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, is movie poetry. And it forever made the name Wim Wenders synonymous with film art.
Wings of Desire is presented in director Wim Wender’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The picture has been enhanced for widescreen televisions and the transfer has been approved by Wenders.
This is another case where I haven’t seen the previous DVD for a film (a special edition was released by MGM) so I can’t compare with it, but I’d have a hard time imagining a 2003 DVD released by anybody would look this good. The film is in black and white primarily, with some colour sequences thrown in here and there (there’s more colour near the end of the film.) The black and white sequences look the best, with superb gray levels, and nice, deep blacks. According to supplements on the disc the black and white sequences are going for a monochrome look and the DVD seems to capture that rather well. Colours in the colour sequences come off bold and beautifully saturated but seem to show more noise than the black and white portions, or it’s at least more obvious. But the image is incredibly sharp, far better than how I had previously seen the film, with crisp lines and a high amount of detail.
What’s most shocking about the transfer, though, is the print condition. I was expecting some damage but I honestly don’t recall anything showing up, whether it be a bit of debris, a vertical line, or maybe a hair or scratch at the corner of the screen. It’s virtually flawless.
At the moment of writing this I haven’t seen the Blu-ray but I’m actually quite impressed with the DVD’s image. Not perfect but still an impressive and incredible looking picture.
The disc presents a subtle but effective Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (which contains German and English dialogue.) While I found dialogue a tad flat at times the film’s score sounds wonderful. Using the full environment it creates a quiet (for a majority of the time,) yet ethereal presentation, fully enveloping the viewer. Bass is also subtle through a majority of the film except during some club sequences where it gets deeper and the sound track gets a little louder. Again, subtle but effective, and perfect for the film.
Being released on DVD and Blu-ray both editions present the same key supplements with the DVD spreading them out over its two discs.
Disc one first presents an audio commentary featuring director Wim Wenders and actor Peter Falk. As I mentioned previously I have not seen the original MGM DVD but am aware it also contained a commentary by Wenders and Falk. I originally figured that Criterion just licenced the track but by the sounds of it this is a completely new track, or a new presentation of it. The track was assembled from 6 hours worth of material recorded by independent DVD producer Mark Rance. According to Rance’s introduction this commentary track is a re-edit and was a personal project to better capture the spirit of the recordings.
While again I can’t compare to the track found on the MGM disc I can say this commentary is rather good. The material that was used for the track was recorded over three sessions between 1996 and 1997 but it’s been edited together beautifully and flows naturally. I’m assuming that Wenders did more lone sessions as he takes up most of the track, Falk only appearing every so often. Wenders covers the inception of the project, which sounds to have been all over the place originally, 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 wizardry of his director of photography, Henri Alekan. Falk occasionally asks Wenders questions and chimes in about his part in the film (and the importance of selecting a good hat.) Disappointingly he has very little to say when compared to Wenders. Despite this, though, it’s a very thorough, introspective track on the film, one of the more interesting director commentaries I’ve listened to. Having said that, though, it’s a shame the entire six hours worth of material isn’t here.
The second disc then concludes with a couple of trailers. First is the German trailer for the film, and then the next trailer, entitled “Wen Wunders promo trailer” is a surprisingly amusing trailer for a Wenders retrospective that features both Wenders and Curt Bois, one of the stars of Wings of Desire, who criticizes Wenders for not making a comedy.
The second dual-layer disc presents the remaining supplements.
Also carried over from the MGM disc is the 43-minute documentary The Angels Among Us. It’s a thorough documentary and while it does repeat a lot of what’s stated in the commentary track it at least offers the views of various members of the cast and crew, including Wenders and Falk again, actors Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, writer Peter Handke, and composer Jürgen Knieper. While Criterion fails to point it out on the back of the DVD case, the documentary also features Brad Silberling, director of the quasi remake City of Angels. They might as well have cut him out since he offers nothing in the way of insight into the film and only serves as a reminder as to how uncreative that film was. But past that odd inclusion the rest of the documentary is quite good, covering the writing process of the film, the casting, and then the shoot. There’s more about the recording of the inner thoughts for the various characters. Falk gets into the hats again, and then there’s some talk on the budget limitations and the look of the angels. Wenders also points out some plot holes in the film that he’s shocked no one else had picked up on. Despite the Silberling appearance it’s a strong doc. It does repeat some of the material found in the commentary (and elsewhere on the disc) but it’s informative documentary, certainly worth viewing.
Next is a 10-minute clip from the French program Cinéma cinemas, this particular episode presenting behind-the-scenes footage from the set of Wings of Desire. It’s rather good material, with Wenders directing Ganz, Falk, and crew members (in German, French, and English.) It has burned in French subtitles but then has removable English subtitles.
9 deleted scenes are also included, totaling 32-minutes and appear only with a commentary by Wenders. They’re interesting to view and in some cases they would have presented a very different film, possibly a more humourous angle. One example specifically would have been what could have possibly been intended as an alternate ending, which is just incredibly bizarre (I won’t spoil it for those unaware of it) and would have ended the film on a far different note. In his track Wenders admits that he probably would have never used it, having shot it more for fun. Also included here is 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 and look almost as good as the feature film on this set.
Next is a simple gallery presenting some production photos with an extensive collection of notes from the production designer. It’s rather small but has some interesting information on the shoot, Berlin in the 80’s, and Berlin now. Small but informative.
Alekan ‘85 is a 10-minute interview clip from an unfinished documentary on Henri Alekan. It’s very short, with the DP talking about lighting, atmosphere, tone, “movie stars” and types of film, but an interesting feature to include on here, which even features an amusing anecdote.
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 on how he creates certain lighting effects and even how he accomplishes his in-camera effects (something he was very adamant about 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 absolutely fascinating.
The final supplement are segments from a 1985 short film by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander called Remembrance. It was put together by the two actors to honour 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 as though the segments missing involved Minetti. This is a bit of a shame, though I guess 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, and we also learn some eccentricities, such as his fondness for New York strip tease clubs and his dislike of wine glasses. I like what was here and I found it a rather fascinating inclusion, but I’d almost have to say it feels somewhat disrespectful to lop off Minetti’s portions, not only to Minettit but to Ganz and Sander as well. What we’re left with runs 30-minutes.
The set then comes with a 29-page booklet. First is the complete poem of Song of Childhood by Peter Handke. Next is a nice analytical essay on the film by Michael Atkinson. And then finally, probably the best item in the booklet, is an essay by Wenders called “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film” which reads like a stream of consciousness from Wenders about how he came up with the film and his intentions for it, primarily being driven to make a film “in and about Berlin.”
And that covers it. I think just about everything made it more or less from the MGM disc (I see an “Interactive Map” listed on that edition, which doesn’t appear here) but can’t confirm if anything differs, other than the commentary track, which is described as a re-edit. I think Criterion has really outdone themselves with the supplements on here. I am a little disappointed they edited down some of the features, and it also would have been interesting to have all 6-hours of material recorded for the commentary, but they went well and beyond what MGM did, even including more material on Alekan and Bois.
Again I can’t compare to the MGM DVD but this is really a stellar release and I can’t imagine the previous DVD was anywhere near as good as this one. The video transfer is the best I’ve ever seen the film as of yet (at the moment of writing this I have not seen the Blu-ray edition,) the sound is perfect, and the supplements are engaging and fascinating, going beyond what most studios would do for a film. It comes with a very high recommendation.