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Wings of Desire: How the vital creative partnership of Nick Cave and Wim Wenders took flight

In the monochrome movie Wings of Desire, the cloudy sky over Wim Wenders’ war-torn Berlin has the tempestuous swirl of a day-old bruise. Amid that brooding firmament is a clutch of trench coat clad angels who piously perceive the mangled musings of mortals below. As they try to comfort and console from afar, one of the angels, Damiel, describes a beautiful trapeze artist and falls in love. If he is to love her in the flesh, then he must transform into a mortal being. It is up to Peter Falk to assist him by showing him the simple joys of human existence like the “sublime combination of coffee and cigarettes”, an Otis Redding prescribed combo fit for even a seraph to embrace. 

This fantastical tale unfurls from the perspective of the angels as their black and white world bursts into dazzling technicolour in flashes of humanised reality when the fractured world of Berlin saturates the screen. This mingling story of otherworldly spiritualism and a very tender yet grounded view of the human experience could not really have featured the songs of anyone other than Nick Cave and his gnarled Bad Seeds. As it happened, this creative kinship between Cave and the visionary director, Wim Wenders, came to fruition and became a profound moment for both.

The first time we hear Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in the picture, it is the stirring dirge of ‘The Carny’. The frantic circus-like track is a befitting backdrop as the soon-to-be besotted angel follows the alluring trapeze artist into her trailer amidst the dreary Cold War aesthetic of the crooked city. She lays the needle down on Your Funeral… My Trial. The hissing precession as the needle pulls onto the gravel track of the grooves rings out before the clamouring march of the song begins. Although the pursuing angel cannot share in the ways of human experience, he is entranced by the scene and its wild sonic accompaniment.

Later, he tracks his beloved mortal to a concert in the hedonistic heart of the decaying remnants of Weimar-era Berlin and a subterranean nightclub, one that is drenched in a crimson hue and looks like it is plucked straight from the macabre imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. On stage is the gangly besuited presence of Nick Cave and his Birthday Party cohort, the slender human smoke machine, Roland S. Howard. The duo regales us with the second Bad Seeds song of the feature, ‘From Her to Eternity’, which becomes a pivotal moment in the movie.

The film now seems like it could’ve been written by Cave himself, and although he doesn’t take any screenwriting credit, as it turns out, his influence was felt from the off. As Wenders explains: “Making a film in Berlin, for me, was almost synonymous with having [Nick Cave and Roland S Howard] appear in it because they were cutting edge, and they were grunge before anybody knew the word for it. That was where Berlin was.”

(Credit: Alamy)

A few years prior to the film’s release in 1987, Nick Cave and his bandmates had moved to West Berlin, where they became acquaintances with future Bad Seed, Blixa Bargeld, and they began to cement their creative identity. What ensued was an artistic splurge to behold, but heroin addictions would also prove to play a role. In part, this was synonymous with the broken yet brilliant artistic scene in Berlin at the time. At the heart of which was Cave and his coterie of cronies or as Wenders puts it: “This bunch of Australians who had landed from a different planet in Berlin.”

While that may make it seem like Wenders was taking a leaf out of Cave’s book, both parties would influence each other equally. Years later, in 2003, Wenders and Cave would appear together on a BBC discussion over the portrayal of violence in culture. This debate came 18 months after 9/11, and Wenders passionately makes the point that violence is so often wrongly represented as sexy in movies, TV and music when the truth is “that it’s really very ugly.”

Cave, however, has a different approach. He expresses a belief that it is important to display duality and that often his use of violence is comic, and as such, the audience can interpret the intent behind it. 

This is something that Wenders concurs with. He states that provided the reasons for the violence are depicted clearly then it has a place. “As long as the urge is shown with it, then I like to see it in films. Taxi Driver is still one of the most violent films ever even seen today, but it shows all the reasons and where it is coming from.” 

In the end, Cave and Wenders reach an agreement on this front, and this judicious ground is something that we also see in Cave’s back catalogue following the experience of Wings of Desire. Whether that was inevitable anyway is perhaps true, but there is no doubting that afterwards his music was tempered, not in the sense that it lost any of its wild edges, but that it seems to be more tender and considered. After 1987, his music didn’t simply echo the chaotic cacophony of Berlin, but much like Wenders’ fantastic film and also because of it, it captured the deeper undercurrent that surrounds society in all of its textured tones. 

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