Wings of Desire is one of those films that I’ve always wanted to see, but been weary of getting around to watching. Sure, it’s a well-respected classic of its time, often cited as one of the great films of the 1980’s, and held the cache of “the foreign film people who don’t watch foreign films love” much like films like Amelie or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But when the film came out Pauline Kael decimated it in her review. And I hate being the movie guy who doesn’t like films that everyone else likes, which is often the case. My review after the jump.
Kael was wrong; it’s a touching fable about two angels hovering over Germany. They are Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Dumont), and they listen in on a number of different people as they observe humanity from a ablack and white distance. There’s an old storyteller named Homer (Curt Bois), a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and Peter Falk as himself appearing in a German movie about the Nazis. As they watch, as they’ve been watching, Damiel decides he wants to be a part of the real world, and so eventually he shakes off his wings to be human, and perhaps pursue love with Marion.
Watching the film I was struck how Wings of Desire is the best student film ever made. That’s not a diss, just that all of the elements of amateur productions by pretentious would-be’s are here. You’ve got a lot of black and white photography mixed with color, some concert footage, poor child acting, a small role featuring an elder actor, stock footage and a loose, ethereal theme about mortality and spirituality. Heck, if the film had male nudity, it wouldn’t be too far removed from countless other experimental attempts at profundity sought year after year at places like UCLA. But Wim Wenders, at the peak of his game, makes these things insightful. Though there is some element of what Pauline Kael described as mopey, post-war German seriousness, perhaps now the film seems somewhat removed from that overwhelming post-war grief. Wenders talks about returning to Germany, and trying to reconnect with his own language after spending nearly eight years in America. I think the isolation and disconnect comes from that, but also the great human truth that it is nearly impossible to truly understand other people.
And the film conveys a sense of isolation, and that desire to reconnect with humanity and with others in a very lyrical way. The film is a tone poem, as much of the film floats around Germany, going from person to person and listening in on their thoughts. Hearing people as they contemplate their own loneliness, their existence, and the mundane aspects of their lives. The film tries to capture a great number of facets of life (though never anything all that sexual beyond touching. It also gets great mileage out of Peter Falk’s cranky but endearing persona. It’s a film to fall into, and benefits from repeat viewings, and has great cinematography. This is one case where I erred on caution, and was proved wrong.
The Criterion collection presents the film on Blu-ray in widescreen (1.66:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The film comes with a conversation between Wim Wenders and Peter Falk. It was recorded in 1996 and 1997, and this conversation has been edited into a commentary exclusively for the Criterion edition. It’s also great to hear the two talk. Supplements from the previous special edition have been included, such as the documentary “The Angels are Among Us” (43 min.) with Wenders, Peter Falk, Otto Dumont, Bruno Ganz, co-writer Peter Handke, composer Jurgen Knieper, and Brad Silberling, director of City of Angels. “Cinema Cinemas” (9 min.) is an interview with Wenders from 1987. It consists of behind the scenes footage with a voice over from Wenders. There are deleted scenes (32 min.) with commentary by Wenders (there’s no real production audio), and outtakes (6 min.). There’s a still gallery, then a conversation with cinematographer Henri Alekan (10 min.) from 1985, then from the documentary on Alekan “Alekan La Lumiere” (27 min.) “Rememberence” (29 in.) gives Curt Bius and interview conducted by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sandler. Also, two trailers for the film are included.