in black and white from the viewpoint of the angels, particularly of Damiel; humans see in color. The Director of Photography, Henri Alekan, used a special screen to shoot the entire film—a screen made from the “filmy” silk stocking of his grandmother. Considering that Alekan was born in 1909 and he shot the film in 1987, this stocking of his grandmother is not only rare, precious, and irreplaceable, but one filled with Eros, creating a certain love and beauty in the black and white landscape of the film.

When the child was a child,
It was enough for it to eat an apple, … bread,
And so it is even now.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

As an homage to the Director of Photography, Alekan is also the name of the circus that Marion performs in as an aerialist. Like Peter Falk’s hats, the circus is a place of masks and personas. When Damiel visits the circus and viewers are introduced to Marion, she is flying on a trapeze, wearing wings made of chicken feathers, rehearsing for a new act, and worried about the full moon; these concerns are replaced by news that the circus will close up after the day’s performances. In a matinee for children, as a black and white skunk that climbs a rope, her life hangs by a thread. That night, under the full moon in a cloudy sky, she does her “good old act” in her sparkly costume on the trapeze, slipping to the gasps of the audience, but not falling—she doesn’t need to fall to achieve her evolution of consciousness. The full moon symbolizes the closure of a chapter in her life; its image is echoed in the spotlight that follows her while she does her act. When “the new moon of decision”  arrives, she says. “I don’t know if destiny exists, but decision does exist. Decide.”

In a bar where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform the lyric “no one saw the carnie go” followed by a song with a chorus “from her to eternity,” Marion finally meets up with Damiel. Through listening and paying attention to the message of her dreams, “the statement of the psyche about itself” (Jacobi 197), she recognizes him and acts: “It’s time to get serious,” Marion tells Damiel. “I was often alone, but I never lived alone. When I was with someone I was often happy. But I also felt it’s all a matter of chance.” She gazes intently at Damiel and then directly into the camera which was the gaze of the angel Damiel and is now the gaze of the human Damiel and she continues with “…Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it because today I am finally lonely. No more coincidence….” Here she means chance or luck, not Jung’s concept of synchronicity.

In Complex Archtype Symbol, Jacobi (1959) quoting Jung describes the process that Marion has gone through: “Something empirically demonstrable comes to our aid from the depths of our unconscious nature. It is the task of the conscious mind to understand these hints.” Should the conscious mind not take up the task, Jung says the process continues but we are dragged along (116).

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
it had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so,
It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees
with an elation it still has today,
has a shyness in front of strangers,
and has that even now.
It awaited the first snow,
And waits that way even now.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke


The film ends as it began, with a hand scratching a fountain pen across the surface of a paper, marking it with the words of a poem written by Peter Handke for Wings of Desire.  Viewers now know that the pen belongs to the hand of a very corporeal angel leaving his mark:

             When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.
From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

As Marion puts it, “There’s no greater story than ours. That of man and woman. It will be a story of giants. Invisible, transposable. A story of new ancestors. Look. My eyes. They are the picture of necessity, of the future of everyone on the plaza.“ Making a mark is one final symbol that contributes to the process of individuation and leads to an evolution of consciousness for the angels Peter and Damiel. In the convertible with Cassiel in the beginning of the film, Damiel wishes, among other experiences, “To have blackened fingers from the newspaper”–ink from the stories told. In the library, Damiel picks up a pen, twiddles it in his fingers, and sits in the chair previously occupied by the storyteller poet Homer, foreshadowing the day he will use one.  Peter reflects on how good it feels to make a line upon a page as he draws on set.

This film, like the mark on the page, like the stick inside the tree, quivers today showing the gift within the wound, a path of transcendence for angels and non-angels alike.



Edinger, E. F. (1984). The creation of consciousness. Toronto: Inner City Books.


Jacobi, J. (1959). Complex, archetype, symbol. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Jung, C. G. (1983). The essential Jung. A. Storr (Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press.

Jung, C. G. (1969). The transcendent function. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The collected  .  works of  C. G. Jung(Vol. 8) (pp. 67-91). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University .           Press. (Original workpublished in 1957)

Slater, G. (2012 Februry). Jungian Psychology Lecture. Pacifica Graduate Institute.   .February 2012.

Wenders, W. (2003). Wings of Desire: special edition. [Film]. MGM Home   .       Entertainment.

Wenders, Wim. Website.

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