Release Date(s)1987 (December 12, 2022)
Studio(s)Road Movies/Argos Films/Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Curzon Film)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
In the summer of 1985, director Wim Wenders—having lived and worked in the United States for several years—returned to Germany in search of financing for his next project, an ambitious road movie called Until the End of the World. Unfortunately, that proved more difficult than expected, so to keep his production company intact in the meantime, he decided to make a film about his native West Berlin. The problem was, he had no story. But during a series of walks in search of locations around town, Wenders—a fan of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke—began to notice how prominently angels featured in the artwork and sculptures he saw across the city. And thus the idea for Wings of Desire was born.
It’s important to note that this is not a traditional narrative film—there’s really no plot that drives the story forward. Instead, we meet a pair of angels, Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz, The American Friend, Downfall) and Cassiel (Otto Sander, Das Boot, The Tin Drum), who watch over the people of Berlin from their eternal perspective, observing and testifying to what they see in order to preserve its memory. But Damiel has grown tired of merely observing; he believes that to truly understand humanity, one needs to experience their reality firsthand—to taste, to feel, and be tied by gravity to the Earth. His desire is motivated in part by the love he’s begun to have for a young woman named Marion (Solveig Dommartin, Until the End of the World), a trapeze artist working at a traveling French circus in the city. So Damiel decides to give up his angelic existence to know the truth of that love and of mortal life.
But that synopsis is only half of what makes Wings of Desire so compelling, because the angels also experience time differently than humans do. They know all of history as a memory. They can listen to people’s thoughts and dreams, hear their struggles, and offer occasional comfort where it might be of help. Berlin itself is a character in this film, and it should be noted that Wings of Desire was completed just two years before the Wall between East and West Berlin finally came down. So the film serves as a unique historical record of a specific time, and of a place that played a profound role in the 20th Century. The film is also greatly enhanced by the seemly random people we meet along the way, including a dying poet named Homer (played by Curt Bois, of Casablanca fame) and the American character actor Peter Falk (TV’s Colombo, seen here as himself) in one of his finest—and certainly his most unique—film appearances.
Wings of Desire is a stream-of-consciousness meditation on life, love, and the meaning of human existence. This isn’t a slow-boiling story so much as a long-simmering and dream-like tone poem. Shot without a script, with only occasional monologues by longtime Wenders collaborator (and Nobel Prize-winning writer) Peter Handke to guide the journey, the actors were allowed to find their characters’ truths themselves, and the film itself to find its own meandering path. What’s more, Wenders asked the legendary French cinematographer Henri Alekan (Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Roman Holiday)—then 80 years of age—to come out of retirement to shoot Wings mostly in black-and-white. The resulting collaboration, kissed by the freedom of no script, unleashed Alekan’s playful creativity, resulting in some of the most striking and beautiful film imagery in his long and illustrious career. Add to all this a haunting score by Jürgen Knieper, dissonant circus music by Laurent Petitgand, and post-punk/art-rock live tracks by Aussie acts Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the result is a singularly unique and evocative pure cinema experience. I would even go so far as to call it a masterpiece.
Wings of Desire was shot on 35 mm photochemical film (in both black-and-white and color) using Arriflex 35 BL4 cameras with spherical lenses, and it was finished photochemically for a 1.66:1 intended theatrical aspect ratio. But what’s not widely appreciated is that—due to limitations in the analog production and distribution process back in 1987, which were complicated by the decision to shoot mostly in black-and-white—the completed film was fully six generations removed from the original camera negative. What’s more, the black-and-white footage had to be printed to color stock for theatrical distribution, which lent an unintentional sepia tone to the footage, compromising Alekan’s carefully constructed imagery. Previous restorations of the film (in 2002 for DVD and 2010 for Blu-ray) had been done using 35 mm interpositive and internegative elements. But in 2017, the Wim Wenders Foundation (aka the Wim Wenders Stiftung) began a new restoration utilizing a full 4K scan of the original black-and-white and color camera negative. Digital remastering was then completed in the 4K space (including scratch and damage removal) and all transitions (that had previously been done optically) were redone digitally frame-by-frame. The result is a new 4K Digital Intermediate from which Curzon’s Ultra HD release has been produced.
It should be noted that no grading has been done here for High Dynamic Range—this is SDR only. However, as you’ll see, the film doesn’t need HDR. The 1st generation black-and-white imagery is absolutely luminous. The shadows are deeply black, the highlights are bright, and all of the mid-tones emerge here in a way that you’ve simply never seen them before. And the detail is exquisite! In every single shot, the subtle textures of skin, hair, fabric, brick, and stone are cleanly and tightly-resolved. The photochemical grain structure is original, natural-looking, and intact at all times. The color imagery is well-saturated and nuanced. Wings of Desire is one of the most beautiful films of the 1980s, and it is 100% accurate to say that you’ve simply never seen it looking this good before. Even the original Cannes audience in ‘87 didn’t see it like this. Curzon’s Ultra HD release offers—hands-down—one of the finest 4K images on this format in the last year. The disc is just breathtaking. It’s absolutely wondrous. And quality-wise, it’s as much of a leap from the Criterion Blu-ray, as that Blu-ray was from the best DVD before it.
From an audio standpoint, Wings of Desire is notable for being Wenders’ first film in stereo. The magnetic tracks used in the original sound mix had fortunately been preserved and were digitized to complete a full audio restoration. That stereo experience has been reproduced here in lossless German LPCM 2.0 stereo. A new German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix has also been created—and approved by Wenders—that remains truthful to the stereo experience. Dialogue is crisp and firmly-centered in the forward part of the soundstage, while music and environmental cues extend lightly into surround channels. You’ll notice this a bit during the circus performances, and in the two scenes in which Damiel and Claire listen to music in an underground club. What I really like is that the surrounds are utilized to softly envelope the viewer in the shifting thoughts of the humans that Damiel and Cassiel are observing. It’s as though you’re dialing through radio station channels, randomly catching little whispered bits of people’s internal monologues. It’s very effective and enhances the original artistic intent of those moments. Beyond this, there’s no revisionism here—no new sound effects, nothing that would jar you out of your immersion in the film.
English-only subtitles are included, and this is the one area where Curzon's 4K disc falls short. Rather than offering traditional English subtitles, SDH subs (for the deaf and hard of hearing) are used instead. This means all of the film’s dialogue—even Falk’s English lines—are subtitled. And the track includes text cues for sound effects and music as well. It’s good that an English SDH track is available here, but more traditional English subs should be included too. It would be nice if Curzon corrected the 4K disc to include them, as many fans will find the SDH track distracting. That said, having watched the film with the SDH subs, you do very quickly get used to them. They also occasionally identify specific pieces of background music, which I found useful. And the remastered image is so engrossing that it’s simply impossible not to get drawn in regardless.
[Editor’s Note: Curzon has investigated this subtitle issue and is issuing a corrected 4K disc via replacement program. To request your copy, be sure to fill out their official online form here.]
Curzon’s Ultra HD package includes the film in remastered 4K on UHD only—there’s no Blu-ray copy. But the 4K disc is all-region and thus compatible with any UHD player. It includes the following special features…
- Audio Commentary with Wim Wenders and Peter Falk
- In Conversation with Wim Wenders at the BFI (2022) (HD – 48:54)
- Deleted Scenes with Commentary (Upsampled SD – 30:51)
- Deleted Scenes with Music (Upsampled SD – 6:50)
- Lecture by Wim Wenders (HD – 30:59)
- Helicopter Flight Over Berlin (HD – 10:14)
- German Trailer (Edited by Wim Wenders) (HD – 1:45)
- English Trailer (Edited by Wim Wenders) (HD – 1:44)
- Curzon Retrospective Trailer (HD – 1:35)
There’s been some reporting that the commentary with Wenders and Falk is different than the Mark Rance-produced track that appeared on the Criterion Blu-ray, and while that’s technically true, they’re actually much the same. The Curzon commentary is simply edited to remove Rance’s questions and prompts, so that it sounds like a more traditional commentary with just Wenders and Falk. I can’t be completely sure that every comment by the pair from the Criterion track is included here, but most of them certainly are. It’s just that the comments appear to be reordered in places (and it’s possible that some unique material has been added as well). My suspicion is that the two commentaries offer basically the same informational content.
In Conversation with Wim Wenders was shot at a BFI screening of the remastered film in June of 2022, and it’s wonderful to hear the director reflecting back on the project. A host asks Wenders several questions, which he answers thoughtfully and at length, and then audience-submitted questions are answered as well. Some wonderful details and insights are presented, including a few you may not have heard before.
The Deleted Scenes with Commentary and with Music are essentially the same ones that appeared on the Criterion Blu-ray, just separated into two clips. They’ve been upsampled from SD resolution.
The Lecture with Wim Wenders is a 30-minute piece shot in February of 2018 at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, the morning after the remastered film’s premiere screening. In it, the director and his wife Donata discuss the technical details of restoration effort and the unique challenges involved in restoring Wings of Desire in particular, given its production history.
Helicopter Flight Over Berlin is basically just all the raw footage from the helicopter shoot, only some of which appeared in the final film. It’s accompanied by a piece of music from the score.
Finally, there are a trio of all-new trailers, which have been created using the remastered footage and which are presented in full HD. All of this comes in a lovely Steelbook package that features abstract imagery from the film. There’s no Digital code.
The English SDH issue aside (the significance of which will depend on your individual perspective as a viewer), Curzon has produced a fantastic 4K Ultra HD edition of one of Wim Wenders’ finest works. Wings of Desire is a film I fall a little bit more in love with every time I see it. But never have I seen it like this—previously unseen detail abounds in every frame. So for me, the added cost of importing this disc from the UK is worth every single penny. Wings of Desire in 4K is a sublime experience that I’ll treasure for many years to come. It’s highly recommended for all cinephiles.
- Bill Hunt