Criterion // 1987 // 127 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 3rd, 2009
There are angels on the streets of Berlin.
As a company, Criterion has earned a reputation for putting out stellar editions of classic films alongside strong releases of oddball films. They produce releases which, for the most part, are aimed at a discriminating audience of film fans who want the best presentation and the smartest extras possible. With a group this discriminating, disagreements about the direction of the label are bound to come up: Should Godard's post-Sixties work be released? Does Armageddon belong on a Criterion shelf? Should Kagemusha come out on Blu-ray before Seven Samurai? To Criterion fans these are all big questions and obvious points of disagreement. It's nice when a release comes along that is likely to be pretty universally agreed-on as a good release, and Wings of Desire fits that bill. It's got built-in appeal for art-house lovers, foreign film fans, and experimental cinema junkies. Thanks to this Blu-ray release, those who appreciate fantastic transfers, solid audio, and engaging supplements can appreciate it, too.
In the sky over Berlin, two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz, The Reader) and Cassiel (Otto Sander, Far Away, So Close), watch over the city's inhabitants, observing and dispensing the occasional bit of comfort. They can see, and influence, but not touch. This grates on Damiel, who longs to experience life. When he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin, Until the End of the World), he decides to give up immortality to be with her.
Cinema, as a medium and an art form, is well over a hundred years old at this point, but I'm continually amazed at how much potential it still has. Films both new and old continually demonstrate that there are so many ways to tell stories, convey moods, and capture characters on celluloid. Wings of Desire is a perfect example. Ostensibly it's about two angels, one of who falls in love with a trapeze artist and decides to become mortal. On another level, it's a portrait of a city, divided by lines ideological and geographic. On yet another level, it's a top-down view of humanity from a distant yet sympathetic perspective. All of these are nestled into a film which is ultimately long on atmosphere and short on traditional plot, and yet characters are drawn, feelings are conveyed, and a sense of humanity's possibilities is sketched out.
Much of the film's magnetism comes down to the cinematography. Because most of the "dialogue" is heard as voiceovers from inside the heads of various characters, Wenders is free to let his camera roam more than most modestly budgeted films allow. He uses this freedom to show us Berlin in all its shattered glory. It also allows him to show us Berlin as angels might see it alongside what people on the street might see. All in glorious black-and-white (for the most part). When the film switches to color, the impact is tremendous. Never before had I realized just how different the experience of black-and-white is from color visuals.
Bruno Ganz as Damiel is responsible for the rest of the film's magnetism. That might be a slight exaggeration, since the other actors, including Peter Falk, are quite good, but Ganz's sympathetic yet longing face says so much throughout the film. It stands in for anyone who's ever desired another life, one of passion and spontaneity rather than the dull trudge of daily work. Amazingly, when the film switches to color (because Ganz has become human), his face is able to convey the wonder of his transformation. It is awesome in the oldest sense of the word.
As a city, Berlin has hosted a number of amazing musicians over the years. As a Nick Cave fan, I would be remiss in not mentioning his cameo with the Bad Seeds in the film. Cave is known for his dark, violent songs about love and death, but in the context of Wenders' film, with Cave surrounded by angels, we can see the tremendous life that comes screaming out of the music, like Cave and company are providing the aural equivalent of birth pangs for human joy. Even if you don't want to get all analytical on it, seeing the Bad Seeds in their Eighties prime is good enough.
Criterion has done another fantastic job with this Blu-ray release of the film. This is obviously a new master of the film, as the sepia tone of the previous DVD release has been replaced with a more starkly contrasted black-and-white. The source is fairly clean, with minimal damage and just the right amount of grain to maintain a filmlike presentation. The color sequences are perfectly saturated with quality skin tones. The German (with occasional French and English) DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is clear and free of noise, and the English subtitles are clean and easy to read.
Extras are extensive, and include some of the supplements from the previous DVD release. The audio commentary (culled from interviews) with Wenders and Peter Falk includes some interesting info on how the film was made, as well as the artistic intentions of those involved. Also from the previous release, "The Angels Among Us" is a documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew, as well as a series of deleted scenes with Wenders' commentary. The pie fight scene is worth a watch just to imagine how different the film would be with it included.
New material includes an excerpt from a French television show, "Wim Wnders Berlin Jan. 87," which spends about 20 minutes with Wenders on set filming the film-with-a-film from Wings of Desire. Because cinematographer Henri Alekan was so essential to the production of Wings of Desire , Criterion has devoted two featurettes to him, both of which are from the Eighties. There are also a couple of features related to the angels, Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander. The pair made a short film, included here, about their co-star Curt Bois, and there's also a segment from a program where they discuss the film. The disc rounds out with a photo gallery that includes shots of the sets and some sketches. There's also a booklet included with an essay by Michael Arkinson, a poem by co-writer Peter Handke, and the film's treatment by Wim Wenders.
Wings of Desire is a total art-house film. That means that the plot doesn't move quickly, the film's themes are complex, and the atmosphere is very contemplative. Those expecting anything like a traditional narrative will likely be disappointed. Those expecting a film like the remake City of Angels will also probably be disappointed.
I would also have liked to see a featurette on the music of the film, especially if it involved hearing more from Nick Cave. The film uses music so well, and Berlin has such a rich musical tradition, that it would be good to hear more about that specifically.
Throw out those old Wings of Desire DVDs and jump on this hi-def bandwagon with this fantastic Criterion release. For Wim Wenders' seminal film we get a beautiful transfer and informative supplements that make the experience of watching Wings of Desire even richer than it already is. Although this disc is an easy recommendation to fans of the film, art-house lovers in general will want to give this film a rental at the very least to experience Wenders' poetic ode to Berlin.
Wings of Desire is acquitted of all charges.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German, English, French)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Archival Footage
* Production Notes