Wings of Desire
Directed by Wim Wenders
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 127 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 German/English/French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Review Date: October 24, 2009
Wim Wenders’ haunting, evocative, poignant, and soulful Wings of Desire is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With a thin thread of a story but image after image of empathetic communication, Wings of Desire is one of those films that stays with you long after you’ve watched its last frame. If the film’s last quarter hour doesn’t quite live up to all that has gone before, it’s still one of cinema’s great life experiences, a movie full of sounds and images that burn themselves into one’s very soul.
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two angels who have been on Earth for eternity, and they find themselves in Berlin wandering the city, reading thoughts, soothing the distressed wherever possible, easing the dying into the afterlife, and generally observing a mankind that seems oddly melancholy. Damiel becomes particularly fascinated by trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin); in fact, he’s so enraptured by her high flying act that he longs to become human, not only to join her but also to experience for the first time the sounds, smells, flavors, and sensations of human existence. Such a fall is possible, and he becomes more convinced of its sound logic when he comes across Peter Falk (as himself) shooting a movie in Berlin who admits he himself is a fallen angel who recommends humanity wholeheartedly.
The film’s first eighty minutes or so are as poetic and ethereal an examination of the human condition from an objective point of view that just about any film has ever been able to convey. Whether in the bright and bustling city library, the subways and buses traversing the city, the noisy punk nightclubs in the evening, or the movie set where a film is being shot about concentration camps during World War II, the script simply lets the angels listen nonjudgmentally as the men, women, and children live their lives: some thinking serious cosmic thoughts about the nature of good and evil; others thinking about food or work schedules. Some contemplate suicide (one of the film’s most crushing images is Cassiel attempting to soothe the troubled mind of a desperate man intent on jumping from a building under construction and his reaction to the man’s decision). But the tone of the film is definitely on the down side; there seem to be problems almost everywhere one turns. With everything from the angels’ point of view being seen in black and white (better to get to the true essence of humanity without the distraction of pretty color), the somber, sober worldview is even more emphasized. After Damiel’s fall from grace, the movie shifts to color (Wenders and director of photography Henri Alekan handle the transitions with awesome grace and fluidity) as he experiences a bloody injury, rainbows of colors, and taste sensations for the first time. The inevitable reunion with his soul mate is, of course, rather telegraphed and anticlimactic, but everything to that point remains spellbinding.
With minimal angelic dialog and using more body language and facial expression to evoke an emotional response in the viewer, Bruno Ganz and especially Otto Sander give superb performances. As the ravishing trapeze artist, Solveig Dommartin does all her own stunts and is astoundingly good. She has some trouble traversing the wordy, unnecessarily literal paean to soul mates finding one another that closes the film, but there’s no denying that she’s entirely worthy of turning many an angel’s head. Peter Falk has a good time playing himself, complaining about a hat he has been given to wear by the costumer, talking to angels he can’t see but senses are present, and generally twinkling in the unique style he’s always possessed. Curt Bois as an elderly man who struggles to survive but doggedly plugs away at living has a memorable couple of scenes.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The black and white photography that graces much of the film is exquisite for the most part with splendid detail, contrast that seems perfectly realized, and a grayscale that mesmerizes. There is some minor flickering early on, and the grain structure seems a bit inconsistent, especially in the color sequences which feature rich hues but seem slightly less sharp than the black and white scenes. There is also some inserted war footage that is in very poor shape and matches coarsely with the rest of the monochromatic imagery. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 19 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix certainly doesn’t have the spread of a more modern audio design, but the hypnotic music and voices have been spread luxuriously through the entire soundfield offering nice envelopment. It lacks only the spread of other ambient sounds to the rears; otherwise, there are no complaints with the soundtrack as offered here.
The audio commentary has been edited together from over six hours of interviews with director Wim Wenders and co-star Peter Falk, and it’s part running commentary and part conversational interview as the two men discuss all aspects of putting the film together, often flying by the seat of their pants.
Two trailers are offered. The German theatrical trailer runs for 2 ¼ minutes. The promotional trailer for a Wenders retrospective (starring comedian Curt Bois) runs for 2 minutes. Both are in anamorphic widescreen.
Disc two contains the majority of the bonus material.
“The Angels Among Us” is a 2003 documentary on the making of the film dealing with everything from casting and the piecemeal script through the photography and the recording of the music. The 43 ¼-minute feature is in 4:3.
“Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. ‘87” is an excerpt from a French television series showing Wenders at work on the film before its release. This runs 9 ½ minutes in 4:3.
There are nine deleted scenes which feature a commentary by director Wim Wenders which cannot be turned off (the audio portions of some of the clips are missing). Together they run 32 ¼ minutes. Some of the scenes are also wardrobe tests and other behind-the-scenes shots. There are also 7-minutes of outtakes which feature just a music track and no vocals. All are in anamorphic widescreen.
There is an art gallery featuring stills from the movie, sketches of wardrobe and camera angles, text pages describing upcoming photos, and some behind-the-scenes shots.
“Alekan ‘85” is a series of interviews with cinematographer Henri Alekan by documentarian André Bonzel which were being shot for a film on the man which was never finished. These clips run 10 ¼ minutes and are in 4:3.
“Alekan la lumiere” features director Wim Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan discussing the use of lighting to achieve various effects during shooting. This 4:3 featurette runs 27 ¼ minutes.
“Remembrance” is a 1982 tribute to comedian Curt Bois as the two stars of Wings of Desire Otto Sander and Bruno Ganz ask the veteran actor questions about his career and his method of performing. This runs 29 ¾ minutes in 4:3.
The enclosed thirty page booklet features cast and crew lists, a generous selection of black and white and color stills, a wonderful essay on the movie by film critic Michael Atkinson, excerpts from the first draft treatment of the story ideas for the film by director/co-writer Wim Wenders, and co-writer Peter Handke’s haunting “Song of Childhood” which opens the film.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Another true classic of world cinema makes an auspicious debut in the Criterion Collection with Wim Wenders’ haunting Wings of Desire. A great audio and video encode and a rich selection of bonus features make this disc one that rates the highest recommendation.