To say that Wings of Desire tackles whether the grass is greener on the other side of life is both over simplistic and crude. I mean after all, the story of an angel wanting to come back to Earth because he's fallen in love with a trapeze artist who does not see or know him is an easier answer. On a related tangent: does an idea like that get made these days? Brad Silberling tried when he remade the film into City of Angels, which was a huge box office success. But like most everything else, there's nothing like the original. Thankfully, Criterion gives us just that with the 1987 German film.
Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Handke, also directs. Damiel (Bruno Ganz, Downfall) and Cassiel (Otto Sander, Das Boot) are angels who travel high above and through the streets of Berlin before the collapse of the Wall. Damiel spies Marion (Solveig Dommartin, Until the End of the World) at a circus and falls for her. He risks his angelic immortality to be with her, and has no reservations about doing so. And with some gentle words of wisdom from Peter Falk (playing himself in Germany doing an acting role), he moves ahead with this task.
What I got from Wings of Desire was how life is to be enjoyed and cherished. When Damiel and Cassiel do things like touch an accident victim, or a man threatening to kill himself, I think that they are trying to find out what ANY type of emotion is like, and if mortal beings can present it in extreme circumstances, so be it. Because normally, humans (or adults) tend to reflect on the tedium in life, such as the evening's meal or the next day's work. Day to day, they are without most vitality. Angels may have immortality, but they are without emotion or care. Perhaps that is the reason why the film shows their perspective in black and white. Eternal life may be neat, but it does come at a cost.
As much as it is a love story between Damiel and Marion (featuring a good speech by Marion at the end), Wenders' also sets Wings of Desire in his homeland of Berlin with good reason. Considering the perspective of the angels, it's an appropriate choice, with the Wall still being up at the time of filming, that had to lead to one depressing populace. However, I think that Wenders helps show off the classic beauty if the city in a way that might not have been considered before. The Wall aside, the city is a historic place and Wenders' ideas combined with the striking imagery help to show it off exquisitely.
I'm new to the Wenders world; the first film I saw from him was Buena Vista Social Club, followed by Don't Come Knocking. Now that I've seen his quintessential work, what I think about Wings of Desire will likely change with every viewing. It helps you reflect on life's meaning in different ways based on your position in life. That's why I think the film is special, past any sort of rudimentary categorization some may choose to pin on it.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 1.66:1 widescreen presentation of Wings of Desire uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec and makes for lovely viewing. Henri Alekan's cinematography juggles the color and black and white sequences with ease, and the black and white sequences include rock steady blacks, with the overall image possessing a film grain that doesn't distract from the feature. The palette in the color sequences is reproduced well with little over saturation to be concerned about. Criterion turns in another top-notch effort on Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack isn't necessarily a reference quality track, but it manages to effectively bring the goods that Wenders offers up for the film. During the shot of the radio tower, the many different signals (and multiple languages) can be easily separated during play, but because they're well-positioned in the front channels, you can hear the American and German languages and still feel immersed. The concert sequences with Nick Cave provide a nice punch of bass to the action, and Jurgen Knieper's score sounds clear and without distortion issues. An overall well-done soundtrack.
Criterion takes the supplements from the 2003 MGM standard definition release and adds a few of their own, making for a complete package. Interview footage from Wenders and Falk from 1996 and '97 has been edited into a commentary track for the film that is enjoyable to listen to. Some of the content repeats itself in the latter extras, but this track is more production-centered. Wenders recalls the challenges in shooting scenes and what his motivation for making the film was, even how certain scenes were lit. Falk talks about how he came to the film and his enjoyment while making it, and what the personal impact to each man was. From there, The Angels Among Us (43:09) examines the film and the impact of it. Wenders' inspiration and casting ideas are covered, many by the man himself. Handke shares his memories in writing the story and working with Wenders to get something together. Sander and Ganz remember how they got their roles and some of the other cast members. The film's visual style is touched upon, and Wenders recalls Alekan's shooting habits during production. The importance of the voiceovers is mentioned, along with an interesting story from Falk as to how they came together. And the cast and crew, along with Silberling all talk about the film's legacy. It's an enjoyable and thorough look at the film.
Since it's a Criterion release, you know there are more supplements, and there are. There is a section of deleted scenes and outtakes that follow. The deleted scenes (9, 32:13) have no audio but do include commentary with Wenders that serves as introduction to the scenes, and little else. The outtakes (6:50) include music from the film but have no additional frills. Remembrance (29:42) is a series of highlights from a 1982 film that Ganz and Sander did when interviewing Curt Bois, who played Homer in the film and whose reputation in German cinema was excellent. It's a fascinating piece to watch, as he discusses his life and highlights of his work. Alekan La Lumiere (27:11) examines Alekan's work and approach to lighting sets and scenes, and what his intent is. Some of the things he discusses are dry in content, but are fascinating if one wants to learn more about lighting and cinematography. Wenders comes into the piece as well and the two discuss some of the things Alekan did in the film, and what Alekan does for some films in general. Alekan '85 (10:16) covers Alekan's work on a film as he discusses his favorites and his duds, along with more information on his philosophy and approach to lighting and filming. It's not as dry and is more charming to watch. Cinema Cinemas (9:24) is a French TV piece which shows Wenders, Alekan and Ganz on set during shooting as they work. A stills gallery follows, and two trailers complete the disc, along with a 30-page booklet that includes some more information on the film.
A beautiful film in its own right, Wings of Desire arrives to Blu-ray in a stunning and extensive release from Criterion. The picture and sound quality are top notch and the supplements are excellent. If you've got the MGM release, ditch it; this is a keeper, whether you've seen the film or not, and is worth owning in your library even if you're a minor film enthusiast.