Blu-ray Edition

Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk
Director: Wim Wenders
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: November 3, 2009

"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 ****

Even though this was my first time seeing this film, I can’t imagine any previous release matching up to the astounding job Criterion has done with this Blu-ray release. This is the sort of visionary film that HD can work wonders with, and Criterion is the exact studio you want to handle a film with this much age. Both the Black and White photography and periodic color segments look absolutely gorgeous in the 1080p. I had no idea that color would even enter the frame, and when it did I was completely awestruck. I had waited so very long to finally see this movie and now I’m glad that I waited long enough to first experience it in such amazing form.

Audio ****

Equal to the beauty of a picture transfer, the DTS HD mix provides a truly incredible treat for the ears. The first thing that must be mentioned are the sequences involving the thoughts of people heard by the angels, which sound nothing short of astonishing. The ethereal music score by Jürgen Knieper, which is a key factor in immersing the viewer in this visionary world, is fantastically delivered through the channels. Again, I’m entirely glad I waited until this Blu-ray release to finally see the film, because I felt as if I experienced it in the most absolute perfect way, as illustrated by the magnificent audio treatment.

Features ****

Criterion’s top-notch use of supplements is even more remarkable in the world of Blu-ray. The first two extras have been ported from the 2003 DVD release, which are a commentary with Wim Wenders and Peter Falk and the documentary titled  “The Angels Among Us”, which features interviews with Wenders, Falk, as well as fellow actors Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, writer Peter Handke and composer Jürgen Knieper. As for new bonuses, there’s “Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. 87,” an episode of the French television program Cinéma cinémas, which includes on-set footage, an interview with director of photography Henri Alekan, Deleted scenes and outtakes, excerpts from the films Alekan la lumière (1985) and Remembrance: Film for Curt Bois (1982), notes and photos by art directors Heidi Lüdi and Toni Lüdi. Rounding out the extras are a couple of Trailers and, like every great Criterion release, a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and writings by Peter Handke and Wim Wenders.


One of the most visually poetic films ever made can now be experienced in the form it was destined to be seen in. Wings of Desire is a film unlike any other and will linger with you long after you experience it, and Criterion has made this experience all the more riveting with the new Blu-ray treatment. If you love this film and have Blu-ray access, you can’t afford not to have this in your collection!

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