Another excellent Blu-ray from Criterion, and for one of the best films of the 1980s to boot. An essential upgrade.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A
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). He sets his story in Cold War era Berlin, in a city still divided by animosity and Wall (the German title translates to The Sky Over Berlin, a rather move evocative choice). The Berlin Wall is of little import to the host of angels watching over the city—they frequently pass right through it. In the decades 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, preferring long trench coats); they are more like observers. They wander unseen through the streets and listen to the worried thoughts of passersby. Everyone 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 makes note of the hurried lives and scattered thoughts of beings of flesh and blood.
One angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), finds himself drawn more and more to his charges; their chaotic lives fascinate his ordered mind. 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 fact, they can't even conceive of color, and the notion of taste and smell are fascinating impossibilities). 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 run down 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, and 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 without winking at the audience), another fallen angel who helps teach him what it means to be a mortal.
City of Angels, the misguided Hollywood remake, was all about the angel's love for the woman. Wenders 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 in 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 life.
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 La Belle et la Bê ;te in 1946. It is a motion picture of stunning beauty and emotional resonance, heaven sent.
The DVD:Wings of Desire was filmed on the cheap, but you wouldn't know it from this outstanding new transfer, which is a massive improvement over the MGM release of six years ago—even before we consider the increased resolution of HD. The black-and-white image (finally "true" black-and-white, without the old disc's greenish hue) is full of depth and detail, and exhibits only subtle film grain. The few uses of color are suitably vivid. Audio is offered in the original German/English, remixed into 5.1 DTS HD surround. It's once again a huge step up from the DVD, with a much more natural presentation of dialogue and voiceover and a more robust use of the surround channels to carry the haunting score.
Not to badmouth the MGM disc too much—it was great for the time and a number of the excellent supplements are carried over to this disc. The commentary with Wenders and Peter Falk has been culled from the same material used to put together the 2003 track, but it's presented in an edited format with audible questions from an interviewer, Mark Rance, who conducted hours of interviews with the director and actor in the 1990s.
The disc also carries over (and upgrades to HD) the lengthy documentary Angels Among Us. Interviewees include the director, screenwriter Peter Handke, the cast, and even Brad Silberling, who helmed the film's useless 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 day's before they went before the camera.
Wenders provides commentary for over 30 minutes of sometimes meandering deleted scenes (also from the previous disc, and also in HD). Most seem to be slight extensions of existing scenes, 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" as well and a few more scenes with female angels). There's 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."). Nearly seven minutes of outtakes offer random deleted footage set to the score.
The other featurettes are shorter (though some are quite lengthy) and have increasingly less to do with the film, from a brief vintage making of clip that offers some footage of Wenders on the set to two quality pieces that focus on the life and career of cinematographer Henri Alekan (so delightfully French!), and the 30-minute Remembrance, a 1982 ode to actor Curt Bois (a Wenders regular) produced by actors Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander.
The film gets the usual classy Criterion stuff, too—an HD trailer, a nicely presented stills gallery, a booklet packed with essays and insight (including the director's original story treatment)—but I most appreciate the addition of a one-off trailer for a Win Wenders retrospective film festival that features an amusing cameo from Curt Bois.