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MGM Studios DVD presents
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987)

"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? 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)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: June 30, 2003

Stars: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander
Other Stars: Curt Bois, Peter Falk
Director: Wim Wenders

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for (language, sensuality, mature themes, brief nudity)
Run Time: 02h:07m:35s
Release Date: July 01, 2003
UPC: 027616887450
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+A-B A-

DVD Review

The 1998 film, City of Angels, which stars Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage, was a moderately enjoyable box-office hit, a somewhat syrupy romance about a guardian angel who falls in love with a mortal and decides to give up his immortal duties for a chance at finite humanity. I loved the concept and some of the imagery (particularly the decision to dress the angels not with wings and harps, but with dour black trench coats), but I couldn't help feeling manipulated by the simplistic, Hollywood love story and a manipulative, tacked-on climax. I simply knew that somewhere in that mess of laconic stares from Cage, and cute, wrinkly-nosed smiles from Ryan, there was a truly wonderful film struggling to get out.

I wasn't that surprised, then, when I later learned that City of Angels was, like many successful Hollywood films, an inferior remake of a superior foreign effort. Wings of Desire was German director Wim Wenders' follow-up to his internationally acclaimed Paris, Texas (a film that picked up the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985). Wenders sets his story in Cold War-era Berlin, in a city still divided by animosity and the wall (the original title translates to The Sky Over Berlin). The Berlin Wall is of little import to the host of angels watching over the city—they frequently pass right through it. In the decade since the wall fell, that image has lost none of its potency or meaning. The importance of the human connection still trumps even such an overwhelming symbol of human conflict.

For that is what the angels do. They aren't guardians in the traditional Christian sense (they only occasionally have wings; it turns out that the remake appropriated costuming ideas as well); they are more like observers. They wander unseen through the streets and listen to the thoughts of worried passersby. Every once in a while, they'll stop to place a comforting hand on a particularly troubled shoulder, and the person's spirits will lift. But it seems their primary purpose is just to watch, to ensure that someone notes the hurried lives and scattered thoughts of beings, flesh and blood.

One angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), finds himself drawn more and more to his charges; their chaotic lives fascinate his ordered mind. "Just once, I'd like to say 'oh!' and 'hey!' instead of always 'yea' and 'amen,'" he laments. For the first hour, we experience life through Damiel's eyes, and discover how it is to exist without ever really living. The majority of these scenes are filmed in black and white, the images drained of color but not of their vibrancy or elegance, as if the angels see things so clearly, they aren't distracted by such earthly flourishes. In a series of vignettes, Damiel and his friend Cassiel (Otto Sander) simply watch and listen. They particularly like the library, where the noise of hundreds of busy minds builds into a comforting drone.

Damiel is drawn to Marion (Solveig Dommartin), an acrobat in a rundown circus. She is a lonely soul longing for love, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of giving her what she needs. To love is truly something human, though, and to do so, Damiel must fall, must take on an earthly body. In the second half, we watch Damiel experience life, to discover what it means to be cold, or hungry, or tired. He finds a friend in actor Peter Falk (playing himself), another fallen angel who helps teach him what it means to be a mortal.

City of Angels was all about the angel's love for the woman. Wender's film is, happily, more enamored with the human condition, and his film is deeper, transcendent. There isn't a plot, per se, but the slow pace is not a hindrance. Damiel prizes above all else the ability to exist within time, and to truly experience, rather than simply observe. Wenders (and co-writer Peter Handke) seem to suggest that, perhaps, the greatest gift of humanity is the knowledge of mortality, for only beings who know they are going to die can truly embrace what time they have.

A masterpiece of imagery, Wings of Desire earned Wenders the director's prize at Cannes and renewed acclaim for cinematographer Henri Alekan, who filmed Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast in 1946. It is a motion picture of stunning beauty and emotional resonance, heaven sent.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Wings of Desire was filmed on the cheap, and almost totally in black and white (note that the DVD offers the intended "true" black and white, whereas the film stock always had a bluish tinge in theaters), and the remastered source material looks great on DVD. The image is crisp and more or less free of distracting grain. Contrast is quite good, and blacks fairly deep, though some darker scenes do lack definition. When the image does switch to color, hues are saturated and vibrant. There are a few lines and scratches visible at times, and some light aliasing on hard surfaces here and there, but overall, this is fine work from MGM.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0German/Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is offered in the original German/English, remixed into 5.1 DD surround. It's a fair mix considering the source materials (a low-budgeted foreign film). The dialogue has a tendency to sound a bit hollow and unnatural, but it's always clear and understandable. The score is mixed nicely into the front mains and presented with decent fidelity, though high-end frequencies sometimes suffer from a bit of harshness. Surrounds are muted throughout, but the presentation across the front soundstage is quite pleasing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Wim Wenders, actor Peter Falk
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Deleted Scenes Montage
  2. Interactive Map
  3. Wim Wenders Promo
Extras Review: Wings of Desire makes its Region 1 DVD debut with a decent special edition from MGM. It's one of their better efforts, too—from the cover art, to the menu design, to the content of the bonus material, this is one of the finest discs I've seen for a foreign film.

Director Wim Wenders, who has always been involved with his films' DVD releases, contributes to a full-length commentary, along with actor Peter Falk. It's a fairly lively discussion with plenty of production anecdotes and lots information about the somewhat haphazard story development. Wenders does most of the talking, but Falk is obviously very proud of his work, and he seems a bit tickled that he got to play himself on film.

The entire creative process, from casting to release, is the focus of the new 48-minute documentary, Angels Among Us. Interviewees include the director, screenwriter Peter Handke, the cast, and even Brad Silberling, who helmed the film's American remake, City of Angels. Much attention is given to the fact that the award-winning screenplay was written while the movie was filming, with many scenes completed just days before they went in front of the camera. It's a solid, but a fairly routine, retrospective piece—full of talking heads and film clips, it's nevertheless well-edited and informative.

Wenders provides commentary for over 30 minutes of sometimes meandering deleted scenes. Most seem to be slight extensions of existing scenes (like the traffic montage near the beginning), but there are a few isolated vignettes that are nice to see (particularly an alternate ending in which Damiel's friend Cassiel decides to "fall" and a few more scenes with female angels). Much of the material is simply Ganz's broad reactions as Damiel discovers the pleasures of life on earth. There is also a rather goofy pie fight that recalls the mythic alternate ending to Dr. Strangelove (even the crew gets involved), and I can't imagine how it ever would have fit into the film proper (Wenders simply says "I'd always wanted to shoot a pie fight, and I finally got to do it."). The quality of these excised bits varies a bit, with many scenes looking dirty and scratched, and though they include musical accompaniment, very few have any dialogue. Wenders' commentary cannot be turned off.

Other extras include two original trailers, a bizarre, German-only promo clip billed as a "Wim Wenders promo," a poster ''gallery'' with only two images, and an interactive map of Berlin that highlights landmarks featured in the film (clicking on a location earns you a brief informational clip).

A clear case of quality over quantity, this disc is packed with enlightening bonus material.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Wings of Desire is a meditative fairy tale of a film, a melancholy masterpiece and a joyous celebration of life and humanity. It won director Wim Wenders international acclaim, and the DVD is worthy of the same—MGM pulled out all the stops, making this one their best foreign release to date.


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