Wim Wenders’ devastatingly wonderful Wings of Desire trades in its armor for a new two-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray set from The Criterion Collection. One of the finest films ever produced, this deeply human film celebrates the awe, wonder, and tragedy of living a finite existence. The new SDR 4K transfer is immaculate offering beautiful visuals and clean audio and a fine selection of archival bonus features. Highly Recommended
As my colleague Joshua Zyber already wrote a wonderfully eloquent review of the film, I’ll refer you to that momentarily, but I have to pause a moment to pin down that Wings of Desire is one of my very favorite films of all time. I was introduced to it by my high school German teacher who got the clever idea of showing her class a film in German and trying to have us ignore the subtitles and translate the dialog ourselves. As an exercise, it didn’t always work because we’d spend more time just simply watching the film, but it’s from this viewing I fell in love with Wim Wender’s somber creation.
Simply, Wings of Desire is a film that celebrates life and living and appreciating the small things around us. It’s dark and haunting but also beautiful and moving as we follow Bruno Ganz’s Damiel as he transitions from a watching angel into a human who gets to fully explore the world. Ganz is fantastic in this role deliveirng a natural sense of wonder and amazement at everything he sees. Solveig Dommartin is devistating in her own ways as the beautiful trapeze dancer Marion who captures Damiel's heart. Otto Sander is equally haunting has Damiel's angel friend Cassiel who fails to see the same amount of wonder in the world as his friend. I also dearly love Peter Falk in his role as “himself” who offers simple but poignant advice to our former angel who begs to know everything - “That you have to find out yourself. That’s the fun of it!”
In a world that increasingly demands that you enjoy only certain things or that you can only be curious about certain topics, Wings of Desire is a wonderful affront to cynicism. I had a friend describe this film to me like it was coming off of anti-depressants. All of a sudden you start to experience real wonder and see beauty in the smallest details. Even if the love story may be a little slim, it’s there enough to say Damiel has loved. Ultimately never take for granted the small experiences and encounters.
Now, I’ll give a little credit to those involved with the making of City of Angels that they at least tried to recapture the magic of this film - but missed the mark. This film was already perfect as is and that remake was sadly hollow - even if Nicolas Cage was quite good in it. In the aim to make a comercial love story, they take simple themes and smack you over the head with them like sledgehammers. In the loss of subtlety, the story lost a lot of its meaning. Simply put, you just can’t make perfect twice.
Here’s what Josua Zyber had to say about Wings of Desire for his 2009 Blu-ray review:
In the years prior to the fall of the city's infamous Wall, angels Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) roam the streets of Berlin, invisible to all but young children. They have always walked these grounds, since the time before the first hairy biped created in their image stood upright. They have seen great beauty, and tragedy, and wonder, and indifference. They observe, record, and testify to one another on the minutiae of the human condition. Not the grand dramatic events that mankind might believe shape its history, but the important details – the way a man suddenly looks over his shoulder into space, a woman inexplicably putting away her umbrella in the middle of a rainstorm, an old lady grasping her watch. They witness everything, even intruding into people's thoughts, but cannot have direct interaction. The angels live on a spiritual plane lacking the true richness of human life, which they can intellectually examine but never truly understand.
'Wings of Desire' (its English-language title; in German it's known as 'Der Himmel über Berlin', literally translated as "The Sky over Berlin") is a film with no big action scenes, stunts, explosions, or expensive special effects. It has no surprise twist ending, and in fact very little story or plot at all. The movie's grandest set-piece involves a group of characters looking over people's shoulders at a public library. Yet this is a work of pure cinema, a mesmerizing stream of words, images, and sounds fused together in a way that only the motion picture medium will allow.
For its first 90 minutes, the film is essentially a non-narrative tone poem. The movie is less about story than about detail, as the angels collect little fragments of daily life for their journals. The picture is moody, contemplative, and existential. It's a meditation on the human existence, and an exploration of post-war Germany, a region still haunted by its past, still trying to rebuild and to reconcile its identity, even decades after the end of World War II. Cinematically, director Wim Wenders affects a tone of forlorn detachment. His camera floats dreamily through the city streets like the angels themselves, stopping to observe briefly and then move on.
Eventually, a narrative does surface. The angel Damiel longs for earthly ties, yearns to experience and finally understand those things that the living take for granted – things like color, warmth, the taste of hot coffee, or the sensation of touching the crook of a woman's neck. The price for this knowledge is mortality, and ultimately death.
Damiel is drawn to a woman who cannot see or touch him (the late Solveig Dommartin, at her most radiantly beautiful). He's fallen in love, even though he can't comprehend what that actually means. The woman is a circus acrobat, a trapeze artist in costumed wings. While this human pretends to be an angel, the real angel wishes to forsake his immortal existence to become human. The path to that transformation requires unexpected assistance from, of all people, Peter Falk (as himself), in Berlin to film a World War II drama that forces the city to reopen a wound it has tried unsuccessfully to suppress.
In years past, I've taken issue with the last half hour of the movie, which transitions from dreamy black & white to dull color, and forces a somewhat standard love story onto the material. The lovers' first physical meeting climaxes with an interminable speech that still tests my patience. However, in subsequent viewings, the thematic weight of these scenes has become more clear and resonant.
'Wings of Desire' is certainly Wim Wenders' masterpiece. It's a beautiful piece of visual poetry with images and ideas potent enough to haunt you for years.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Wings of Desire makes the natural upgrade to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a new 2-Disc release from The Criterion Collection. The 4K disc is pressed on a BD-100 disc with a Region A BD-50 disc reserved for the 1080p edition and additional bonus features. The discs are housed in a standard clear case with spine number 490 repurposed for this release. Also included is a booklet fcontaining essays and restoration notes about the film. The discs load to Criterion’s standard animated navigation system.
Wings of Desire is one of those rare cases where every release just gets better and better. A lot has been written about the film’s initial release but to summarize, the finishing techniques used to blend the Black and White photography with the color were either limited by the technology at the time or completely mishandled (depending on which sources you read). This left the specifically shot Black and White imagery to look more sepia brown which isn’t what Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan intended. So for years, including the original theatrical outings, the film didn’t look right. With each restoration effort, they’d get a little bit closer to what was always intended, but now with this most recent effort, they’re finally there.
The 1.66:1 SDR 2160p transfer displays an immediate and clear improvement over all previous home video releases of Wings of Desire. The Black and White imagery is hauntingly stark but also wonderfully beautiful. The gray scale is perfect offering full range of shades of white to black. Then for the final act when the film shifts to co, primaries are vivid with healthy skin tones without looking too hot or problematic. A lot of people might make a big muckety-muck about the lack of HDR, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from upgrading to this disc. Much like Night of the Living Dead, you don’t need HDR to see the enhancements and accents that simply having the film in native 4K resolution can offer. Front to back it’s gorgeous allowing you to fully appreciate the finest details in facial features, the brutalist architecture, and clothing textures with a healthy naturally cinematic film grain structure. No signs of smoothing or edge enhancement are to be seen.
In a take what will sort of caveat, Criterion has opted to only include the new (and very good) DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix. There isn’t an original stereo track option so that may be irksome for a few collectors out there, thankfully this new mix doesn’t bork the soundscape with horrible revisionist sound effects or completely change the dynamics of the mix. Instead, it’s nicely subdued allowing the dialog to carry the action with only simple setting effects bleeding into the surrounds. For more active scenes the surround activity becomes a little more immersive but not distractingly so. Street sounds or when the angels are observing people the whispery vocals slip in around those channels. It’s a genuinely nice effect. Scoring may be minimally applied but it’s a lovely accent to the film.
In what’s becoming a familair piece to a lot of Criterion re-releases, there aren’t any new bonus features to speak of for this release of Wings of Desire. Which is alright considering what was given to us previously was already pretty fantastic stuff. The audio commentary with Wenders and Peter Falk is a combination of separate interviews but it works and is nicely informative. I hadn’t heard this track in some time and was grateful to hear it’s still an interesting listen. The forty minutes of cast and crew interviews are also a worthwhile look as each personality dives into the making of the film. For a more indepth breakdown of the extra features, look at our previous Blu-ray review.
4K UHD Disc
For this film fan, Wings of Desire is simply one of the finest pieces of filmmaking ever. Granted, I caught this for the first time as an impressionable teen, but the film has always stuck with me. It’s one of the few that I love dearly but only pull off the shelf for special occasions. It’s tragic without being depressing. It’s romantic without being dopey. It’s sweet without being saccharine. With a cast of incredible performances, it’s one of my true blue favorite films. The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous efforts for a new 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray. The new 1.66:1 2160p SDR transfer is simply gorgeous. Those aching for HDR won’t miss it once the film gets going. The mix of black and white and color photography is striking. Audio is impressive in 5.1 even if the action isn’t that dynamic and relies on more nuanced subtleties for an immersive auditory experience. Tack on all of the archival extras from the previous criterion set and you have another excellent addition to the collection. Highly Recommended