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WINGS OF DESIRE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk
Director: Wim Wenders
Audio: German/English/French Stereo Surround or 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, color, anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 128 minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2003

"No one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace.  What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn't endure and that it is almost untellable?"

Film ****

Imagine, if you will, a world where angels walked among us.  They might be invisible or merely disguised.  Or perhaps, only children could see them, for their innocence would grant them an ability to see purity that adults have long lost.  Perhaps we could sense these angels' presence.  The brush of a cool breeze upon our shoulder, could that not have been the hand of an angel?  Or a tickling sensation in our ears -  the singsong whispers of angels?  They may even come into our dreams, gracing us with their brief, if illusory, facade.  Drifting in and out amongst the human multitudes, the angels would listen to our inner voices, their world a soft and eternal river of sighs half-heard and thoughts half-remembered.

Such is the world of Wings of Desire, where angels do exist.  In a Cold War's Berlin, with a common people divided by the arbitrary artifices of human enmity, these angels freely wander the east and west, north and south of the city.  Walls cannot hinder them, rooms cannot contain them.  Like ghostly presences, they heard and see everything, from the joy of youth's jubilance to the anguish of life's end.

Among them is the angel Damiel, a quiet observer of these people of Berlin.  Like all angels, he is neither alive nor dead.  He simply is.  He exists on a level where "life" has no meaning, and so, as with many angels, he can only observe the activities of human existence but never fully appreciate them for himself.

Insofar as angel may have friends, so Damiel has one in Cassiel, the angel of tears.  Together or alone, they wander the streets and buildings of Berlin.  In meeting, they compare their notes of the day.  Perhaps, on that day, a woman unfolded her umbrella in the rain and became soaked.  Or, a boy stopped blinking as he listened to a story.  Or, perhaps two hundred years ago on the same day, a man flew over the city in a balloon.  The details of life, no matter large or small, are recorded and recounted by these angels, but in the end, these details are merely words.

Without life, the words have little significance.  Without death, they have no permanence.  Like drops of water in a current, they simply flow along, lost in the company of an infinity of other such details.

How, then, would it feel like to understand the concreteness of ideas and details?  Would an angel, existing in a world of calm and serenity, sacrifice this purity for the imperfection of life?  Would a creature of eternity submit to a mortal reality?  Would he forego his wings just to taste the color and emotional burden of humanity?

Damiel wonders of these things.  Increasingly, he longs to partake in the affairs of humankind, to become human himself.  He wishes to know the warmth of hands rubbing together in the cold patter of rain, to drink the taste of a bitter cup of coffee, to feel the grind of dust tossing in the wind.  These trivial things, which people take for granted, he as an angel would find novel and fascinating.

And what of love, of the ache of a heart forlorn, or the buoyancy of love's first kiss?  Damiel's wanderings through the thoroughfares of Berlin have made him aware of a woman possibly worthy of an angel's love.  She is no ordinary woman, but an intelligent and beautiful trapeze artist, filled with the introspective thoughts of a curious mind.  On a nightly basis, she almost seems to fly, and if an angel were to fall in love, would he not fall for a woman capable of flight?

To this end, Wings of Desire is a love story.  It is a love for life and the emotional heartbreaks or joys of life.  It is a love for discovering new friends, for simply enjoying the passage of time, for seeking out a woman of the heart's desire.  Damiel the angel, having existed eons in the vacuum of emotions, has discovered that even an angel can love and feel.  And perhaps, those feelings are strong enough that an angel will even give up his wings in search of love.

In the mid-1980's, Wim Wenders had finally arrived back in Germany.  He had been away for nearly eight years in America making movies.  His last directorial effort, Paris, Texas, had been a tremendous success and was well on the way to establishing itself as one of the truly great American films of the last quarter of the century.  But now, Wenders wanted to do a project that would involve his beloved city of Berlin.

He had spent the last two years of his life developing a metaphysical film that would explore the borders between reality and dreams.  But that film, Until the End of the World, was still stuck in pre-production quagmire, so Wenders sought something to keep himself busy.

As he strolled along the streets of Berlin, an idea arose in his mind - what about a film of an angel who falls in love with a woman?  It was an interesting concept, and Wenders could even depict the city of Berlin as the film's backdrop.  Armed with his idea and little else (not even a script), Wenders set about making his little project, a film which eventually became Wings of Desire.

In casting the film, Wenders chose from among his longtime friends.  Bruno Ganz would portray the angel Damiel, while Ganz's real-life friend Otto Sander would portray Damiel's friend, the angel Cassiel.  For the mortal woman Marion, Wenders cast Solveig Dommartin, a former director's assistant who had never acted before.  She was also his girlfriend at the time, but that being said, she was still an ideal choice to portray a woman with whom an angel could fall in love.

Peter Falk (of Columbo fame) also makes an appearance as himself in this film.  What is his nature, that he alone among the adults of the film seems capable of sensing the angels' presence?  In the film, Damiel follows him about, listening to his thoughts, smiling at the pleasure Falk takes in the little things in life.  Eventually, Damiel will assume the guise of mortality, descending to the soil of Berlin, and he will seek out Falk, who offers him the tangible comfort of being his first human friend.

Wings of Desire's cinematography was handled by Henri Alekan.  He had also been responsible for the photography in Jean Cocteau's fairy tale masterpiece La Belle et la Bête, one of the most magical films of all time.  Alekan was actually retired at the time but was persuaded by Wenders to help with this film, and he decided to bring his longtime assistant, Louis Cochet, out of retirement with him.  Both men were in their eighties, yet it is thanks to these veritable grand old masters that Wings of Desire looks as breath-taking as it does.  The camera is constantly in motion, sweeping over the war-torn remnants of Berlin's past, gliding in unison with the circus performers, floating over the cityscapes as though the eyes of the angels.

Most of this hypnotic cinematography was photographed in black & white.  For much of the film, the angels dwell in a monochromatic world, serene yet empty.  They wander through cityscapes with a strange hush, where the only sound are often the traces of thoughts which drift in the air.

The eventual introduction of color into the film comes as something of a surprise then.  These scenes are filled with activity, and suddenly, we can sense the ambient buzz of a busy city.  Rainwater coats the sidewalks after a shower; there is a tangible trace of dirt and grime on shop windows.  We can hear the movement of distant cars, the swirling winds, even the click-click of footfalls.  We can almost smell the sickly sweet odor of discarded garbage that permeates through the crowded streets of this metropolis.  The color photography bares the soul of the city.

The overall effect of the film was unlike almost anything that had ever been filmed before.  Wings of Desire was as close to poetry as cinema had ever achieved.  When the film premiered at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, it was a phenomenal success, earning Wenders a well-deserved award for Best Director.  Several years later, in a survey of critical opinion of the greatest films of the 1980's, Wings of Desire was second only to Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.

Such was the reception and influence of the film over the years since its release that Wim Wenders, perhaps to the disappointment of many, has never quite attained this pinnacle again.  His follow-up film, the delayed Until the End of the World, was a complex and meditative film, quite remarkable in its own right, but nevertheless not nearly as mesmerizing as Wings of Desire.  Even a recent success, such as Buena Vista Social Club, is not in the same league.

Wings of Desire, then, is truly a unique film.  With this film, Wenders truly touched upon the richness of the human experience itself.  There is a scene in the film, in which the newly-human Damiel, consumed by the curiosity of unanswered riddles of ages past, peppers Falk with questions about life and humanity.  Damiel wants to know "everything," to which Falk responds, in parting, "That you have to find out for yourself.  That's the fun of it."  It is, for Damiel, reason enough for life.  Damiel does not need to wonder why he is here or of the meaning of life.  He seeks out life instead, and the search itself gives meaning to his new mortality.

Trivia - As the end credits begin, Wim Wenders dedicates the film to Yasujiro, François, and Andrei.  He is referring to directors Yasujiro Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Video *** 1/2

Wings of Desire is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format and looks fantastic.  The black & white portions of the film have an incredibly rich array of hues and grey scales from the deepest blacks to the most piercing whites.  I haven't seen many black & white films look this good, and it's almost an unfair comparison, since Wings of Desire is quite new, relatively speaking, for one.  The film does have color portions although they are fairly infrequent until late in the film.  Shot with a mildly grainy film stock, these latter segments of the film are quite vivid with bold flashes of color but ultimately pale somewhat next to the magical beauty of the black & white cinematography.

Thankfully, MGM does a great job with the transfer.  The black & white portions are quite detailed and very sharp.  Dust and scratches are kept to an absolute minimum.  Other than a rare slight shimmer here or there, I noted no significant compression defects or mastering artifacts.  As stated, the color portions are slightly more grainy than the black & white portion, but this was a reflection of the director's choice of film stock.  All in all, Wings of Desire has never looked better.

Audio ***

Music is an integral part of Wings of Desire.  Jürgen Knieper's score, comprised chiefly of string instruments and a choir, achieves an ethereal quality.  It creates in the film a sense of timelessness in the world of the angels.  The choir music, in particular, is almost reminiscent of the otherworldly music of 2001: a Space Odyssey!

This DVD presents this superlative audio track as either stereo surround or 5.1 surround.  The DVD will default to the stereo surround when the film starts (unless you choose otherwise).  Curiously, the stereo surround track is the louder and more forceful of the two, but both are fine.  Since the angels' world is usually quiet, Knieper's score is often at the forefront here.  In later sections, when Damiel has entered the world of humans, the ambient noise of Berlin makes its way onto the soundtrack and adds a gritty realism to the sound of the film.  There is even a scene in which Cassiel, listening into the over-saturating drone of human activity, covers his ears to drown out the noise, and suddenly, the soundtrack becomes quiet, reverting back to the calm of the angels' domain.  Either way, the audio tracks do a fine job throughout the film.

Coincidentally, anyone who is a fan of the rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds will be pleased to know that they give several performances in the latter portion of the film.  Their music has a feedback-heavy, off-key weirdness that fits the mood of the film surprisingly well!

A quick word - This being an MGM DVD, leave the speakers off or mute until after the lion logo has passed unless you prefer to be deafened.

Features ****

In looking over this DVD, one gets the impression that every last inch of disc space must have been used.

There is a fascinating commentary track by Wim Wenders, with occasional comments by Peter Falk.  I was interested to hear how Wenders went about recruiting Alekan's incredible talents for this film.  I was also particularly impressed to learn that Solveig Dommartin had done all of her circus stunt work herself.  This included a knife-throwing act, in which real knives were thrown at her, in one continuous take, with no cuts.  In other words, there was no camera-fakery or quick editing involved.  But more astounding was Dommartin's trapeze act.  She performed this without the benefit of a double, safety wires, or more importantly, a net.  In fact, at one point during filming, she actually did fall, though she was fortunately not injured.  After completion of the film, Dommartin even received offers from circuses around Europe!

On an aside, I must admit that this is why I dearly love European cinema.  The dedication of these actors and crew to their craft and their love of the cinema is evident in many of these films.  Had Wings of Desire been made in America today, it would have undoubtedly used body doubles, safety wires, and most likely CGI effects to create the trapeze work, and it would not have been half as effective.  Quite simply, I have a great deal more respect for the real and honest efforts of these artists than for anything that would have been created on a computer as a simpler substitute.

"Angels Among Us" is a 43-minute documentary comprised mostly of interview segments with the film's cast and crew, as well as clips from the movie itself.  It is fairly well-done and offers a lot of background into the production and history of the film without too much of the self-congratulatory tone that these features usually have on a typical DVD.  It is definitely worth a listen!

Next, there are 32 minutes' worth of deleted scenes.  They are presented with commentary by director Wim Wenders.  Mostly, they revolve around the character of an elderly man as he walks through the ghostly remnants of Berlin's Potsdamer Platz.  However, there is an extensive section at the end involving a deleted, slapstick pie-fight scene which would have concluded the film.  It's as absurd as it sounds and was thankfully never seriously considered for the film.  Wenders does suggest, though, that anyone who wants to try to edit the pie-fight footage together can send the finished sequence to his website for a reward.  I don't know if he was serious or just joking, but I suppose anyone who has the necessary computer hardware and a lot of free time could give it a shot.

The interactive map is a very cool idea!  It is essentially a travelogue of the film's locations, with seven photographs overlaid on a partial map of the city.  Click on any of photographs, and you will be transported to a brief introduction and visit to the actual site.  I liked the presentation of this nifty feature, although I wish it were even larger.  Check out the bunker site for an amusing story!

The trailer section contains three trailers.  The German trailer does a fine job capturing the spirit of the film.  A whimsical Wim Wenders promo is presented in German with no subtitles, so I have no clue what it's all about.  Thirdly, the film's American trailer is your typical Hollywood butchery but at least is better than average.

The promotional art section gets a big build-up on the DVD and then delivers....two promotional artworks.  What?  That's it?  They must have run out of space.

Lastly, there is a listing of six recommended films.  They are part of MGM's "World Films" series, which showcases some of the finest international films in the MGM catalog.  In general, the "World Films" series has many excellent choices, and I would certainly encourage anyone interested in life outside Hollywood to seek these films out.  In any event, the films listed on this particular DVD include Never on Sunday, The Night of the Shooting Stars, Prisoner of the Mountains, To Live, Rhapsody in August, and Flight of the Innocent.

Intriguingly, Wings of Desire concludes on an alluring promise.  We glance a contemplative Cassiel as he watches the activity of human traffic from the Siegessauele, a famous Berlin landmark.  Then, for a few brief seconds, the words "to be continued" flash upon the screen before the film fades away to its end credits.  Will Cassiel follow Damiel into the world of humans?  Five years later, Wim Wenders would answer that question in the sequel Far Away, So Close.

Summary:

A stunningly gorgeous and unique vision, Wings of Desire is sheer poetry from start to finish.  More than a film, it is an experience, the rare one which truly touches the very soul.  This is Wim Wenders' masterpiece and one of the purest examples of movie magic that you may ever see.  Absolutely a top recommendation!