"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, November 6, 2009

DVD of the Week: Wings of Desire: Criterion Collection

If Paris, Texas (1984) firmly established German filmmaker Wim Wenders on the international art house cinema scene, then Wings of Desire (1987) reinforced his status as one of the world’s premier visual storytellers. Not only is the film an impressive, atmospheric ode to the city of Berlin but it also features a deeply moving romance between a brooding angel and an attractive trapeze artist. Wings of Desire went on to spawn an inferior sequel (Faraway, So Close!) and an even worse Hollywood remake (City of Angels) starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is an angel who listens in on the random thoughts of the citizens of Berlin. He is privy to their most trivial ruminations about life and themselves. He and his kind are able to move among humanity undetected except for small children who have yet to be jaded by life and can still see the world through innocent eyes. Damiel shares his daily observations with a fellow angel named Cassiel (Otto Sander). At one point, Damiel tells his friend, “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds.”

However, he yearns to experience the feelings and sensations that humans face on a regular basis – the every day things that most of us take for granted. Cassiel reminds Damiel that their job is to “do no more than look, gather, testify, verify, preserve ... Keep the distance. Keep the word.” However, Damiel begins to seriously consider crossing over and become human when he falls in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lonely trapeze artist who longs for someone to “say a loving word to me.” He wants to be that person and is willing to sacrifice immortality for simple earthly pleasures and profound human feelings.

Bruno Ganz delivers an absolutely soulful performance with his very expressive face and, in particular, his eyes which convey so much empathy. You find yourself getting caught up in his desire to become human, all for the love of a woman.

Director of photography Henri Alekan photographs all of the scenes from the angels’ perspective in black and white while all of the scenes from the human perspective are in colour. This is a clever way of visually differentiating from what the angels experience and what we do. In addition, Wenders’ camera seemingly floats along like when it gracefully glides around a library where several angels observe humanity. It also flies over the city, providing a god’s eye view of Berlin as the angels watch over us.

Wings of Desire is Wenders’ masterpiece, a thoughtful meditation on what it is to be human. His film draws attention to the little things in life that we tend to forget about by presenting us with a character that cannot experience them. Wenders does this through a screenplay immersed in fascinating philosophical musings and complements them with absolutely stunning visuals that stay with you days after.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary that actually consists of excerpts of interviews with director Wim Wenders and actor Peter Falk over several years. Wenders talks about the origins of Wings of Desire – it was a return to his hometown of Berlin after spending eight years in the United States. He had planned to make another film but it was too complex and expensive. He had to come up with another idea and quick or the production company he had assembled would break up. This fascinating anecdote is only one of many engaging stories as the two men tell all kinds of filming tales. They do a good job of taking us through the making of this film.

Also included are the German theatrical trailer and an amusing “Wen Wunderts” promo trailer.

The second disc features the bulk of the extra material, starting off with “The Angels Among Us,” a 2003 documentary where key cast and crew members are interviewed. Wenders wanted to make a film about Berlin, the way he remembered it when he was young. Peter Handke talks about his unconventional approach to the script. For the two main angels, Wenders cast Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander based on their 20-year friendship and working relationship. Everyone speaks quite eloquently about their experiences making Wings of Desire.

“Cinema Cinemas” features an interview with Wenders from the February 17, 1987 episode of this French television program. We see Wenders at work on the set of Wings of Desire with his cast and crew shooting scenes from the film.

Also included are nine deleted scenes with commentary by Wenders and outtakes but only with music. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of footage of the angels observing humanity. The outtakes feature all sorts of beautiful shots of Berlin.

There is also a gallery of production design photographs that also highlight the film’s gorgeous art direction. Included are captions that comment on some of these stills.

Also included is an interview excerpt from an interview with director of photography Henri Alekan done in November 1985. He talks about the challenge of achieving the right tone and atmosphere in a film.

“Alekan la Lumiere” features excerpts from a 1985 documentary where Alekan talks to Wenders about his cinematic techniques. There is also footage of him at work.

Finally, there is an excerpt from Remembrance, a 1982 film directed by Ganz and Sander about actor Curt Bois who went on to appear in Wings of Desire.


  1. Hey J.D. Great writeup on this film. It's an amazing movie. I hope you have a fantastic weekend. Cheers!

  2. Much as I absolutely love Paris, Texas, I'd have to agree this is indeed Wenders' masterpiece.
    My first encounter with this film occured at London's NFT, and I came out of the screening lost for words. The Criterion DVD sounds amazing. I may well plump for this if the forthcoming Blu-ray is light on extras.
    This is one of those films that truly make you believe not only in the existence of the afterlife - but also in the immense power of cinema. Pure genius.

  3. Great write-up, J.D. Coincidentally, I just bought this and it arrived yesterday from Amazon. Believe it or not, I got it in Blu-ray Disc because that was cheaper than Criterion's SD version! I'm really looking forward to viewing this soon. Your review has such great timing. Thanks for this.

  4. Keith:

    Thanks, Keith! It is a truly amazing film and one I like to revisit every so often. Have a great weekend also!

    Steve Langton:

    I haven't seen PARIS, TEXAS in ages and am eagerly anticipating the upcoming Criterion edition of that also.

    I first saw WINGS while at university and it blew my mind, esp. the gorgeous B&W cinematography. It is such a poetic film, not to get all pretentious, but it's true! The remake was atrocious. So awful...


    Ah! Good timing, indeed! That's weird about how the Blu-ray version is cheaper than the SD. Very odd. The extras on this edition are so well put together and quite comprehensive. I've already listened to more than half the commentary track.

  5. Here are some links to a lot of Handke material on the web:



    and 13 sub-sites










    [moravian nights discussion]

    the newest:

    contains the psychoanalytic monograph

    The Morawian Night Essay + Handke trivia

    http://www.handkelectures.freeservers.com [the drama lecture]


    [dem handke auf die schliche/besuch auf dem moenchsberg, a book of mine about Handke]


    [the American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/ Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE, the psycho-biological monograph/ a note on Velica Hoca/ ]
    with three photo albums, to wit:






    [some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]


    Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society
    this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS:


    "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben]

  6. Wow, thanks for all of these links!

  7. A beautiful film, second only to UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD as my fave Wenders.

    But I also agree a bit with Pauline Kael's review: "...a friend told me he loved every minute and couldn't wait for it to be over..."

  8. Man, I haven't seen UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD in ages. I really need to revisit that one.

    Yeah, I can understand what Kael meant in that review. Odd, but true.

  9. This was a stunning piece of visual artwork on BD. Just finished it. Absolutely, it's the stuff of greatness. Thanks, J.D.

  10. you are more than welcome. Man, I really have to get a blu-ray player. Of course, I have to get a flat screen HD TV first... d'oh!

  11. Yes, obtaining the flat screen HD set is the key. But once that's done, the possibilities open up. You can do what I did and pick up an all region 1080P upscaling DVD player. Those units will improve the picture quality with your SD DVDs on the HD set while opening up other country content. Then, you can add (or be gifted) the Blu-ray Disc. HTH.

  12. Sweet. Thanks for the tip. I really appreciate that as I've been wondering what to start with. There are just so many options out there it makes my head swim.

  13. Great story you got here. I'd like to read more about that theme. Thnx for sharing that info.
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