Wings of Desire Review

The plot and central idea of Wings of Desire is dazzlingly simple and could be summed up in a couple of lines, yet many people find it a difficult film to watch. The film follows two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) as they float over the skies of Berlin observing and listening in on the lives of the city’s inhabitants. Damiel falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin) and when he meets a former angel, Peter Falk (playing himself), an actor who is in Berlin making a film, he is inspired by the actor to give up his wings and experience life for himself.

There is nothing more difficult to comprehend in the film than this – this is all the film is about, but the nature of its depiction places it firmly in the arthouse genre and will mean it is not a film everyone will enjoy. The film, particularly in the first half, is made up of long sequences of vignettes of the angels, dressed in long raincoats and wearing short pony-tails, sitting alongside Berlin’s inhabitants in their homes, on the U-bahn, and walking through the deserted landscapes of a Berlin that has not been fully reconstructed after the war. They listen into people’s thoughts, which are generally poetic in nature and impressionistic, flitting between memories of the past and worries about the rent. Occasionally the angels are able to offer a brief moment of comfort and hope, but are not able to intervene in people’s lives.

The film was almost entirely improvised. Wim Wenders went to make a film in Berlin and while walking around the city - at that point in the 1980s still divided by the Berlin Wall - made notes about his impressions and turned this into a script each day, literally in most cases, the night before filming. Reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke also influenced the flow of the monologues and the director was also assisted by Austrian novelist Peter Handke in the scripting of some scenes.

Complementing the poetry of the script is the poetry of the cinematography. What makes the film such a marvel and what makes such an immediate and lasting impression is the stunningly beautiful photography of an 84 year old Henri Alekan, the legendary cinematographer on Jean Cocteau’s La Belle at la Bête (1946). The majority of the film is shot in crisp black and white, immaculately lit and meticulously composed, and it is the black and white scenes that are inhabited by the angels. Colour sequences are used to depict the absence of the angels, and these real-life scenes are more frequent when Damiel falls down to earth. There are many wonderful, memorable shots used in the film – the camera seeming to float, soar and glide alongside the angels through the Berlin public library and on top of the angel of the Siegessäule monument.

If the conception of the film and the method of making it was a little unconventional and haphazard, it nevertheless manages a brilliant coherence. It depicts the duality of a divided city through black & white and colour photography and through the lives of the angels and the lives of the people, through the sheer poetry and the grim reality of living. And this finally is the great success of the film. It captures what is wonderful about life, the small things that make life worth living – a cup of coffee warming the hands on a cold day, a kiss from a lover. All these experiences are lived afresh through the eyes of an angel who has come down to live among mortals. And if all these experiences are so wonderful to an angel, how much more precious should they be to mortals.

The picture quality on the new Anchor Bay release is extremely good. This is particularly pleasing because this is such a beautiful looking film. The black and white scenes which make up three quarters of the film are crisp and sharp showing a full range of tones and picking up details of every single meticulously lit object in the frame. One or two little marks and scratches can be seen on the print, but there is nothing here that will annoy or distract. On the contrary, one can but marvel at the beauty of the photography and its presentation on this DVD. In the commentary track, Wenders specifically comments on the DVD print and the colour correction that has been applied. The film presented here is better than cinema prints where the black and white photography had to be printed onto colour stock, losing a lot of quality.

The DVD contains the original Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The original soundtrack is adequate though it is a little harsh and rough and doesn’t seem to have been restored in any significant way. The 5.1 remix on the other hand is superb. It is not showy or flashy and doesn’t jar with the original intentions of the soundtrack, rather it enhances them. The film features a beautiful soundtrack of layered voices and whispers which weave in and out of the musical accompaniment. Much more could have been done to enhance this effect, but at the risk of distracting too much from the film, the temptation to revise the soundtrack too much has thankfully been resisted. The sound emanates principally from the centre speaker with subtle and discrete atmospheric touches on the surrounds. The noise reduction is much better on this track compared to the unrestored 2.0 track.

There seem to be some problems with the 5.1 track on the initial release of this DVD however. The sound started cutting out at the 1 hour 44 mark, going completely silent for 10 minutes and returning intermittently for the last 5 minutes of the film. The soundtrack can be switched to the original Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack which does not have the problem. Anchor Bay are aware of the problem and will be re-issuing the DVD. Anyone who has this problem disc can get it replaced.

The DVD features a very good full length commentary track from the director, Wim Wenders. Wenders is joined at stages by an unbilled Peter Falk, who doesn’t seem to have been there at the start of the commentary as he asks about the genesis of the idea of the film, which Wenders has already outlined. The commentary is an excellent mix of reminiscence of the Berlin of the period (the city has changed enormously in the last 15 years), working with Alekan, Handke and the cast, developing the ideas and the script and an insight into his working methods.

Outtakes & Deleted Scenes(30.56)
A lengthy reel of outtakes and deleted scenes is presented with no chapters or breaks. Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, the quality is pretty good. Not quite as sharp as the actual feature, there are also more marks and damage visible here. The scenes are mostly silent, with musical accompaniment from the soundtrack and an obligatory commentary from the director. The scenes are made up of mainly extraneous material and scenes that just didn’t fit into the final cut of the film. One main scene, presented in rushes, was an alternative ending where Cassiel also becomes human. The resulting pie fight is quite funny, but clearly wouldn’t have worked and was thankfully cut from the film.

German Trailer (1.51)
Showing principally the opening scenes of the film the trailer is a perfectly condensed summary of the film. 1.85:1 anamorphic.

Curt Bois Trailer
In German with no subtitles or explanation, this appears to be a promotional trailer for a 1997 Wim Wenders retrospective. 1.85:1 anamorphic.

Photo Gallery
The photo gallery runs automatically or can be skipped through using the remote. Most of the photos are direct stills from the film itself.

Film Notes
A brief summary and review of the film.

Cast and Crew
Biographies are included for all the main cast and crew.

Wings of Desire is a beautiful film that floats before your eyes and seems difficult to grasp, but in reality it is a very simple film that achieves its profundity through the very nature of its simplicity. If you watched this film without the subtitles and with no knowledge of German, I am convinced that it would be no less impressive and its meaning would still be fully conveyed. Fortunately, we have subtitles here and with a superb presentation, good commentary and a first-class set of extras, this DVD becomes indispensable.

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