WINGS OF DESIRE (Der Himmel Über Berlin) | 1987
The original German title of Wim Wenders’ romantic fantasy, Himmel Über Berlin (Heaven Above Berlin), gives a big clue to the film’s setting.
The film is beautifully shot around West Berlin, in the days when the city was still cruelly divided by the Berlin Wall, in black and white, until Damiel finally enters the human realm when it bursts into colour. Against the odds, many of the locations remain recognisable.
Damiel is introduced perched atop the most famous symbol of Berlin’s WWII damage, the shattered spire of Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) on Breitscheidplatz at the eastern end of main shopping street Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm).
The five-spired neo-Romantic church was built in 1895 in honour of Wilhelm I, the first German Kaiser.
The church was so badly damaged in the air raids of 1943 that the top of the main spire was lost and the roof collapsed. After the war, the Allies were reluctant to rebuild such a symbol of national pride and it was left as a constant reminder to Berliners of the horrors of war.
In 1961, the ruin was incorporated into the design of a modernist new church. The mismatched pair are now irreverently dubbed The Broken Tooth and The Powder Compact.
Unseen, except perhaps by young children, the angels drift in and out of the lives of everyday Berliners, privy to their innermost thoughts.
Among those are a woman cycling with her small child past the circular Mehringplatz and its Friedenssäule (Peace Column), topped with the brass statue of victory, near Hallesches Tor U-Bahn station.
The angel’s-eye-view drifts over ICC Berlin (Internationales Congress Centrum), in the Westend locality of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, once one of the world’s largest conference centres. Although it only opened in 1979, it was closed in 2014 due to asbestos contamination. You can see the complex again – being passed off as ‘Bucharest’ – in Captain America: Civil War.
The aerial shot closes in on the apartment blocks along Dernburgstrasse, east of the Messe Berlin, and through the rooms of its residents.
Damiel and fellow angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) share quirky vignettes of human life as they sit in the front seat of a convertible in the (much modernised) BMW showroom opposite the Maison de France, the French cultural centre opened in 1950. As you can see, it houses the Cinema Paris, Kurfürstendamm 211, 10719 Berlin / Uhlandstraße 27, 10719 (tel: +49.30.8813119), which shows French and art house films.
It’s here Damiel first admits he’s becoming weary of weightlessness and timelessness and yearns for simple humanity.
The spacious modern library, full of mysterious whispering, in which the invisible angels wander among unwitting readers is the Haus Potsdamer Straße, the newer branch of the old Staatsbibliotek opened in 1978 in the Kulturforum on Potsdamer Straße.
Damiel attempts to comfort a man dazed and dying after a road accident on the southern end of Langenscheidtbrucke, the bridge over the S-bahn line at Czeminskistrasse, south of the city near Schöneberg.
Cassiel watches over the city from alongside another more famous golden ‘Winged Victory’ statue, atop the Siegessaule (Victory Column) on Strasse des 17 Juni, the ceremonial way leading through Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate.
Damiel accompanies the elderly Homer (Curt Bois) as he ambles around the empty, muddy wasteland alongside the Wall that was Potsdamer Platz, which Homer remembers from the 30s as the busy heart of the city. There's next to nothing you could recognise today, with Potsdamer Platz once again a glittering centre, dominated by the extravagant Sony Centre. In its new incarnation, this is another location seen in Captain America: Civil War.
When the Soviet sector was sealed off on 13 August 1961, barricades were set up between Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz reducing the area to a gigantic wasteland in the heart of the city, known as “the death strip”, which ran between the wall’s inner and outer fortifications.
Damiel observes the fraught young woman selling herself beneath the elevated railway at Schöneberger Straße, in the scruffy industrial area just west of the Landwehr Canal. (U-bahn: Gleisdreieck). Despite all the redevelopment around the city, this spot has hardly changed at all.
An odd strand of the story has US actor Peter Falk, playing himself, in Berlin to make a WWII drama.
The huge, decrepit four-storey concrete bunker being used as a period location is Der Hochbunker, Pallasstraße 34, at Potsdamer Strasse in Schönenberg. Also known as Sportpalast bunker, it was built by forced labour from the USSR during WWII but never became fully functional. Its massive three-feet-thick walls proved so difficult to demolish that a neighbouring housing development, the Pallasseum (Social Palace), was partly built over it.
The bunker is used by the history course of the nearby Sophie Scholl School as a "place of remembrance”, and open only once a year to a strictly limited group of visitors.
The rooftop on which Cassiel watches over an apparently suicidal young man is that of the Europa Centre, Tauentzienstrasse 9-12, with its landmark revolving ten-metre-wide Mercedes-Benz logo.
A remnant of the old pre-war Berlin is the ruined entrance to the old railway station, where a bunch of kids think they recognise Columbo. It’s all that remains of Anhalter Bahnhof, Asketischer Platz at Stresemannstrasse. Falk remembers being told that this was "Not the station where the train stopped, but the station where the station stopped". That’s a play on the German word anhalten, ‘to stop’, but grimly, this was also the point of departure for many Jews being deported to Theresienstadt and the concentration camps.
On becoming human, Damiel trades in his armoured breastplate for a snazzy check jacket at a little basement second-hand shop. You can recognise where the store stood at Goebenstraße 6, near the Yorkstraße S-Bahn station, and though it’s since closed, there are still a couple of similar establishments nearby if you’re looking for a bargain.
The nightclub, where Damiel and Marion talk as Nick Cave performs, was real and has a fascinating history of its own. It was the old Hotel Esplanade which stood in the heart of Potsdamer Platz, going from being one of the capital’s most luxurious hotels to a bombed-out ruin lost in the wastelands alongside the Berlin Wall.
The Hotel was built between 1907 and 1908 in the grand Belle Epoque style, and the interior palatial design accommodated numerous magnificent halls, amongst which was the Kaisersaal (the Emperor’s Hall).
During the Golden Twenties, the Esplanade became the scene of popular tea and dancing afternoons, regularly broadcast on the radio, and such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo stayed here.
In 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected only a short distance away but for a while the esplanade was, with police permission, still accessible and began a new lease of life as a film and television set.
Despite being safeguarded as a historic monument after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the ambitious plans for the renaissance of Potsdamer Platz with the glitzy Sony Centre took precedence.
After coming close to complete demolition, a plan was developed to move the Kaisersaal 75 metres to be integrated into the Centre itself.
The Breakfast Hall, which is seen in the film, was dismantled into 500 pieces and reassembled in Café Josty, Bellevuestraße 1.