Wings of Desire

  • Reviewed by: Barrie Maxwell
  • Review Date: Nov 10, 2009
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Wim Wenders

Release Date(s)

1987 (November 3, 2009)

Studio(s)

Road Movies Filmproduktion/Argos Films (Criterion - Spine #490)

Review

On a single first viewing of Wings of Desire, it is easy to understand how some viewers might be turned off by the film’s ethereal nature.  Others will be entranced immediately by what director Wim Wenders has accomplished, but many like myself I suspect only come to appreciate fully the film’s magic with repeated viewings.

The film spends almost an hour and a half in the mode of observation to begin with, as it follows the movements of two angels through the city of Berlin.  Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are privy to the thoughts and sounds arising from the hopes and dreams, the successes and failures, and the profound and mundane activities of the city’s inhabitants – something the angels have seemingly experienced for all eternity.  They empathize; they caress; they silently encourage with sometimes positive and sometimes negative effect.  Their attention is equally directed to the young and the old, the successful ones and the failures.  But eventually Damiel realizes that he is missing something – the experience of what it’s really like to be a flesh and blood human being.  His desire is intensified by his observation of a young trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) with whom he eventually falls in love.  The possibility of giving up his angelic life for human reality is quite possible, as exemplified by an actor (Peter Falk) who made the same decision many years before and offers positive guidance to Damiel.  The film’s last half hour documents Damiel’s transition to flesh and blood (one paralleled by the film’s switch from B&W to colour), and his search for and eventual union with Marion.

The film itself is an entrancing, even inspiring, experience that offers one of the finest observations on film of the human condition.  Its compact main cast is uniformly excellent, particularly the close relationship between Damiel and Cassiel as espoused by Ganz and Sander’s sympathetic performances.  You really believe that if angels exist, they would indeed be beings like those that Ganz and Sander project.  Solveig Dommartin’s beauty and the wistful way in which she plays Marion are such that the inspiration she raises in Damiel is easy to understand.  Peter Falk seems to be providing a form of comic relief at first that seems at odds with the rest of the film, but when you eventually become aware of the true fallen angel nature of his character, you realize how perfectly cast he is the role.

For director Wim Wenders, the film is an ode to Berlin and something he greatly wanted to make after spending more than half a decade in the United States.  The process involved in structuring his poem as he did in the end is almost as fascinating as the film itself.  Let’s just say that seldom have actors had as little to work with from the beginning as they did here, and probably never has a writer (Peter Handke) trod such an unusual road to have his words brought to life.  Contributing immeasurably to the film is the superb photography of the legendary Henri Alekan.  His work on the film’s black and white passages is mesmerizing, and if the colour sequences at the end aren’t quite as entrancing, that seems appropriate for it’s then that overly flowery exchanges between Damiel and Marion in the film’s script let us down just somewhat.

Wings of Desire is presented on Blu-ray by Criterion with a 1.66:1 HD transfer created from a 35mm interpositive and 35mm internegative.  The black and white sequences look superb with crisp images, exacting image detail, and a very impressive grey scale.  Film grain is modest and realistic looking.  The colour sequences are almost as impressive at least in terms of vibrancy and accuracy, but just don’t suggest quite the punch that the black and white sequences do.  There is no suggestion of edge effects and the image cleanliness is admirable.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has been newly created for this release, remastered and remixed from the original 35mm stereo stems under the supervision of the director.  The result is a clear, clean sound that offers some modest front separation, but little surround experience.  Jurgen Knieper’s beguiling music is well conveyed.

The disc offers an impressive suite of supplements including a combination of audio commentary and edited interview featuring Wim Wenders and Peter Falk; a very revealing 43-minute making-of documentary; almost 40 minutes of deleted scenes (with Wenders commentary) and outtakes; a 27-minute featurette on the film’s lighting with input from Wenders and Alekan); several shorter featurettes; several photo and stills galleries; and two trailers.  Most of the documentaries and featurettes are presented in HD.  A 30-page information booklet including a fine essay by film critic Michael Atkinson concludes the package.

Criterion’s Blu-ray effort is a definitive release of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.  Highly recommended.

- Barrie Maxwell

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