DVD Review: Angels over Berlin in “Wings of Desire”

Written by DVD Reviews, Film

The extras-rich Criterion Collection version of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) is perfectly timed to seize the moment. The subject of the film is dividing lines—between fallible humans and the guardian angels who look after them, the living and the dead, the past and the present, real locations and movie sets, and so on. But it’s the division that no longer exists that gives the film its lasting appeal.

The German title of the film translates to The Sky over Berlin. In the sky are angels—not heavenly emissaries, but secular beings, who, like Superman, eavesdrop on our babble of chatter, complaints, and regrets, and swoop in to lend a non-judgmental, comforting, and invisible hand. (Composer Jurgen Knieper used cellos, rather than harps, to make the angels less god-like.) The story, largely improvised by Wenders but with voiceover narration, poetry, and dialogue by the Austrian playwright and novelist Peter Handke, concerns two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). Cassiel hangs back, observing and recording human behavior, and finds a good subject in the aged storyteller Homer (played by the veteran character actor Curt Bois, familiar from Casablanca, in his last role). Damiel, meanwhile, is drawn to direct human experience, including an afterlife-changing encounter on a film set with the American actor Peter Falk, who plays himself. He finds himself longing to leave behind the monochrome world of the angels once he meets the beguiling but lonely trapeze artist Marion (played by Wenders’ then-girlfriend, Solveig Donmartin).

Wings of Desire, which won Wenders the best director prize at Cannes, was an arthouse smash in 1987, but I can’t say I was crazy about it. Back then I preferred films with meatier storylines; I wasn’t into films that primarily gave off a vibe. And I still don’t like it as much as the films that established Wenders as a ranking member, along with Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, of the revolutionary German cinema of the 70s, like Alice in the Cities (1974) and The American Friend (1977). A movie with angels, circuses, and an improvised script can’t help but be whimsical, or fall in love with itself, and Wings of Desire is guilty on both counts.

But my older, (perhaps) less rigorous and more sentimental self saw it anew this time, largely because of what wasn’t there, and I don’t mean the angels. Cassiel and Homer spend a good part of their time in the ruins of Potsdamer Platz, near the Berlin Wall; it’s there where Damiel decides to shuck off his wings and become human, and when that happens the previously black-and-white image (B/W is how angels perceive color) pops into natural hues. On the West Berlin side the Wall, as shown in the movie, was anything but gray—over the years it had become a kind of Cold War objet d’art, with graffiti and murals. It’s fascinating to see it again, and indeed the whole area, a barren place that’s gone multinational over the last two decades. Many reasons have been cited for the Wall’s fall, but I’d like to think this gentle-natured film did its part in chipping away at its invulnerability, a demolition the filmmakers didn’t anticipate (Mikhail Gorbachev appeared in Wenders’ 1993 sequel, Faraway, So Close!, which was as muddled as the reunified Germany in those early days).

The supplements call attention to the other great achievement of Wings of Desire, its extraordinary, mood-shifting cinematography, for which the great DP Henri Alekan used the same filter (made from his grandmother’s silk stockings) that he had employed since before the fantastic Beauty and the Beast in 1946. The film is available, and looks sharp, as a standard DVD, but I imagine the Blu-ray will have the edge in clarity.

Carried over from a 2004 MGM edition of the film is a Wenders commentary, with droll contributions from Falk, and a documentary, “The Angels Among Us,” which magnanimously includes Brad Silberling, the director of the synthetic (but also successful) Hollywood remake, 1998’s Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan-starring City of Angels. Additional extras include an informative booklet essay by critic Michael Atkinson, deleted scenes and outtakes that try on, yikes, pie-in-the-face slapstick, and an excerpt from a film that old friends Ganz and Sander made about Bois. Seen today Wings of Desire is a memorial to its time and place, and its departed creative team, now including Donmartin, who died in 2007 at age 45. For the two hours and change it unspools, we are all Berliners.

The melancholic Ganz is an arthouse fixture, most recently appearing in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth and The Reader. His angelic appearance on the Victory Column in Potsdamer Platz makes for a classic still image. But here Damiel, transformed but not quite understanding color, makes his way to a club where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are playing, where we get glimpses of Cassiel and Marion:

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Ganz later played Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall, the movie that launched a thousand parodies. His Wings were decidedly clipped for this one.

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.

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