Blu-ray Review: Wings of Desire (Criterion Collection)

Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire is able to capture your attention despite its sparing plot for the main reason you know its about something even if that something takes its sweet time in fully revealing itself. The film follows two guardian angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), as they watch over humanity from up high above the streets of Berlin, and, more often than not, at street level.

As they walk the streets, an often visited library and ride the trains we listen in on the thoughts of others as those Damiel and Cassiel encounter can be heard. However, their thoughts don’t come across as a string of cohesive sentences as much as they are fragments of ideas, occasionally offering something of substance, but most often an example of the mundane. To that effect you could say Wings of Desire is about just that, an appreciation for the simpler things in life, the often under-appreciated things we as humans take for granted, but Damiel and Cassiel look at as pleasures they cannot share in.

Wings of Desire is about several things, a couple that come to mind for me are love, humanity, the innocence of children, destiny, dedication and, of course, desire. But beyond all this, I got something else out of it.

I am going to assume that at one time or another, in all of our lives, each of us has said, “If only I knew then what I know now.” This was a phrase that stuck with me early on and throughout the entire film. Wings of Desire is primarily told from the viewpoint of Damiel and his interest in human life after walking the earth for eternity has come to the point where he wants to “take the plunge” and become human himself. I could only imagine what it would be like to take your first steps as a human being with a head full of an eternity of knowledge. Taking that into consideration, I began wondering, if given the choice, would you want to come into this world at an older age with such knowledge or would you prefer to start from scratch? This thought process went even further as the film’s obvious religious themes took on a new meaning, or more accurately a tangent meaning.

Peter Falk (“Columbo”) plays himself in the film and one of the many humans Damiel watches over and I think one can look at the actions of Falk’s character as an embodiment of evil. He somehow, knowingly tempts the angels to reveal themselves and abandon their duty due to God. Under this interpretation the object of Damiel’s desires, Marion, and the red dress she is wearing at the end of the film would symbolize the forbidden fruit as she and Damiel search to find their own personal Eden. The two give in to temptation, eat of the fruit and fulfill their desires. It’s at this moment Damiel realizes his full transformation to becoming a human being, falling out of grace with God and no longer serving in His name.

Is this proposed interpretation too far off? In terms of the film’s overall celebration of humanity, I would say it definitely doesn’t fit. However, I think it helps in giving the film’s detractors an explanation as to why the first 75-percent of the film is more important than they may have perceived. Without the film’s opening three-quarters there is no reason to think Falk’s character isn’t the devil (or one of his followers) tempting angels to abandon their godly duties, encouraging them to smoke and drink coffee and leaving them to their own devices with a wink and a smile before moving on to his next victim.

As much as my theory interests me, it loses weight thanks to the film’s finale, which I won’t spoil completely for those that haven’t seen it, but that isn’t to say I wasn’t happy the film opened my mind to so many varying ideas. Then again, Criterion’s Blu-ray release makes a first time viewing that much more pleasurable.

Jurgen Knieper’s excellent score makes spectacular use of the rear surround speakers all while his choral tunes reminded me a lot of Erik Nordgren’s score for Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The crisp high-definition transfer is enhanced by the spectacular cinematography of Henri Alken, a man referred to in the special features by Wenders himself as “the great master of black and white.” How true.

The supplemental features begin with an audio commentary edited by independent DVD producer Mark Rance, making use of over six hours of archived interviews from September 1996 to March 1997. As a result it is more of an audio essay, professionally edited to the film’s narrative as Wenders and Falk discuss the film, its origins and its meaning.

There are over 40-minutes of deleted and extended scenes, neither of which contain any recorded dialogue, but the 32 minutes of deleted scenes are accompanied by newly recorded commentary from Wenders while the nine minutes of outtakes are presented with music only.

“The Angels Among Us” serves as the disc’s making-of featurette. Created in 2003, it includes comments from Wenders, Ganz, Falk, Sander, Knieper and others, explaining all aspects of the film and it leads nicely into a pair of excerpted features on cinematographer Henri Alekan, the first called “Alekan ’85” which is made up of pieces of an unfinished documentary on Alekan and the other is Alekan La Lumiere, 27-minutes of excerpts from a 1895 documentary on Alekan.

A short, nine-minute excerpt from France’s Cinema cinemas from 1987 is a look at one particular scene from the film including Peter Falk and Remembrance is 29 minutes from a documentary co-directed by Ganz and Sander about actor Curt Bois. Ganz and Sander showed Wenders this documentary, earning Bois the role of Homer in Wings of Desire. Bois was in his nineties when he shot the film and came out of retirement to do so.

The supplements are capped off by a photo gallery and a German theatrical trailer and a promo trailer for a Wenders retrospective titled Wen Wunderts featuring Wenders and Bois.

Overall, as this film began I wasn’t sure I would ever recommend it, but I found it hitting on more and more of my favorite themes, especially when I began piecing together the alternative interpretation I offered earlier in this review. Admittedly, Wings of Desire isn’t an instantly accessible film, and as such is a film you may want to rent before opening up your wallet.

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