Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) [DVD]
Director : Wim Wenders
Screenplay : Wim Wenders and Peter Handke
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1987
Stars : Bruno Ganz (Damiel), Solveig Dommartin (Marion), Otto Sander (Cassiel), Curt Bois (Homer, the aged poet), Peter Falk (Peter Falk), Lajos Kovács (Marion’s Trainer)
Wings of Desire, which marked director Wim Wenders’ return to his native Germany after more than a decade making films in other countries, is dedicated to “all the old angels, especially Yasujiro [Ozu], François [Truffaut], and Andrei [Tarkovsky]”--all of whom are cinematic masters who left an indelible impression on Wenders’ work. In Wings of Desire, which lyrically portrays the walking of guardian angels among us, we can see traces of Ozu’s quiet elegance and humanism, Truffaut’s romanticism, and Tarkovsky’s obsession with the interrelations of time and space and history. Wenders’ profound achievement is to harmoniously merge all of these potentially disparate influences into a film of sheer visual poetry and deep emotional resonance.
The main characters in the film are two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), who have existed for eternity and spend their days silently and invisibly watching over the people of Berlin (the literal translation of the film’s German title is The Skies Over Berlin, which underscores how the film is very much about the city itself, still divided by the Wall). Although we initially see Damiel perched at the top of a building with traditional angel wings that slowly dissolve away, Wenders wisely steers clear of traditional angelic imagery, instead garbing his middle-aged angels in long, dark overcoats, which grounds their otherworldliness in the literal and the everyday (they are spiritual workmen).
Along with other unnamed angels, Damiel and Cassiel move about the bustling city, occasionally laying their unseen hands on people who are suffering emotionally or physically, which passes on a faint sense of calm and reassurance. It’s a beautiful sentiment, the idea of angels among us hearing our inner voices and touching our lives, and Wenders delicately unfolds the scenario, allowing us to absorb the images and the ideas without any need to rush into a narrative.
Not that Wings of Desire is lacking a story. On a narrative level, the film is about Damiel’s decision to become part of the human world because, after so many eons of observing human behavior and interactions and experiences, he longs to leave the spiritual realm and join them. Part of this is motivated by his falling in love with a lonely trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), whom he first sees practicing her act in a small, traveling circus that is on the verge of closing. Damiel is captivated by her beauty, but moreso by her loneliness and desire to be loved; it is something that he cannot heal as an angel, but can perhaps heal as a man. He is encouraged in his endeavors by an American actor (Peter Falk, essentially playing himself) who is in Berlin for a movie shoot (some kind of thriller about the Holocaust). Falk senses the presence of the angels around him and explains to them the joys of human existence, particularly the small things like the feeling of rubbing your hands together to generate warmth when they’re cold. It is telling that Damiel’s realization that he is fully human comes with his bleeding, which subtly suggests that all of the pleasures of being human are also fraught with the possibilities of pain and hurt--a wonderful, horrible paradox that is given historical weight by regular flashbacks to footage of Berlin during and after World War II, much of it reduced to rubble and death and grief.
Shot by legendary French cinematographer Henri Alekan, Wings of Desire is nothing if not a breathtakingly beautiful film. Wenders chose to delineate the world of angels and the world of humanity with color, shooting everything from the angels’ experience in black and white and then shifting to color once Damiel “falls.” It is an intriguing visual choice, as it suggests that, despite their omnipotent power, the angels are denied the sensual elements of human existence, which is rendered via the color spectrum. This also presents an intriguing and clever reversal of the black-and-white/color dichotomy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), which replaced the gray tones of Kansas with the lurid Technicolor of the fantasy realm of Oz. In Wings of Desire, the fantasy is humanity, which forces us to see ourselves with new eyes--a truly profound achievement.
|Wings of Desire Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||German / English / French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 3, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s DVD edition of Wings of Desire sports a brand-new high-definition widescreen transfer taken from a 35mm interpositive and a 35mm internegative and then digitally restored via the MTI DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean System, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system. I have not seen MGM’s 2003 Special Edition DVD, but I can Criterion’s disc is likely an improvement, if only because it was supervised and approved by Wenders and presented in the director’s preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio, rather than 1.78:1. The image is beautifully rendered, with the black-and-white sequences boasting strong contrast and excellent detail, while the color sequences give us strong hues that still appear natural. The image is strikingly clean, with no signs of dirt or debris, and it maintains just enough grain structure to give it a filmlike appearance without muddying the details. The soundtrack, which was also supervised and approved by Wenders, was transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm stems, digitally restored, and then remixed from the original LTRT stereo format to 5.1-channel surround. The remix is quite effective, opening up the impressive use of choral and orchestral music while also providing more space for the ambient sounds that underscore the film’s more quiet sequences.|
|The supplements included here are a mix of repackaging from the 2003 MGM Special Edition disc and several new pieces added by Criterion. From the MGM disc we have The Angels Among Us, a comprehensive 43-minute documentary that includes interviews with director Wim Wenders, actors Peter Falk, Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, writer Peter Handke, and composer Jürgen Knieper; nine deleted scenes with commentary by Wenders (although there is no accompanying audio); and the original German theatrical trailer. The excellent and insightful audio commentary by director Wim Wenders and actor Peter Falk was edited by DVD producer Mark Rance from six hours of interviews conducted in August and September 1996 and March 1997, and although there is a similar commentary on the MGM disc, this one must be different because it was edited together in 2009 (hence, there is probably some overlap, but some differences, as well). Other new stuff from Criterion includes “Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. 87,” an episode of the French television program Cinéma cinemas that includes on-set footage of Wenders and the cast at work; a 1985 interview with legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan; several minutes of outtakes; excerpts from the films Alekan la lumière (1988), which features Wenders and Alekan discuss the cinematographer’s work, and Remembrance: Film for Curt Bois (1982), a film directed by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander about the actor Curt Bois, who plays Homer in the film; and location photos and sketches with accompanying notes by art directors Heidi Lüdi and Toni Lüdi. The insert booklet features an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and writings by Handke and Wenders.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection