Elective Affinities: Peter Handke’s The Repetition and Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire
I do believe that the way in which Peter sees and describes things has something to do with my way of making films. And I do have the feeling that we have accompanied one another, mostly from a distance, but somehow together – or that Peter’s texts have accompanied me, even when they were not appearing in my films. I do believe that there is something there, a vision of the world, so to speak, where there is simply an affinity.
Wim Wenders1)Wim Wenders (my translation) interviewed by Reinhold Rauh, August 11th, 1989. Original quotation in German: “Ich glaube schon, daß so wie der Peter die Dinge sieht und beschreibt, daß das etwas zu tu hat mit meiner Art, Filme zu machen. Und ich habe schon das Gefühl, daß wir uns zumeist aus der Ferne, aber schon irgendwie gemeinsam, begleitet haben – oder daß mich die Text vom Peter begleitet haben, auch wenn sie nicht in meinen Filmen vorgekommen sind. Ich glaube schon, daß da etwas ist, eine Sicht der Welt sozusagen, wo einfach eine Verwandtschaft da ist”. In: Rauh, Reinhold. “Ein Gespräch mit Wim Wenders.” Wim Wenders und seine Filme. München: Heyne, 1991, 246.
- Collaborative Correspondence(s)
When Wim Wenders decided to have angels talk in his 1987 Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), he reached out for help to his old friend and work partner Peter Handke for, as the German director admitted, the angels “should certainly speak better German than [he] was able to write” (Fusco 17). At first, Handke was reluctant to accept the offer but, according to Wenders, he finally decided to help a friend out “provided it was the kind of film you could pull out of your hat” (Wenders On Film 237). Finally, he agreed to contribute with some written fragments that he would mail out in letters to Wenders in Berlin every week. Handke’s decision to be physically absent from the film’s production resulted in an unusual collaborative exercise, which mainly consisted in practices of literary recycling (by Handke) and cinematic re-composition (by Wenders). This unique method of creating Wings of Desire very much influenced the outcome of the film and marked a special moment in their collaborative work (which is also their last one, thus far).2)It has recently been announced that Wim Wenders is currently shooting a film based on one of Handke’s most recent plays entitled Les Beaux Jours D’Aranjuez. Judging from the available information, we are not dealing with a new collaboration between Wenders and Handke. While it has been announced that Handke’s partner Sophie Semin is to act as the female protagonist of the dialogue, I have not found any indication that Handke is directly involved in the production of the film. The film is to be released in 2016. For more information: http://www.wimwenders.com/les-beaux-jours-daranjuez/.
Their creative partnership had started in 1969 with the short film 3 Amerikanische LP’s (3 American LPs). They went on to co-write the screenplay to adapt Peter Handke’s 1970 Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) into Wenders’s film of the same title. Two years later Handke also wrote the screenplay for Wenders’s Falsche Bewegung (Wrong Move), and in 1978 Wenders produced Handke’s first film Die Linkshändige Frau (The Left-handed Woman), which was an adaptation of the Austrian writer’s 1976 novella of the same title, marking his directorial debut in a feature film. All these projects were, of course, different from one another in terms of the way in which Wenders and Handke worked together,3)For a comprehensive study of their collaborative projects, please refer to the work of Brady and Leal listed in the blibliography. but in Wings of Desire it becomes particularly difficult to define their collaborative method. The lack of a structured script that resulted from their collaboration by mail actually pleased Wenders, for it suited his own plan for this project, as he explained in an early treatment of the film: “I’m not after a ‘screen-play’ here. All I can do is go on describing what’s ‘ghosting around’ in my imagination. Inter alia, a WORKING METHOD for this film” (On Film 236).
In an amusing coincidence, Wenders’s allusion to ghosts in this context – he already knew at this point that he wanted to have angels in Wings of Desire – became a pretty accurate metaphor to illustrate Handke’s invisible participation in the project. Their only encounter in person during the film’s production took place in Austria, where Wenders told Handke about his ideas for the script, including his conception of the angels (via Rilke), the love story and his desire to make a film about postwar Berlin. After that, Wenders systematically received a letter at the end of each week with various fragments of writing consisting of, according to the German director, “[s]trictly dialogue, no description” (Fusco 17). As Wenders explained: “We never talked again after that. Even when I got the envelopes, I didn’t know where he was, and he only later saw the finished film. He wrote Marion’s speech at the end, and the three scenes in which the angels meet. That was the backbone of the movie. For the rest of it we were in the dark, trying to go from one island to another, and the lighthouses were Peter’s dialogs” (Fusco 17).
The importance of Handke’s role in Wings of Desire has been widely acknowledged in the film’s critical reception (c.f. Berghahn, Brady and Leal, Caldwell and Rea, Cook, Kuzniar, Luprecht), as well as by Wenders himself. After all, besides having written most of the dialogues for the angels and Marion’s final speech, Handke is also credited with the recurring poem entitled Lied von Kindsein (Song of Childhood), the literary leitmotif that accompanies the protagonist Damiel throughout the film in his journey from heaven to earth. Moreover, Wenders has admitted that the idea of introducing the Homeric figure also came from Handke (On Film 272). In light of Wenders’s claim, placed epigraphically, about the affinity that he feels towards Handke’s work, “it is hardly surprising that their collaboration should contain echoes, on any number of levels, of many different works of Handke” (Brady and Leal 255).
For the sake of clarity, let me stress that Handke’s presence in the film goes beyond the fragments he sent Wenders in those letters. As Brady and Leal insightfully note, “the script is not only co-authored by Handke, by post, but also contains numerous quotations from the first installment of his journals, The Weight of the World, selected by the actress Solveig Dommartin for Marion’s soliloquies” (255). In fact, when asked about the inspiration for her inner monologues in the film, Dommartin said that they consisted of an “amalgam of sentences [she] had underlined in a book by Peter, Les Poids du Monde, which Wenders asked [her] to read,” (Raskin 58) combined with her own improvised thoughts and other lines added by Wenders. This perfectly illustrates that just by looking at the film as a final product, it is hard to tell where Handke’s writing starts and the writing done by Wenders, Richard Reitinger (also credited with collaborating on the script) and the other cast members, ends. Consequently, differentiating between Handke’s direct contribution for this film and Handke’s overall influence in this project becomes a difficult task and one that is not necessarily productive.
I am, however, convinced that precisely due to the unusual nature of this collaboration, – from Wenders’s own creative method of what he calls “making it up as you go along” (On Film 469) to Handke’s solitary practice of co-authoring the film script – the recognition of Handke’s 1986 novel Die Wiederholung (The Repetition) as a crucial source for his contribution for this film has been practically overlooked by critics. To be fair, there has been the occasional reference to the novel as one of the many Handkean moments in the film; Brady and Leal, for instance, have drawn attention to the novel’s influence in the film as an inspiration for the Homeric figure (243). But not enough attention has been paid to the close affinity between The Repetition and Wings of Desire, specifically in regards to the prominence of the themes of writing and storytelling in both works. I am proposing that a more rigorous revisiting of the film in light of the novel will clarify how Handke’s strategies of rewriting his own material – one of his signature creative techniques – have been incorporated in the script by Wenders, significantly shaping the film’s outcome. This article will investigate not only how the film echoes certain aspects of the novel, but will also consider to what extent their peculiar collaboration is itself inscribed in the film.
- The Repetition
When Wenders first approached Handke about working on a script for Wings of Desire, the Austrian author had just finished writing a novel, and, according to Wenders, immediately replied with the following (lack of) words: “I’m completely drained. I don’t have any words left in me, everything I had is in the novel” (On Film 270). Considering the timeline of Handke’s oeuvre, as well as the idea of a novel that would be substantial enough to drain a prolific writer like Handke, it seems fair to assume that he was referring to The Repetition,4)Some funny coincidences seem to suggest that the novel might indeed have travelled to unexpected places upon its completion; let me indulge in sharing the traces of such occurrences. In Handke’s poetry work from that same year entitled Gedicht an die Dauer (To Duration, a poem), the speaker of the poem specifically mentions The Repetition in relation to a visit to the post office: “Noch gestern hörte ich auf dem Waagplatz in / Salzburg, / in dem Geschiebe und dem Gerassel des immerwährenden Einkaufstags, / eine Stimme wie vom entfernten Ende der / Stadt her / meinen Namen rufen, / begriff im selben Moment, / daß ich den Text der Wiederholung, / mit dem ich zur Post unterwegs war, / am Marktstand vergessen hatte” (11). [Yesterday, still, I heard, in the Waagplatz square in / Salzburg / in between the rubble and rattling of the everlasting daily shopping, / a voice as if coming from the distant end of the / city / calling my name, / understood that very moment, that I had left behind the text of The Repetition, / which I had taken to the post office with me / at the market stand.] (my translation). Accidentally, the final text of The Repetition did really end up getting lost in the mail. Based on Handke’s correspondence with his editor from Suhrkamp Siegfried Unseld, we know that Handke’s finalized manuscript of The Repetition, which Handke mailed out to Unseld on March 2nd, 1986, did not arrive at its intended destination (In: Handkeonline, “Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, Entstehungskontext”). The novel did eventually reach Unseld and was published in August of that same year, but these series of apparent mailing mishaps symbolically foreshadow its influence on the fragments sent by Handke to Wenders in Berlin in the context of Wings of Desire. which predates the film only by a few months. The Repetition tells the story of the narrator Filip Kobal remembering his journey, twenty-five years earlier, from Austria to Slovenia in search of his disappeared older brother Gregor Kobal. The novel is divided into three parts: the first chapter looks back at the narrator’s adolescence up until his decision to forego a school trip to Greece and instead embark on this trip to Slovenia by himself; the second part accounts for his actual travel experiences, in which the narrator devotes all attention to his re-discovery of language, making use of his brother’s old notebook (a sort of glossary of farming terms) and his German-Slovenian dictionary to help him decipher the new landscapes he encounters; finally, in the last section, Filip reaches the Karst region, which he experiences as the “the land of storytelling, the Ninth Country” (338).5)“Land der Erzählung, im neunten Land” (333). NB: The passages from the novel cited in the text will be from Ralph Manheim’s English translation (listed in the bibliography). The passages from Handke’s original German composition will always be footnoted; the pagination of the German and the English versions will always refer to the corresponding edition listed in the bibliography. The novel ends with the narrator’s final contemplations about the magnificence of storytelling and his relentless devotion to its practice.
One way to read this tripartite structure is to understand these three stages of the novel as describing the different phases of development in the narrator’s construction of the story, both in terms of crafting his own literary language and, in that process, of becoming a storyteller and a writer (the label Künstlerroman certainly fits this novel). As Antonia Leitgeb suggests, at an early age, the narrator recalls his experience of language as one of wordlessness [“Stummheit”] (1), which resulted in his inability to tell stories. But at the beginning of the second part of the novel, we witness the forty-five year old narrator thinking back to his earlier struggle with words in light of his renewed understanding of storytelling and writing:
What I have written thus far about my father’s house, about the village of Rinkenberg and the Jaunfeld plain, must have been clearly present to my mind a quarter and a century ago in the Jesenice station, but I couldn’t have told it to anyone. What I felt within me were mere impulses without sound, rhythms without tone, short and long rises and falls without the corresponding syllables, a mighty reverberation of periods without the requisite words, the slow, sweeping, stirring, steady flow of a poetic meter without lines to go with it, a general surge that found no beginning, jolts in the void, a confused epic without a name, without the innermost voice, without the coherence of script. What I had experienced at the age of twenty was not yet a memory. And memory meant not that what-had-been recurred but that what-had-been situated itself by recurring. If I remembered, I knew that an experience was thus and so, exactly thus; in being remembered, it first became known to me, nameable, voiced, speakable; accordingly, I look on memory as more than a haphazard thinking back – as work; the work of memory situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention (96-7).6)“Was ich bisher vom Haus meines Vaters, vom Dorf Rinkenberg, von der Jaunfeld-Ebene erzählt habe, das war mir vor einem Viertejahrhundert im Bahnhof von Jesenice wohl ganz gegenwärtig, aber ich hatte es niemandem erzählen können. Ich spürte in mir nur Ansätze ohne Laut, Rhythmen ohne Ton, Kürzen und Längen, Hebungen und Senkungen, ohne die entsprechenden Silben, ein mächtiges Schwingen von Perioden, ohne die dazupassenden Wörter, den langsamen, weitausholenden, ergreifenden, stetigen Takt eines Versmaßes, ohne die zugehörigen Verse, ein allgemeines Anheben, das keinen Anfang fand, Rucke im Leeren, ein wirres Epos, ohne Namen, ohne die innerste Stimme, ohne den Zusammenhang einer Schrift. Was der Zwanzigjährige erlebt hatte, war noch keine Erinnerung. Und Erinnerung heiß nicht: Was gewesen war, kehrte wieder; sondern: Was gewesen war, zeigte, indem es wiederkehrte, seinen Platz. Wenn ich mich erinnerte, erfuhr ich: So was das Erlebnis, genau so!, und damit wurde mir dieses erst bewußt, benennbar, stimmhaft und spruchreif, und deshalb ist mir die Erinnerung kein beliebiges Zurückdenken, sondern ein Am-Werk-Sein, und das Werk der Erinnerung schreibt dem Erlebten seinen Platz zu, in der es am Leben haltenden Folge, der Erzählung, die immer wieder übergehen kann ins offene Erzählen, ins größere Leben, in die Erfindung” (101).
Telling stories, according to Filip, is only possible through a careful labor of recollection, because stories emerge at the moment when remembrance situates itself in the present and merges with (scripted) language. Writing, then, seems to be the materialization of that work of “bringing back” (“wieder-holen”) performed by memory, which the writer deciphers and renders in language.
From the first sentence of the novel, the narrator explicitly states that this story is the product of his memory-work, indicating that there will be two time spheres operating interchangeably in the novel. This is noteworthy because by establishing that the diegetic time will shift between the present tense of Filip’s writing and the past that is being remembered and written about, the narrator constructs a temporal narrative frame, which allows him to self-reflexively comment on his development as a storyteller and writer. The narrator’s experiences with language in the actual story also contribute to the fact that this novel is constantly calling the reader’s attention to its own process of creation. In fact, as his journey advances, the novel becomes increasingly less about Filip’s attempt to find his older brother and more about the unfolding of his own presence in that story, culminating in a celebration of Filip’s realization that he has become an Erzähler (storyteller). As Richard Firda suggests, “Filip […] perceives that the best way to preserve his brother’s memory is not to ‘find’ him but to tell a story about him. […] Filip will become a writer, a creator or word-images” (132).
Firda’s remark about Filip’s “word-images” evokes the decisively visual and material quality of the concept of language that the narrator (and Handke) is putting forth in this novel. In the second chapter, as the protagonist continuously develops a notion of language that rests on the idea that words and letters are inscribed in the very landscapes he confronts, he concludes that the task of the storyteller is to decipher that script through the experiences of reading and writing the world. A Hugo Caviola describes, “Handke attempts to reinstate as an aesthetic program a transparency of language in which thing and script are consubstantial […] writing becomes the attempt to copy this hidden script, containing the “Heil” that resides in the world (389). Not surprisingly, Filip spends most of his time not only attempting to translate from Slovenian into German, but also from image to text, to the point that the text itself starts to merge with the landscape that it describes: “The milk can on the stand became a sign; the successive puddles gleaming in the darkness joined to form a line” (80).7)“Die Kanne auf dem Milchstand stand da als Letter; die Reihe der Pfützen, eine um die andere aus de Dunkelheit leuchtend verband sich zur Zeile” (82-3). Filip perceives such moments as both enlightening and frightening; but in the last part of the novel, as he continues to read the world with “[m]y eyes at once in the book and on the mountain” (217),8)“das Augen zugleich in dem Buch und am Berg” (217). he ends up arriving in the Karst region, feeling “[n]o fear, only enchantment” (265).9)“kein Schrecken, sondern Verzauberung” (264).
In the last few pages of the novel, the narrator’s fascination for what he perceives as a mythical place is also emphasized by his conviction that he has reached a state of reconciliation with his role as the writer of the story. He concludes with a reflection on writing and storytelling, symbolically coming full circle with the self-reflexive frame he has constructed. In an expression of utmost euphoria, he (literally) writes the following praise to storytelling:
At the end of this story, however, though I may die before the day is out, I find myself in middle life; I look at the spring sun on my blank paper, think back on the autumn and winter, and write: Storytelling, there is nothing more wordly than you, nothing more just, my holy of holies. Storytelling, patron-saint of long-range combat, my lady. Storytelling, most spacious of all vehicles, heavenly chariot. Eye of my story, reflect me, for you alone know me and appreciate me. […] Story, give the letters another shake, blow through the word sequences, order yourself into script, and give us, through your particular pattern, our common pattern. Story, repeat, that is, renew, postpone, again and again, a decision that must not be. […] Long live my storytelling! It must go on (338).10)“Ich dagegen sehe mich, mag ich heute noch sterben, am Ende dieser Erzählung nur in der Mitte meines Lebens, betrachte die Frühlingssonne auf dem leeren Papier, denke zurück an den Herbst und den Winter und schreibe: Erzählung, nichts Weltlicheres als du, nichts Gerechteres, mein Allerheiligstes. Erzählung, Patronin des Fernkämpfers, meine Herrin. Erzählung, geräumigstes aller Fahrzeuge, Himmelswagen. Auge der Erzählung, spiegele mich, denn allein du erkennst mich und würdigst mich […] Erzählung, würfle die Lettern frisch, durchewehe die Wortfolgen, füg dich zur Schrift und gib, in deinem besonderen, unser gemeinsames Muster. Erzählung, wiederhole, das heißt, erneuere, immer neu hinausschiebend eine Entscheidung, welche nicht sein darf.[…] Es lebe die Erzählung. Die Erzählung muß weitergehen” (333).
As we shall see in the next section, the ending of Wings of Desire will also address the need to keep the tradition of storytelling alive. In the film’s last scene, Homer – an important character that, as has been mentioned, is modeled after Handke’s figure of the old storyteller in The Repetition – will be one of the representatives of the film’s tribute to storytelling. His words will clearly echo the paean to storytelling at the end of Handke’s novel.
It is important to mention that, in the novel, the Homeric figure plays a crucial role in supporting the narrator in his quest for self-knowledge, which he develops through language; Filip continuously thinks back to the old man and reflects upon the influence he exerted on him as a storyteller. He refers to the old man as “my teacher, the writer of fairy tales, who precisely because he was absent had been a kind of prop to me in the course of my journey. There was never any plot in his fairy tales; they were mere descriptions of objects, and each story dealt only with one thing” (203).11)“meinen Lehrer, den Märchendichter, der mir im Laufe der Reise, gerade als Abwesender, zu einer Art Beistand wurde. Die Märchen, die er schrieb, hatten nie eine Geschichte, sondern waren bloße Beschreibungen von Gegenständen, und betrachten jeweils auch nur ein Einzelding, für sich allein” (204). The description of his tales are, in some ways, similar to the story that Filip tells in the novel, and even more so to Homer’s monologues in the film, as will become clear in the next section. One last note about the ending of the The Repetition; to be precise, we might have to go back to Firda and call the final moment of the novel a “word-image” [figure 1].12)See page 339 in the English version of the text. It consists of an image of Handke’s inscripted writing (Inschrift), which read in light of the film almost works as a premonition to the first image in Wings of Desire [figure 2].
- The Repetition and Wings of Desire
After the image of inscribed text at the end of Handke’s The Repetition, Wenders’s decision to begin Wings of Desire 13)For the sake of clarity, let me provide a brief plot summary of the film; it tells the story of the angel Damiel’s decision to give up his immortal existence working as a guardian angel for the disillusioned inhabitants of a historically divided Berlin, in exchange for the experience of becoming human and conquering the love of a woman, namely the circus trapeze artist named Marion. with a close up of an act of writing (figure 2) surely stands out: the image shows a hand – we soon find out that it belongs to the angel Damiel, the protagonist of the film – writing down the lines of a text whose authorship is attributed to Handke. Considering Handke’s claim that he was written out after working on a novel, it is striking that the film starts precisely with his words, in this case, from his poem Song of Childhood. I am tempted to imagine this sequence as a symbolic reenactment of the moment when Handke was writing his contribution to the film script in one of those letters he mailed out to Wenders in Berlin. Alice Kuzniar suggests that it is writing that “generates the film” (221), while Daniela Berghahn points to the fact that the written (and spoken) words “precede the opening credits, thereby implicitly assuming the function of mottos” (329). Not surprisingly, some critics have speculated that this preface could specifically refer to Handke’s co-authorship in this project; Joachim Paech, for instance, notes that “the scene of text and inscription before the beginning of the film can also be taken as the representation of the transition from the written (Handke) to the filmed (Wenders) film; writing transforms itself into the film’s moving image” (qtd. in Brady and Leal 271).
Whether or not this sequence purposely operates to inscribe their collaborative effort from word (novel) to image (film), they certainly serve to construct an important narrative frame. Towards the end of the film, we will see a similar image of Damiel noting down the conclusion to his written testimony [figure 3], matching the initial close up of the writing hand: as a pair, these two images build the literary frame of the film. This framing is unequivocal in establishing the connection between Damiel’s transfiguration (from angel to human) and his act of remembering, writing and telling a story,14)The scene at the library, which dramatizes Damiel’s inability – still as an angel – to hold a pen and thus have and write his story, enacts the connection between humanity and the need for memory, writing and telling stories. a transformation which the cinematic image reinforces with the change from black and white to color film (see, once again, figures 2 and 3). Thinking back to The Repetition, we could say that the fate of the protagonist Damiel in Wings of Desire is not dissimilar to Filip’s own in the novel. For the angel Damiel, becoming a sentient human being is also inherently linked with his function as the writer of this film, in which he fulfills his desire to “fight for [his] own story”15)“mir selber eine Geschichte erstreiten”. NB: All translations from the film will be mine. The German original will always be footnoted and the pagination will refer to the published film script listed in the bibliography. (Wenders and Handke 84). If in The Repetition the narrator’s role as a self-reflexive writer is crafted through the staging of writing as remembrance, in the film Damiel’s story is distinctly framed by the written word, also foregrounding the role of remembrance and adding a decisive meta-textual dimension to the cinematic text.
The materiality of the word plays a central role in the meta-discourse of Wings of Desire, especially because of the contrast it establishes to the visual medium where it is presented. From the first image onwards, writing is ascribed the role of a leitmotif that will be repeatedly performed throughout the film, be it in the scenes when the angels are reading from their notebooks, or in the various instances of writing that occur in the library (it is significant that the viewers can hear the content of their thoughts). Taking into account that Handke’s contribution for Wings of Desire consists mainly of written dialogues for the angels and the monologues for Homer and Marion, it is not surprising that the most visible traces from The Repetition can be found in the words that these particular characters say and write in the film. These tend to focus on their reflections on how to tell stories, much like in Handke’s novel. For instance, in their first conversation, the angels Damiel and Cassiel (Damiel’s companion) discuss precisely this topic, asking one another what stories they have to tell.
Cassiel reports on factual occurrences of world history, reading from what he has written in his notebook. Damiel, on the other hand, desires to tell different kinds of stories, choosing to recount his observations of ordinary moments of quotidian life, and thus revealing his desire to experience human existence: “a passerby, folding her umbrella in the rain, letting herself get wet. […] a blind lady, trying to touch her watch as she feels my presence … I also want to feel a weight on me. […] to be able to say ‘now’ and ‘now’ instead of the usual ‘ever since’ and ‘in eternity’” (Wenders, Handke 19-20).16)“Eine Passantin, die mitten im Regen den Schirm zusammenklappte und sich naß werden ließ. […] Eine Blinde, die nach ihrer Uhr tastete, als sie much spürte … ich möchte auch ein Gewicht an mir spüren. […] ‘Jetzt’ und ‘Jetzt’ sagen können and nicht wie immer ‘seit je’ und ‘In Ewigkeit’”. Some passages in The Repetition neatly illustrate how Damiel’s notion of storytelling echoes Handke’s concept of the quotidian; for example, Filip’s desire to tell a story also forces him to question the subject matter of his stories: “And what was I telling [her]? Neither incidents nor events, but mere impressions, a sight, a sound, a smell. The jet of the little fountain across the street, the red of the newspaper kiosk […] And the teller was not I, it was the experience itself” (10).17)“Und was erzählte ich? Weder Vorfälle noch Ereignisse, sondern die einfachen Vorgänge, oder bloß auch einen Anblick, ein Geräusch, einen Geruch. Und der Strahl des kleinen Springbrunnens […] das Rot des Zeitungskiosk […] Und der da erzählte, das war gar nicht ich, sondern es, das Erleben selber” (DW 16). In turn, it is curious to see how this passage from the novel, which also describes banal moments of daily life, so accurately represents the bodily sensations that Damiel longs for in the film, which he will be so overwhelmed to experience when he becomes a man. After waking up from his metamorphosis, finding that he has some blood on his head from the fall, Damiel asks a few questions to a passerby in an attempt to understand the sensorial world he has just began to experience. He wants to learn about the small pleasures of human life: the taste and color of blood, the day’s temperature, as well as his willingness to taste coffee for the first time and get black fingers from reading the newspaper (Wenders and Handke, 129-130).
As Brady and Leal remark, it is true that Handke’s obsession with the quotidian predates The Repetition; especially in his earlier diaries, he lays out “his relatively straightforward project as a writer” which consists in capturing “the universal through the minutiae of the quotidian” (259). It is worth taking a moment to draw the connection between Handke’s fascination with the quotidian and the angel’s willingness to have a story and experience those simple moments of the physical world. For Damiel, becoming a human being seems to correspond to the possibility of creating a language that is (literally) in touch with the real world and with the corporeal experiences of everyday life. As we have seen in the previous section, in The Repetition Handke develops a concept of language in which script and objects in the real word merge to become a story, a phenomenon that he notoriously termed the “thing-image-script” (224) in his The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire.18)In the original German composition entitled Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire, Handke calls it “Ding-Bild-Schrift” (62). In English, this book was published under the triology Slow Homecoming and was also translated by Ralph Manheim. The page number in English refers to that edition, which is listed in the bibliography. In a way, both Handke’s conception of language as things in the real world and Damiel’s transformation into a human body, that is his ability to conceive a story, describe an analogous process of materialization. To me, this parallel between the materialization of Filip’s language (from letter to real-life objects) and Damiel’s human experience of the world (from ghostly image to a writing body) suggests an intense kinship between both works.
As has been mentioned, the inclusion of the Homeric figure is one the most recognizable elements that Handke recycled from his literature into the film. Played by Curt Bois, Homer is a very old man who is symbolically struggling to keep the oral tradition of storytelling alive. His first appearance in the film occurs in the library (like the angels, he is one of its inhabitants), going up the stairs with difficulty and asking the Muse to “Tell the story, Muse, of the storyteller” (Wenders, Handke 30).19)“Erzähle, Muse, vom Erzähler”. At the end of the film, he proclaims that in the future, human beings will look for him, “their storyteller, their singer, who sets the tone, because they need [him] like nothing else in the world” (Wenders, Handke 169).20)“ihren Erzähler, Vorsänger und Tonangeber, weil sie mich brauchen, wie sonst nichts auf der Welt”. Homer’s main function in the film, it seems, amounts to embodying the tradition of storytelling, repeating the tribute to stories at the end of Handke’s The Repetition. But unlike the novel, in the film the old man does not have any direct influence on the protagonist Damiel; Homer will remain a somewhat isolated and enigmatic figure – even if the free structure of the script will still allow for his words to gravitate towards Damiel’s encounter with his own story, and as a result to fit in with the overall literariness of the film.
The genesis of this character might help understand the rationale for Wenders’s inclusion of Homer in the script. According to the German director, he had initially thought about having an archangel roaming in a library, but Handke did not like the idea and convinced him to turn the archangel into an immortal poet. According to Wenders: “I, for my part, had no idea of how to integrate Homer into my script. Finally we had Homer living in a library, and Peter’s dialogues became a voice inside his head,” adding that Handke’s inspiration for the Homeric figure in the film came from a reproduction of a Rembrandt painting that he had hanging in front of his desk (On Film 272). While this does not really explain why he chose to accept Handke’s suggestion, Wenders’s account reveals two curious factors: firstly, he did not realize that Homer is a direct import from The Repetition, which is meaningful for our reading of the film in light of the novel; and secondly, by saying that he had no idea what to do with this character, he exposes his difficulty in dealing with Handke’s material, especially under such collaborative circumstances. Even if Wenders has gone as far to describe Handke’s scenes that he received in the mail as a guiding force for the development of the script, at other times he has also admitted that these fragments “though beautiful and poetic – were like monoliths from heaven […] they didn’t fit: there was a complete discord between his dialogues, the scenes we envisaged and the locations we’d decided on” (Luprecht 48).
Wenders comments are clearly contradictory, and they perfectly illustrate the need to acknowledge contradiction as an important subtext in the film. As Mark Luprecht observes, Handke’s participation in Wings of Desire is plagued by dissonances: “Despite the casual nature of their collaboration, Wenders’s and Handke’s depiction of angels in Wings is both profound and consistent. Yet, the irregular character of their cooperation may be responsible for an incongruence between the visual and verbal meanings of the film” (Luprecht 47). Wenders’s inclusion of Homer well illustrates Luprecht’s point. Let me give one example. Perhaps precisely because of not knowing how to fit Homer into the images he was constructing in the film, by combining Homer’s words with images of archival footage from the Second World War, the German director ended up ascribing a certain historical responsibility to the Homeric figure that does not really match his discourse and, by extension, Handke’s conception of storytelling. Handke has become known for his conviction that it is impossible to write history, insisting that all one can do is tell a story. As Klaus Kastberger remarks, “it almost seems that, for Handke, the concept of history is kind of a swear-word” (1).21)(My English translation). Original German: “fast hat es den Anschein, dass der Begriff der Geschichte für Handke eine Art von Schimpfwort ist”. In fact, Wenders’s images will repeatedly direct our attention to Berlin as a city of historical remembrance (for instance, the Berlin wall and the ruins of the famous Gedächtniskirche), marking a moment of discord between Wenders and Handke in relation to storytelling.
Generally speaking, while it is difficult to account for all the contrasts that the film enacts, it is important to understand that this work is constructed on the basis of a series of oppositions between the literary and the cinematic. As Rea and Caldwell argue,
The central ongoing paradox of the film, however, is that of pictures and words. […] This tension between word and image emerges from the very genesis of the film: it is the creation of Peter Handke, a writer, and of Wim Wenders, a visual artist. Together they balance a literary script with classic cinematography. From the outset and repeatedly throughout their film, wordsmith Handke and image-maker Wenders establish a dialectic, an interplay first between the spoken and the written language and then, pervasively, between words and images (49).
I agree with Rea and Caldwell that the film inhabits a space of juxtaposition between words and images and that this productive tension is, to a large extent, the result of the collaboration between Handke and Wenders. Still, I would hesitate to say that they “balance” this paradox of words and images by working together; in fact, as their working method suggests, I would rather say that it is precisely their separation that maintains the paradoxical coherence of the film.
- ONE story about DIVISION
In 1991, a few years after shooting Wings of Desire, as he was remembering the time of his own return to Germany around 1985, Wenders shared the following words with an audience in Munich:
I want to go back to the thing that brought me ‘home’ – language, the German language. As the world of images breaks all bounds […] there is another culture, an opposite culture, where nothing has changed and nothing will: the culture of words, of readings and writing and telling stories. I don’t believe many things in the Bible, but I do believe, passionately, in its first sentence: ‘In the beginning was the word.’ I don’t think it will ever say: ‘At the end was the image…’ The word will endure. (On Film 442-443)
It was roughly at the same time as his reconciliation with his Vaterland and Muttersprache that he conceived of the idea for Wings of Desire. After spending many years making films outside Germany, Wenders chose Berlin – at the time the symbol of postwar history and division – to tell the story in a film of his own reconciliation with German literary culture. As Brady and Leal remark, “Wings of Desire can be understood to represent a coming home to both Germany and to European cinema” (253), most likely also as a reaction to his disillusionment with Hollywood film. For a director who became famous for his striking images of America and who claimed that “in the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image, […] stories are actually lies” (On Film 212-213), Wenders has come a long way to recognize that “our salvation in this land […] is our German language” (On Film 443).
However, as he explained in an early treatment of the film, Wings of Desire marked not only his reunion with the German literary tradition, but also represented a moment of separation:
Now what I want is starting to emerge: / namely to tell a story in Berlin. / (With the right stress, not for once / a STORY but: / A story) / That requires objectivity, distance, / or, better yet, a vantage point. Because I don’t want / to tell a STORY of UNITY, but / something harder: / ONE story about DIVISION (On Film 76).
Not to mention once more the numerous formal and thematic tensions that come out of the collaboration between Wenders and Handke, within the diegetic space there are of course the crucial divides between heaven and earth, angels and humans and the city of Berlin as the political symbol of a divided Europe. Furthermore, the happy ending in the love story of Damiel and Marion surely marks a moment of union, but division is also very much at the heart of their conciliation. In fact, this divided sense of unity is inherent to Marion’s and Damiel’s ideas about coming together at the end of the film; while Marion talks about feeling whole precisely at the moment when she gets together with Damiel (Wenders and Handke 160), Damiel’s voice concludes that their union created one “mutual image” (Wenders and Handke 166).22)“gemeinsames Bild”. My emphasis in the quotation. Also, while on the one hand the film ends with the reconciliation of Damiel and Marion, on the other hand, the storyteller Homer is walking towards the Berlin wall – a symbol of division – worried about his future. In terms of the images of the film, the ending not only brings back the written word by the hand of Damiel, but also closes with a mystical image of the Berlin sky, showing a dedication to the angels Tarkovsky, Truffaut and Ozu – three film directors unmistakably linked to literary cinema. The ending is clear: Wenders’s homage to the tradition of literary cinema coincides with his tribute to cinema as the artistic medium that can harmoniously combine difference in various modes of expression.
As Brady and Leal comment, by avoiding the “suppression of difference and dissonance” the film “ultimately respects the dichotomies that are at the heart of the collaboration between Handke and Wenders” and this “appear[s] to suggest that on a mythical, poetic level at least, film is able to transcend boundaries and differences” (279). To conclude, I would like to emphasize this idea of transcendence, for it provides a good occasion to sum up the kinship between both works and artists. As I see it, in The Repetition Handke is attempting to create a visual language, which consists in merging the written with the objects of the world into a literary word-image. Conversely, Wenders’s film could be described as doing the opposite: the filmmaker is creating a literary film and a literary cinematic language. In that sense, both artists seem to share a methodology that explores the limitations of the mediums in which they choose to express themselves. While Handke’s narrator in the novel is trying to transcend the medium of writing to reach an image, or what he terms the “chilhood of words” (129),23)“Kindheit der Wörter” (133). Wenders makes a film telling the story of an angel who chooses the materiality of the written word and human life over the invisible, eternal image of spiritual existence. Both Wenders and Handke are, in a sense, doing the opposite movement to arrive at the same moment of unity, that is, from word to image and from image to word.
Acknowledgement: the contributor would like to state that this work was supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) under grant reference SFRH/BD/85312/2012.
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© Joana Moura e Falso Movimento, 2015. Não pode ser reproduzido sem a autorização do autor e dos editores.