Wings of Desire (1987/2009)
Director: Wim Wenders
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Peter Falk
Studio: Road Movies/Argos Films/Criterion Collection 490 (2-disc edition) [Release date: 11/3/09]
Video: 1.66:1 for 16:9, B&W & color
Audio: English, French or German DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: Audio commentary track by Wenders and Falk, Theatrical trailers; [On Disc 2:] “The Angels Among Us” (2003) – documentary on the making of the film, “Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. 87” – excerpt from a French TV program, Interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan, Deleted scenes and outtakes with commentary by Wenders, Excerpts from films “Alekan la lumiere” and “Remembrance Film for Curt Bois,” Notes and photos from film’s art directors, Illustrated booklet with articles by critic Michael Atkinson, Wenders and his collaborator Peter Handke
Length: 127 minutes
I can’t believe I wasn’t more affected by this masterful film when I first saw it in 1988. The Making Of documentary mentions that people all over the world say their lives were changed forever by the film, and I can understand that. One ends up feeling connected to the entire world and understanding things that were never before understood. It makes no difference whether one believes in angels or not; the film uses them as the main characters in a magnificent poetic and highly humanistic creation. As critic Michael Atkinson points out in the note booklet, It’s about “…how we should seize the mundane moments as they catapult by. It’s a soaring anthem for everydayness, as Buddhist as it is Christlike, but defined by its own metaphysics.”
It was a surprise to hear Wenders admit that he had no script whatever, just a general idea stimulated by the poetry of Rilke, about angels banished to the hell of Berlin by God in 1945 (for trying to dissuade God from giving up on earth due to WWII). They don’t see colors and cannot experience most of the senses that humans do. But they can hear all the interior thoughts of people they are close to. They merely observe and record what happens, sometimes comforting a dying person, and they are briefly seen only by children, who soon forget what they saw. He didn’t intend any special effects such as flying angels. His treatment of angels is light years beyond anything Hollywood and TV has ever done. After Wenders received an award for the film at Cannes he received a Hollywood offer to buy the rights for a U.S. remake. It was the simply awful City of Angels, with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage.
Working with the actors and crew, Wenders developed ways to present the angels. At first he tried costumes of armor and wings, and double-exposed their images for an angelic effect. Finally it was decided neither was needed or appropriate. He decided to have only one of the angels be so attracted to human life that he made the transition. Only later did he realize he needed another character who had already made the transition – who ended up being Peter Falk, playing himself, acting in a film being shot in Berlin about the Holocaust. There’s a scene where he is wandering around one of the remaining war-torn neighborhoods of Berlin, and some teenage boys pass, with one saying “Das vas Columbo!” but the others don’t believe him.
The film is as much about Berlin before the wall was torn down as it is about angels. They had to mock up a false wall portion for one scene, showing the graffiti and artwork on the Western side, contrasting with the perfectly clean, heavily guarded, wall on the Eastern side. There are many striking aerial shots of Berlin, from the vantage points of the angels atop tall statues, towers and buildings. The angels hang out in the massive Berlin public library. The actors playing the two main angels were good friends and have a most believable relationship. They also brought in an aged actor friend – who had played waiters, clerks and tailors in countless films – for his last film role.
Angel Damiel becomes unsatisfied with his role when he sits next to costumed Nazi-victim extras in the film Peter Falk is in, and hears their thoughts about their actual horrors. Also, he is attracted to human life by his wandering into a small traveling circus performance and observing Marion, the lovely young trapeze artist, who happens to wear wings in her act. He later observes her in her trailer and is totally smitten. He tells his partner angel he wants to make the transition and does. Most of the remainder of the film switches to color as Damiel experiences all the human senses for the first time. One of the first people he meets is Peter Falk, who sensed he was around before but couldn’t see him. Damiel is amazed to learn that Falk is also a fallen angel. Little time is given to the real-life hookup of Damiel and Marion, but we understand that their life will go on and Damiel’s tradeoff of humanity for eventual death was worth it.
There are so many gorgeous scenes that it is difficult to pick just a few; both with poetic dialog and with only the very affecting score by Jürgen Knieper. It featured just a half-dozen instruments with cello prominent – well before the current cello craze. Alekan’s photography is superb and helps raise this art film to its heights with Criterion’s careful remastering of the images. The transfer is excellent, with not much surround on the 5.1 option but not expected. Criterion also has released a Blu-ray version of Wings of Desire. Only two things in the film get my thumbs-down, but they didn’t ruin the film for me: The three sequences with rock performer Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the very odd unmotivated long speech by Marion when she first confronts Damiel as a human being in the bar at the rock club.
– John Sunier