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Case Number 03403

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Wings Of Desire

MGM // 1988 // 128 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // October 13th, 2003

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Wings Of Desire: Criterion Collection (published November 3rd, 2009) and Wings Of Desire: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray) (published November 3rd, 2009) are also available.

The Charge

There are angels on the streets of Berlin.

Opening Statement

Wings of Desire puts the "sy" in artsy. This isn't a film you can simply watch. You must strategically survey the battlefield, vanquish the defenses, scatter the stunned villagers, and plunder the delicate treasure of meaning within the film. For those without the proper weapons, or for those who find the battle too exhausting, Wings of Desire will wear them down to numb, careworn victims of art house cinema. Take heart: those who surmount Wings of Desire say it is the most beautiful, poetic movie ever filmed.

Facts of the Case

The people of Berlin go about daily life, worrying about money, love, and taxes. Hovering over and among them are contemplative angels, who do not intervene so much as attune to the lives of Berliners. The angels are simply antennas for God, watching the world evolve, reporting what they see and hear. One angel (Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz) becomes frustrated by the millions of sedentary years. He longs to taste coffee, feel cold, see color. He'll need a catalyst to overcome eons of inertia—a catalyst stronger than former angel Peter Falk's gentle admonition to come on down.

The Evidence

Wings of Desire is like the classic novel your friend keeps badgering you to read. It is undoubtedly good. Thousands of scholars and historians proclaim its significance and powerful emotional impact. But when you sit down to read it, you can't keep your eyes open past the first few chapters. Each word summons a slight throbbing pain behind your forehead.

Sometimes you do finally get through the novel, perhaps weeks or years later. Often your eyes are opened, your mind expanded, and you finally see what people have been raving about. Wings of Desire is that kind of film. I know this by the gushing words of film critics, the unabashed adulation of throngs of IMDb users. I know it also because I have seen Wings of Desire with my own eyes, and I can proclaim with perfect honesty that it is artistic, with subtle characters, fantastic camerawork, and rich dialogue. Continuing with the perfect honesty, I fell asleep watching it the first time, and the second time I had to use all of my mental resources to discern the basics of plot and meaning. Having done so, I can perceive the "a-ha!" moment that might dawn with one or two more viewings.

So the question you must ask yourself is, do you watch movies for powerful artistic merit? Do you enjoy wading through dense thickets of symbolism? Is Citizen Kane too plain for your tastes? If so, you will love Wings of Desire. If you lean towards the romantic comedy/light entertainment side, stay away. If you do chose to tackle this fine film, there is much to reward you.

Perhaps the first thing you will notice is the audio. Layers of voices intertwine to create a cacophony of humanity. At times we are meant to understand the words, while at other times it is as though Wenders ignores the audience altogether, assaulting our mortal ears with the unfiltered jumble heard by the angels.

The camerawork establishes its caliber early. Wenders employs a lyrical juxtaposition of aerial shots, helicopter shots, crane shots, and eye-level still shots. The camera swoops and sweeps and meanders, popping in on this couple here, following a boy there. We rest within a scene for a moment or two then take off again for a new patch of concrete. The editing of these scenes is tight, rarely losing the viewer despite dramatic shifts in perspective. Able cinematography helps set the mood through careful shadows that obscure detail, but do not bog down the picture with heavy darkness. The shadows are warm, caressing the faces of the actors.

The actors portraying the angels express deep understanding and beatific complacency. Damiel isn't so much troubled as irked. He can appreciate the peace of angelic divinity while still being curious about mortality. If anyone is troubled, it is his friend Cassiel (Otto Sander). Cassiel is perplexed and unsettled by Damiel's thoughts of mortality. I know it is intentional, but I found the angels' stilted movements unnatural. They are so calm in movement and gesture that I was lulled into a stupor. Even the affable Peter Falk could not completely shake the cobwebs from my mind.

Wings of Desire is really about the story, however unconventionally it is told. (My first instinct in assigning the Story score in the Scales of Justice was to put 0/100: one hundred for those who "got it" and zero for those who failed to fathom the deeply shrouded, subtle intricacies of angelo-humanistic interaction. I am in the latter camp, by the way. There is definitely a story and a plot, rich with meaning. I have wrapped my brain around parts of it, absorbing small nuances that gave me little "a-ha!" moments. It is as though I'm holding shreds of rubber that I must somehow form into a balloon.) The story is about little moments, experiences, and sensations that make us human. For example, Peter Falk gives an enticing monologue about how one's fingers tingle with cold, and how holding a steaming cup of coffee tickles the nose and wakes the senses. This is one of the more obvious and approachable elements of the story. It reinforces our love of being human, gives us a warm fuzzy, and serves the plot (Peter is enticing an angel to forsake divinity and experience life). Other elements, as noted above, are less approachable. For example, here is another monologue from a driver:

Are there still borders? More than ever! Every street has its borderline. Between each plot, there's a strip of no-man's-land disguised as a hedge or a ditch. Whoever dares, will fall into booby traps or be hit by laser rays. The trout are really torpedoes. Every home owner, or even every tenant nails his name plate on the door, like a coat of arms and studies the morning paper as if he were a world leader. Germany has crumbled into as many small states as there are individuals. And these small states are mobile. Everyone carries his own state with him, and demands a toll when another wants to enter. A fly caught in amber, or a leather bottle. So much for the border. But one can only enter each state with a password. The German soul of today can only be conquered and governed by one who arrives at each small state with the password. Fortunately, no one is currently in a position to do this. So…everyone migrates, and waves his one-man-state flag in all earthly directions. Their children already shake their rattles and drag their filth around them in circles.

Less approachable, this, but still understandable and navigable. But remember, Wings of Desire is not for mere movie mortals. The poetic meaning gets multilayered and cries for soulful interpretation, such as this "snippet" that is repeated several times throughout the film ("Song of Childhood" by Peter Handke):

When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn't know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

When the child was a child,
It was the time for 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?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people.
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn't exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

When the child was a child,
It choked on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding,
and on steamed cauliflower,
and eats all of those now, and not just because it has to.

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

It had visualized a clear image of Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.

When the child was a child,
It played with enthusiasm,
and, now, has just as much excitement as then,
but only when it concerns its work.

When the child was a child,
It was enough for it to eat an apple…bread,
And so it is even now.

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
it had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so,
It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees
with an elation it still has today,
has a shyness in front of strangers,
and has that even now.
It awaited the first snow,
And waits that way even now.

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.

If you think reading lines like "How can it be that I, who I am, didn't exist before I came to be, and that, someday, I, who I am, will no longer be who I am?" is confusing, try fathoming the meaning when it is being thrown at you multiple times against a backdrop of contrasting imagery. This is what I mean when I say Wings of Desire is artistic but somewhat unapproachable. Wings of Desire is essentially cinematic poetry. That is a great thing, a remarkable thing, difficult to achieve without being unreasonably obscure, and thus an even greater thing. Unless you aren't into poetry.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Though it may not be my cup of tea, Wings of Desire is an unquestionably successful film. The acting, direction, story, cinematography, and dialogue all work in concert to produce a greater whole. Unfortunate, then, that the DVD presentation takes things down a level or two.

I love the subtle halo effect that glows around each angel, revealing inner divinity. Unfortunately, excessive edge enhancement is the cause rather than special effects work. This is a shame because the camerawork was handled with delicacy. I'm sure Henri Alekan did not intend the glowing outlines to detract from his careful compositions. He might be even less pleased to find that the DVD is in 1.78:1, and not the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It is straightforward: movie is filmed in an aspect ratio, make the DVD in that aspect ratio. The 16:9 widescreen ratio is a fantastic confluence of mathematics that enables most aspect ratios to look good on the screen. This does not mean that all existing aspect ratios should be stretched, cropped, or otherwise forced into 16:9.

The audio/subtitle combinations are simply confusing. After watching the film a couple times, I'm still unsure whether I have experienced the correct audio/subtitle combo. The film is in both German and English, with variable means of including subtitles. For a better handle on the situation, read Joshua Zyber's explanation (linked in the sidebar).

MGM does provide a fantastic assortment of extras that make up for some of the other flaws. There is an extensive documentary that delves into the making of the film, Wender's thoughts about its genesis and execution, as well as the actors' and producer's takes on the film. This documentary would substitute as a reasonable commentary, but we are treated to a feature length commentary nonetheless. As far as commentaries go, this one fares well. Wim Wenders provides real insight without lapsing into fawning praise of everyone involved. You get a sense of the detail he applied to directing the film. Falk gives periodic commentary as well, though he is never introduced. Falk's comments are more personal, reminiscing about memorable scenes and locations.

There is an indecipherable promo for Wim Wenders and some trailers, neither of which were too impressive. Rounding out the extras are deleted scenes with commentary (a nice touch) and an interactive map which provides more detail about the shooting locations. All in all, a satisfying bevy of features.

Closing Statement

Art and poetry are words not lightly applied to film. Cinema is hit or miss when it comes to artistic integrity. Wings of Desire shores up the defenses of those who argue for film's status among the echelons of fine art. Because it is art first and entertainment second, the viewer must approach it properly to realize the full experience.

One thing I am sure of is that Wings of Desire will reward multiple viewings. The most innocent phrases took on sinister overtones with a second viewing, and I still don't have my brain around the film yet. I hope to reach the rapturous glow that so many viewers obtain from this film.

The Verdict

In all honesty, his honor is confused. Can the counselors present the case again, but more slowly this time? And talk one at a time!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 64
Audio: 76
Extras: 94
Acting: 86
Story: 75
Judgment: 80

Special Commendations

• Golden Gavel 2003 Nominee

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic (cropped from 1.85:1)
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (German)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary by Director Wim Wenders and Peter Falk
• Deleted Scenes with Commentary by Wim Wenders
• "Angels Among Us" Documentary
• Interactive Map
• Wim Wenders Promo
• Trailers


• IMDb
• Official Site

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