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Wings of Desire

Wings of Desire
MGM Home Entertainment
1987 / B&W and color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 127 min. / Der Himmel über Berlin / Street Date July 1, 2003 / 24.98
Starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk
Cinematography Henri Alekan
Production Designer Heidi Lüdi
Film Editor Peter Przygodda
Original Music Jürgen Knieper
Written by Peter Handke and Wim Wenders
Produced by Anatole Dauman, Wim Wenders, Ingrid Windisc
Directed by Wim Wenders

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Wings of Desire is a mysterious, humanistic fairy tale set in a sad city brutally divided by an ideological wall. It weaves a meditative spell of goodwill and harmony through a beautiful alliance of cinematic components - breathtaking cinematography, plaintive music and unusually sensitive direction. This is the film that enhanced Wim Wenders' international reputation after the successful Paris, Texas, and, in terms of popularity, put him in the league of great European filmmakers. A slow-paced, enchanting tale, 'Heaven over Berlin' connected with ordinary audiences as few subtitled foreign films do.


A host of Angels keeps silent watch on the citizens of Berlin, finding people in distress and trying to soothe their souls through their invisible touch. Apart from humanity but not aloof from it, there's a tendency for some angels to want to become human. One melancholy angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) takes the plunge into mortality and attempts to connect with a beautiful trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Watched by a comrade, Cassiel (Otto Sander), Damiel experiences what it means to be alive, to feel the cold. He also gets special tips from actor Peter Falk (Peter Falk), who is shooting a movie in Berlin.

In 1988, at least 5 people I respected, and who didn't recommend films lightly, told me I had to see Wings of Desire. It turned out to be one of the best evenings I'd ever spent in a theater reading subtitles. It is the kind of picture that any reasonably thoughtful person is immediately going to warm up to. It's a surefire date picture as well.

Wim Wenders film has a contemplative tone that's difficult to describe. The angels that wander the Berlin thoroughfares and loiter in its public places are sometimes glimpsed with wings, but mostly wear only overcoats. They watch over the living with sympathetic eyes, calmly monitoring the thoughts of humans who don't realize they are there. The angels come close when they're needed, putting their undetected hands on the distraught and those who suffer.

We hear these thoughts as the angels hear them, inner voices looking for answers. It's fascinating and uplifting when Damiel's presence seems to bring hope to a discouraged man on a train. These phantoms appear to be God's Lonely Men (and women), constantly hovering about us, the unseen spirituality in our lives. A victim of a traffic accident, dying and perhaps perceiving the afterlife in his agony, is comforted by Damiel. In keeping with the fairy tale roots, innocent children can see the angels, and accept them for what they are.

The film has a very realistic surface to offset the fancy of its central conceit. As perceived by the angels, Berlin is a bleak black & white world. A very real library interior is a favorite angel hangout, implying that people become more spiritually receptive when reading. Damiel and Cassiel spend a lot of time with Homer, an old man they find in the library. They follow him thorugh the vacant lots of the city as he describes the pre-war, pre-bombing Berlin. Homer is the living memory of a past that will soon die with him and he's given special care. The angels are fascinated by humans, and study them as if wishing to find their secret - to the angels, humans are special and precious, possessed of a power they envy, to actually be alive.  1

This keeps up for almost an hour, but is so refreshingly pleasant, only the dull-minded will become bored (hint - the film needs to be seen with as few distractions as possible!). The angels cross over into East Berlin by simply walking through the wall and strolling about the no-man's land laced with land mines and watched by machine guns. The political power of these images in 1988 was tremendous. The wall seems so arbitrary and unnecessary on the film's human level. Wenders and writer Handke use the division of Berlin as a metaphor for the alienation and loneliness of humankind.  2

Wings of Desire finds its story when Damiel becomes obsessed with Marion, the beautiful trapeze artist. He watches her rehearse and enjoys the little kids' afternoon in the modest little circus tent.  3 He then follows her to her dressing-wagon, and while observing her, has 'intimations of mortality' represented by short cuts to color - the way we living people perceive the world. This experience makes up his mind, and he decides to forego his immortality in favor of the short years of one mortal lifetime, as a living person.

So here we have the situation of a formerly serene spirit plunked down like a yokel in the world he only thought he knew, running around asking the colors of things and sticking his nose in a cup to smell the coffee. After an hour of learning to appreciate the spiritual, Wings of Desire turns around and shows us we could do little better than to rejoice in the miracles of everyday reality. Damiel soon discovers what being cold is like, and how frustrating it is to have his mobility hindered by things like chain-link fences. You want to clap for Bruno Ganz as he discovers, one after another, the marvels of human living.

This brings Peter Falk into the story. We follow him about as he arrives to shoot a movie in Berlin, and listen to his thoughts as he sketches extras or observes preparations in a bunker being used as a set. He finally connects with Damiel, and tries to guide him a bit in his first experiences being human. But when it comes down to it, the best thing Falk has to tell Damiel is that the fun will be discovering life for himself. For Damiel, this means tracking down the missing Marion. The circus has left town, and he can only hope he'll find her in the street, or in a concert.

Wenders receives excellent creative help from the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot the fantasy landmark Beauty and the Beast, and from Jürgen Knieper's mournful music, dominated by violins and cellos. Rock music figures heavily later on, but the real tone is established by the string music. It's like melancholy emotions made audible. Wenders would move on to use similar music and a dozen disparate pop songs brilliantly in the science fiction masterpiece that Wings of Desire made possible, Until the End of the World.

MGM's special edition of Wings of Desire is a beauty. The previous laserdisc was a collector's item (Savant tracked it down in 1994 and paid the seller's hefty asking price for a copy) but it can't hold a candle visually to this DVD. The show is enhanced for widescreen televisions, presenting the compositions at their full width. Even better, video allows the black & white majority of the film to be in real b&w - theatrical prints were on color stock, and always looked a little bluish.

A comprehensive commentary and a docu feature both Wim Wenders and an amused Peter Falk. Clearly proud of his role playing himself, Falk's comments and observations are free of celebrity-speak. He even points up a grating error in his own self-written narration: he talks about his grandmother, but if he originated as an angel, he shouldn't have one!

Wenders' accent makes him a bit more accessible in the docu then on the commentary where we can't see him. He explains how the film came about (other projects were too expensive) and how his little group slowly figured out how their angels should look and act. It will fascinate fans of the film.

There's an L.A. Confidential-style interactive map of locations in Berlin that isn't as rewarding as it wants to be, but the ad archive and trailers are good, as are a selection of deleted scenes. They go on for almost a half hour, and include a lot of Otto Sander mugging, and the entire raw takes of an ending where Cassiel becomes human as well. The footage ends with a Dr. Strangelove-like pie fight, that is so counter to the spirit of the film, it had to be an end-of-shoot gag deal, not a serious effort. Wenders also is front and center in some kind of short promotional film in German.

The audio is in the original German and English with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. As the film has some brief and unexploitative nudity, I was pleased to see the MPAA showing some sense by rating the film PG-13 instead of R.

The handsomely illustrated DVD package has copy that makes the mistake of calling Damiel, Cassiel and co. angels of divine origin. We're shown a universe of mortals and angels, but no evidence of God or any particular church - Earthly churches play no role at all - the angels never go to a temple or a chapel to find troubled souls. Wings of Desire thusly avoids the pitfall of most other Films Blanc, of imposing a limited moral structure on its cosmic fairy tale.

This is a wonderful picture.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Wings of Desire rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, docu Angels Among Us, deleted scenes, ads, 'interactive map'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2003


1. There's a beautiful parallel to Wings of Desire in classic Science Fiction writing, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. There a super-race of gigantic aliens come to Earth not to conquer, but to study us, for we appear to have something they only wish they had: consciousnesses that can proceed to a new level of existence, i.e., immortal souls.

2. When the film was made in 1986-87, nobody could have guessed that the Berlin Wall would be history in just two years' time. Wings of Desire is a key film about what the division really meant. Wenders' followup feature Faraway, So Close is a joyous elaboration on this story, but, set in a reunited but undecided Germany, it has political complications that unbalance the first film's simple setup. Its new fallen angel, for instance, develops an alcohol problem.

3. If one hasn't already completely charmed by the film, the circus scene will do the trick. Here is a tent-ful of little kids, none of whom seem to have been spoiled by video games or reality TV, reacting with sheer delight to the tame antics of the spirited performers. There's nothing even 'special' about the circus performance except the wonder of the audience-performer relationship - the actors are giving the kids their attention and love, and the kids accept it without reservation. The kids finally get to jump up and join in the fun, batting balloons and playing with the clowns and the cat lady ... the scene is a moment of humble rapture. We take our kids to circuses and things to try and get these kinds of reactions, but by age 4 they're so jaded by television, it's almost a lost cause.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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