Wings of Desire
Wings of Desire is one of cinema’s loveliest city symphonies. Bruno Ganz is Damiel, an angel perched atop buildings high over Berlin who can hear the thoughts—fears, hopes, dreams—of all the people living below. But when he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist, he is willing to give up his immortality and come back to earth to be with her. Made not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this stunning tapestry of sounds and images, shot in black and white and color by the legendary Henri Alekan, forever made the name of director Wim Wenders synonymous with film art.
Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire receives a 4K UHD upgrade from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in 10-bit SDR on a triple-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by Wim Wenders Stiftung, taken from a scan of both the 35mm black-and-white and color camera negatives. This release also includes a standard, dual-layer Blu-ray featuring a 1080p film presentation. The disc replicates Criterion’s 2009 release.
The previous restoration performed by Criterion (which is what is presented in high-definition on the second disc) holds up relatively well, with the end image still appearing reasonably sharp and clean with decent grayscale. The master is dated, though, with film grain not looking as refined as it could now. The finer details can also fall a little short. Some of the reasons behind these shortcomings are baked into the source materials used for that restoration (a 35mm interpositive) and are a byproduct of how the film was ultimately shot and assembled. The notes around this newer restoration (the ones that play before the movie) detail how the film was finished, explaining that the color and black-and-white footage were handled separately before being duplicated multiple times and combined, in the end, on a color negative. The notes then mention that by the point the theatrical prints were made, they were six generations removed from the negatives, leading to heavy loss in sharpness and contrast, much to the chagrin of director of photography Henri Alekan.
While there’s much to praise about this new restoration and digital presentation, just pulling new 4K scans from the original camera negatives—not the finished negative or the interpositive—delivers the most considerable benefits for this new restoration. The new scan has captured significantly more detail in both the black-and-white and color segments, with every stray hair, every texture, and every pebble looking sharper and clearer while beautifully capturing the fine-grain structure. Contrast and grayscale have also improved, showing significantly more range in the grays with richer blacks and brilliant whites without the latter blooming. Colors in the color segments also look richer, with better saturation, reds and blues being remarkably superb. HDR would have more than likely given things a wonderful sheen, the black-and-white sequences in particular, so its absence can be a little disappointing, yet it’s still incredible how much better the contrast is here.
The restoration work is likewise impeccable, and there are no significant issues here, though, to be fair, the 2009 restoration was excellent in this area, too. The results are striking all around, and I found this to be a sharp and notable improvement over Criterion’s previous Blu-ray.
Presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround, the soundtrack has also been newly restored, sourced from the original magnetic tracks. The notes mention that the film was initially mixed in Dolby 2.0 stereo surround and has been “carefully adapted to today’s 5.1 theatrical sound systems” for this restoration. What I believe they mean by that is that they haven’t “upgraded” the audio to 5.1 but are recreating the original surround mix by directing audio through the channels precisely without needing a Dolby decoder.
And that sounds like the case. It’s a compelling mix, with the film’s haunting score enveloping the viewer. Still, it doesn’t sound like audio ever splits between the rear speakers, the two working in unison when surround activity is present. Dialogue and most sound effects are focused on the fronts, and there’s noticeable movement between the speakers in places. The voiceovers are also mixed in there in an effective way. Range is excellent, with no signs of heavy damage or excessive filtering. It sounds pretty great.
Since Criterion reuses the Blu-ray from their 2009 edition, all its features have been ported to this edition. Things start with an audio commentary (the only supplement on the 4K disc) featuring director Wim Wenders and actor Peter Falk. I had assumed initially back in 2009 that Criterion had ported over the commentary from the MGM edition (which I still haven’t listened to), but based on the comments that open the track by independent DVD producer Mark Rance, this is a re-edit, Rance going back to the original interviews he had recorded (over 6 hours’ worth recorded between 1996 and 1997) in the hopes to capture the spirit of these conversations better.
I only sampled it this time, but I feel it is still safe to say it’s still a wonderfully assembled track. Wenders covers the inception of the project, which sounds to have been all over the place initially, his desire to make a film about Berlin, the freewheeling, almost improvisational nature of the film (while it had a script, most of it was made up as they went), and the magic of his director of photography, Henri Alekan. Falk occasionally asks Wenders questions and chimes in about his part in the film (usually when he appears), but he sadly doesn’t participate much. Despite this, the track provides a comprehensive and introspective look into the film.
The video features (exclusively found on the standard Blu-ray disc) start again with the excellent 43-minute documentary, The Angels Among Us. It’s a thorough documentary, even if it repeats details found in the commentary. Still, it also provides comments from members of the cast and crew, including Wenders and Falk, actors Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, writer Peter Handke, composer Jürgen Knieper, and (somewhat surprisingly) Brad Silberling, director of the sorta remake City of Angels. He ends up being an odd addition, but on the whole, the documentary is insightful, covering the film’s writing process, the casting, and the shoot. Falk goes over his hats (which he also covers in the commentary) while details also come out about the film’s budget limitations, the look of the angels, and the voiceovers for the characters’ inner thoughts that spring up throughout. Wenders also points out some plot holes in the film that he’s shocked no one else had picked up on.
Next is a less than 10-minute clip from the French program Cinéma cinemas featuring behind-the-scenes footage from Wings of Desire. For footage captured for television, it’s pretty good and features Wenders directing Ganz, Falk, and crew members (in German, French, and English). It has burned-in French subtitles with the (removable) English subs appearing over.
Nine deleted scenes are also included, totaling 32 minutes, and appear only with a commentary by Wenders. They’re enjoyable to view, and in some cases, they would have presented a very different film, possibly with a more humorous angle. That includes a rather bizarre alternate ending in the spirit of the original ending planned for Dr. Strangelove. In his track Wenders admits that he probably would have never used it, having shot it more for fun. Also included are 7 minutes’ worth of outtakes with the film’s score playing over. These include some simple, quick clips along with some longer sequences or alternate sequences, including Damiel trying coffee for the first time and the taking down of a circus tent. Surprisingly these outtakes are in far better shape than the deleted scenes.
Next is a simple gallery presenting some production photos with an extensive collection of notes from the production designer. It’s relatively small but has some interesting information on the shoot, Berlin in the ’80s, and Berlin now (or in 2009, at least).
Alekan ‘85 is a 10-minute interview clip from an unfinished documentary on the film’s director of photography, Henri Alekan. It’s very short, with the DP talking about lighting, atmosphere, tone, “movie stars,” and types of film, with an amusing anecdote thrown in for good measure.
Alekan la lumiere is a 27-minute segment from a documentary on Alekan. This far more insightful segment showcases Alekan’s work on set, covering his various techniques for creating specific lighting and in-camera effects (something he was adamant about doing during the shoot of Wings of Desire). Unfortunately, it’s not the entire documentary (and I suspect some of the excised clips may have been scenes from other films), but the material left here is terrific.
The final supplement is a collection of segments from a 1985 short film by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander called Remembrance. The two actors put it together to honor two older actors, Curt Bois and Bernhard Minetti. Bois was a co-star in Wings of Desire, so the focus is solely on him, and it looks like the missing segments involved Minetti. This is a bit of a shame, though I understand this decision. What we’re left with, though, are decent conversations between the three actors, filmed in various locations, with Bois recalling his early career and even talking about his remembrances of Berlin. We also learn some eccentricities, such as his fondness for New York strip tease clubs and his dislike of wine glasses. It runs for about 30 minutes.
The supplements then conclude with a couple of trailers. First is the German trailer for the film. Following that is the “Wen Wunders promo trailer,” an amusing trailer for a Wenders retrospective that features both Wenders and Curt Bois, one of the stars of Wings of Desire. The actor criticizes Wenders for not making a comedy.
The release also ports over the 29-page booklet from the previous Blu-ray edition. It again starts with the poem Song of Childhood by Peter Handke and is followed by the same essay by Michael Atkinson. It then closes with an essay by Wenders called “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film,” where the director writes about his intentions for the film in a manner that reads like a stream of consciousness. Ultimately, he wanted to make a film “in and about Berlin.”
It’s still a stacked edition, carrying over most everything from the previous MGM edition. If there’s one big disappointment, it’s that Criterion didn’t take the opportunity to revisit the film all this time later, over 35 years following its original release.
No new features, but this new 4K presentation looks terrific.