Wings of Desire: Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin) centers around two guardian angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). The duo –alongside other angels- act as witnesses to all that takes place around them on Earth (the streets of 1987 West Berlin, to be precise). Moving invisibly through the haunted city, they observe, collect and share people’s thoughts, dreams, memories and fears with each other. After an eternity of observing, Damiel begins to ponder the possibility of becoming mortal, and when he encounters and falls for a lonely trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), he decides to take the plunge and become human.

Until Damiel makes that leap, nearly two-thirds into the movie’s 127-minute running time, there really isn’t much of a structured plot to speak of in Wings of Desire. The film is more of a reflection on the human condition, expressed through a series of sequences of inner monologues. There are scores of characters, but most come and go so quickly that we do not get to know them. We only get to know a handful: the two angels, Marion, an elderly gentleman named Homer (Curt Bois), the city of Berlin itself (the project began as a film about Berlin and not about angels) and Peter Falk, who plays…well, Peter Falk.

Were this any other film, the lack of a structured story and slightly-drawn characters would result in a film rich in style and mood, but possibly lacking in substance. But then again, Wings of Desire is not your average motion picture. Wenders’ hypnotic, uplifting fantasy is the result of winning elements masterfully combined by the German filmmaker’s assured hand. The performances by the five leads are all uniformly excellent, Henri Alekan’s dreamlike cinematography and Jurgen Kiepner’s haunting music score (with an assist from artists such as Laurie Anderson and Nick Cave) help set the perfect mood and atmosphere, while Wenders and German playwright Peter Handke’s dialogue only grows more impressive and even profound as the years tick by.

Wenders tried to make lightning strike twice a few years later with Faraway, So Close! but came up with halfhearted results. Six years later, Hollywood also tried to remake Wings into a romantic drama with a standard three-act story structure. The end result was 1998’s City of Angels starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. Like Faraway, City proved to be more of a miss than hit. Some movies, no matter how great they turn out, should not be sequelized or remade. Sometimes, when a film says ‘to be continued’ at its conclusion, that next chapter should be made -and remain- in the imagination of the viewer. Wings of Desire is definitely one of those films.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Wings of Desire is downright heavenly. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encode does justice to Alekan’s gorgeous black-and-white/color cinematography. The print is in pristine condition, with nary a nick, mark or speck of dirt to be found. Grain is handled respectively, which benefits the film-like quality of the transfer. Black levels and picture detail are both strong, and I cannot detect any sort of DNR, black crush, edge enhancement or compression artifacts at all. If there is a downside to the transfer, it is that in the color sequences, the color red appears to be slightly oversaturated. That small bit aside, this is a beauty of a transfer from Criterion.

Wings of Desire was originally recorded using the LTRT Stereo format. For this release, the audio has received a sonic bump up to 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. While the soundtrack might not attack you from all sides the way a modern-day action flick would, this audio track is still very impressive. German, English and French dialogue is clearly presented through the center channel, with the majority of the soundtrack and myriad of sound effects are evenly split between the left and right fronts. The LFE and Surround channels are also used sparingly but effectively.

The supplements for Wings of Desire are a mix of previously-released material from MGM’s 2003 special edition DVD and archival material new to home video making for a comprehensive behind-the-scenes presentation. A 30-page booklet is included which features an English translation of “Song of Childhood” by co-screenwriter Peter Handke, the article “Watch the Skies” by Michael Atkinson and “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film” by Wenders. All the video-based extras are presented in 1080i video (merci, Criterion!). The supplements are:

AudioCommentary – Wim Wenders and Peter Falk are edited together from over six hours of separately-recorded commentaries.

The Angels Among Us (43:00) – Originally produced in 2003 and included on MGM’s Special Edition DVD, this documentary covers the production from start to finish and even a little bit after that. Wenders, Ganz, Sander, Falk, City of Angels director Brad Silberling and others are interviewed. Unfortunately, Solveig Dommartin was not interviewed for the documentary (even sadder is the fact that the actress passed away in 2007).

Deleted Scenes (32:13) – This collection of trimmed scenes is accompanied by commentary from Wenders (film audio is not present), who explains why said scenes were removed from the film. Among the scenes cut is an “alternate” ending, which has Damiel, Marion and a newly-human Cassiel engaging in a pie fight. The cast and crew were getting downright silly on the last day of shooting.

Outtakes (6:50) – A series of outtakes are presented against seven minutes of Jurgen Knieper’s haunting music score.

Production Still Gallery – A collection of behind-the-scenes photos.

Trailers – The German theatrical trailer and a rather amusing trailer from a Wenders retrospective featuring the director and Curt Bois, who asks the director to “make something funny” for once. Sadly, the very cool 1988 American trailer from Orion Classics is not included; no doubt the result of non-existence…just like Orion Classics.

Cinema Cinemas (9:24) – Entitled “Wim Wenders Berlin January 1987,” this segment from the French television program looks at the shooting of one of the scenes from the movie. Worth a watch, but not as good as the other supplements.

Alekan ’85 (10:16) – A black-and-white segment filmed in November of 1985 by filmmaker Andre Bonzel as part of an unfinished documentary, this segment has the famed cinematographer discussing such topics as the difficulty of obtaining the right tone and atmosphere for a film, types of film shooting styles and the dangers of seduction when lighting an actress. Interesting stuff that I wish there was more of.

Alekan La Lumiere (Alekan: Shining Light) (27:11) – A excerpted look at the cinematographer’s film and lighting style, featuring interviews with Alekan as well as other filmmakers he has worked with, including Wenders.

Remembrance: A Film for Curt Bois and Bernhard Minetti (29:42) – Excerpts from a 1982 film co-directed by Ganz and Sander about their fellow German actor, reflecting on subjects such as the profession of acting and the city of Berlin (or as Bois calls it, ‘The Provinces’) and its past history.

Wings of Desire is many things to many people. For myself, it is a funny, moving and unforgettable examination and celebration of love, life and a city that while at the time was divided by a wall, remained unified in spirit. The film transports the viewer to another time and place, evoking a plethora of emotions without ever resorting to cheap manipulation.

Criterion has produced an excellent special edition that will please longtime fans of Wings of Desire as well as those who may be sitting down to experience it for the first time. This is without question one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2009, and should be mandatory ownership for anyone who truly loves great cinema.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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