Criterion // 1987 // 127 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 3rd, 2009
There are angels on the streets of Berlin.
"When the child was a child, it was the time of 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? Isn't life under the sun just a dream? Isn't what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who am I, wasn't before I was, and that sometime I, the one I am, no longer will be the one I am?"
Damiel (Bruno Ganz, Downfall) and Cassiel (Otto Sander, The Harmonists) are two angels who have been given the responsibility of observing humanity. They go about this task in an objective yet reasonably compassionate manner, never directly interfering with the actions of human beings but occasionally providing a small nudge of hope. However, they have been at this job for a long time, and Damiel has begun to grow hungry for something more. He yearns to feel what it is to be a human being. Specifically, he yearns to be human in order to directly interact with Marion (Solveig Dommartin, Until the End of the World), a German trapeze artist with whom Damiel has grown deeply fascinated. Will the angel sacrifice his immortality for the sake of being human? If he does, will he be able to make a connection with the woman he admires?
If you've never seen Wings of Desire, you may think you've figured out what sort of film it is based on the plot description I have provided. You're probably wrong. Though the film does indeed contain a plot line involving a love story between an angel and a human, the movie is by no means a traditional narrative. It was remade in the 1990s as the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan film City of Angels, a movie which jumped on the basic plot elements provided by this film and transformed them into a firmly commercial and conventional motion picture. Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire is not about plot so much as it is about moments. The movie does not move forward as much as it moves around, establishing an evocative locale (Berlin) and shifting through the lives of the people and angels there.
It is a challenging film to define, refusing to place itself in an easy recognizable category. Indeed, critic Michael Atkinson's essay (included in the customary Criterion accompanying booklet) describes the movie as a "European art film that can be all things to all people." What you get out of a film often has a lot to do with what you bring into it, and that's most assuredly the case with a film like Wings of Desire. I invited a number of friends who had not seen the film to view it with me. We discussed it at length afterwards, and it was particularly intriguing to observe the way that each person seemed to latch on to a different element of the film and regard it as a central theme. One person was drawn to the elderly poet played by Curt Bois (Casablanca) and his philosophical musings on the world (particularly the question, "What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn't endure?"), while another found the movie to be a deeply positive reminder of the joys of being human that we take for granted.
Wings of Desire is blessed with an abundance of fascinating imagery, provided in a striking combination of black & white and color scenes by the great cinematographer Henri Alekan. There is not a moment in which the film is not an absorbing visual experience, whether we are examining the grand libraries in the city or the graffiti-plagued Berlin Wall (the film was shot shortly before the wall was torn down) or the nervously energetic atmosphere of a Nick Cave concert.
For me, the most consistently memorable and fascinating visual element throughout the film is the face of actor Bruno Ganz. In this role, he spends considerably more time simply observing than he does speaking, so it is crucial that his face convey his emotions in a revealing manner. The angels are portrayed as being essentially good and kind beings, and Ganz is tremendously effective during the long stretches in which he moves from person to person, listening intently to their thoughts. There is a deep compassion in his eyes, a look that shifts easily between aching sadness and warmth. He places a hand on some particularly troubled people, which sometimes goes unnoticed and sometimes impacts them in a positive manner. Contrast this solemnity with his expressions when he makes the transition from being an angel to being human. The carefully-measured subtlety of Ganz's face gives way to an unbridled, goofy joy. The man who seemed to contain the wisdom of the ages suddenly takes on a childlike sense of discovery. It's moments like these that remind us of just how powerfully uplifting cinema can be. Damiel is delighted to discover that he can feel the cold wind on his face. What joy he shows, and what happiness it brings us when we recall that we have the ability to feel the same thing.
The intense satisfaction provided by these scenes only runs as deep as it does because the film manages to convey Damiel's sense of longing so effectively. Some may feel this most intensely during the moments in which he watches Marion with romantic desire. I was most struck by the angel's beautiful monologue early in the film, in which he yearns for the minor pleasures of life: "No, I don't have to beget a child or plant a tree, but it would be rather nice to come home after a long day to feed the cat, like Phillip Marlowe, to have a fever and blackended fingers from the newspaper, to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck by an ear." It is rare that a film captures the beauty and depth of feeling attained by Wings of Desire.
The transfer is another excellent outing from Criterion, improving upon the mediocre 2003 DVD release quite a bit. The image is sharp and crisp, particularly during the black and white sequences (the color moments also look good, but a bit softer and less pristine for some reason). The film was remastered for an accompanying Blu-ray release, and as such the DVD usually looks about as exceptional as it is possible for a standard-def presentation of a 20-year-old film to look. Aside from the very minor issues present during those aforementioned full-color moments, I have no complaints. The audio is also excellent, giving the busy soundtrack a clear and immersive mix. The eclectic musical selections come through nicely, but the really impressive sequences are those in which the angels hear voices all around them.
The extras on this 2-disc set are actually just a tiny bit disappointing, due to the fact that so many of them were contained on the previous DVD release. Things kick off with a stellar commentary from Wenders and actor Peter Falk (who masterfully plays a version of himself in the film), which veers from deeply philosophical to ordinary behind-the-scenes stories. You also get the 2003 documentary "Angels Among Us" (43 minutes), an excellent making-of piece that features interviews with every significant member of the cast and crew. There are also quite a few deleted scenes. That wraps up the previously released stuff. In addition, Criterion throws in a handful of modestly interesting tidbits: an interview with Henri Alekan, an episode of a French television program spotlighting Wim Wenders, excerpts from the films Alekan la lumiere and Remembrance: Film for Curt Bois, plus trailers and a handful of notes and photos by Heidi and Toni Ludi. It's a very generous supplemental package, but an additional original commentary or documentary would have been nice considering how well Criterion usually does such things.
Perhaps you're one of those skeptics who claim that I am just another critic promoting this "boring" film endlessly in order to mask the fact that I didn't really understand it. Let me assure you, that is not the case. There is no pretense or ego involved. Yes, there are lines of dialogue and moments in the film that I still can't quite wrap my head around. To understand the entirety of what Wings of Desire is saying would, I suspect, require (A) being Wim Wenders and co-writers Peter Handke and Richard Reitenger, or at least (B) watching the film dozens of times and giving it much more considerable study than I have been able to do thus far. However, the fact that you will probably not fully grasp every element of the film initially should not prevent you from approaching it. There is so much joy and beauty so easily grasped; the rewards (both on the surface and hiding within the film's many layers) are more than enough to compensate for any feelings of confusion or boredom one might encounter. I do not recommend this film because it is "important" (though it is), but because viewing it does my soul a world of good and I have hopes it will provide you with the same.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German, English, French)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Archival Footage
* Production Notes