The grand theme of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’s cultishly adored fantasy of overcoat-clad angels in Berlin as the Cold War’s end drew near, is storytelling in all its forms as a coping mechanism of the human race. Kindly Damiel (Bruno Ganz, whose sad but easy smile helps make this an indelible role) and his more objective but similarly empathetic cohort Cassiel (Otto Sander), whose wings are only fleetingly shown by Wenders, daily swap tales of the small behaviors and interactions they’ve witnessed after traversing the skies and streets to hear “only what is spiritual in people’s minds.” (A steady chorus of interior speech, from brief, incomplete musings to ornate, torrential monologues penned by the novelist-playwright Peter Handke, floods the soundtrack.)
Among those observed are an elderly poet (Curt Bois) wandering the sites of his vanished haunts from the pre-Nazi era, wondering why “an epic of peace” has never been sung; Peter Falk, playing some eternal version of himself, arriving to shoot a film, sketch extras, and provide a good measure of American soul and humor to Berliners and angels alike; and waitress-turned-trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin, wearing feathers, a halo of sweptback hair, and an aura of sexy self-deprecation) preparing for the end of the circus season and entrancing Damiel with her musings on what her life’s story holds, preoccupied with fearful thoughts of being “gloriously alone.” Occasionally the characters’ compulsion to wax philosophic can grate (“How should I live? How should I think?” Marion frets), but the environment of the walled-off, suspended-in-time West Berlin is dazzlingly rendered by Wenders and his collaborators. It’s hard to think of another movie of its era that makes the viewer so fully feel like a denizen of its setting; the roving, dollying, craning camera makes angels of us all.
Henri Alekan’s mostly monochrome images match the beauty of their grays and blacks with the mood of a city’s historical weight (interposed 1945 clips of bombed districts are ironically in rich color), and the music ranges from classical evocation of the past in Jürgen Knieper’s score, heavy with strings and choral parts, to the theatrical aggression of Australian postpunk (Crime and the City Solution, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). Wenders’s elevation of the everyday—whether it’s a tour-de-force spatial fugue through a modernist public library, Falk’s ode to the joy of coffee and cigarettes, or the riotously ghastly jacket a metamorphosed angel buys in a pawnshop—makes the heavenly agents’ obsession with the material and finite an unquestionable attraction. So long a presence in the area that he can recall the emergence of the first Berliner from its primeval savannah, Damiel decisively gripes to Cassiel, “Enough of the world behind the world!”
As Wings of Desire moves toward uniting its lovers who will forge a link that becomes “time itself,” Wenders’s spell loses a bit of its power; his choice to shift mostly into lovely but relatively decorative color seems too on-the-nose, and a revelation concerning Falk’s identity is a tad corny, if charmingly played. But Dommartin’s last speech to Ganz (and the audience), delivered mostly in one head-on shot, restores some of the hypnotic, committed romanticism of this singular cinema souvenir of a moment in culture and Western history. “Why am I me and why not you?” is the existentialist question repeatedly asked in the film, and Wenders’s ultimate answer seems to be, “Why not be both?”
The award-winning, mostly monochrome cinematography of Henri Alekan is luminously restored and remastered here; from the gleaming library haunt of the angels to the gritty streetscapes and barren lots, the black-and-white images look spot-on in contrast and richness, and the sparing color sequences burst vibrantly. If anything, the surround sound is more stellar even by the high standards of Criterion. The chorus of "overheard" interior voices is perfectly mixed throughout, as are the assorted musical sources, from the cello-scored opening to the rock club climax.
Criterion has knocked itself out to supply an exhaustive group of supplements. A feature-length commentary track is newly edited from 1990s sessions with Wim Wenders and Peter Falk. The director describes the film’s genesis as a spontaneous project needed after delays in producing Until the End of the World, his return to Berlin’s "planet of its own," how the city’s angel statuary (along with the poetry of Rilke) sparked the plot, and his recruitment of co-writer Peter Handke. Falk claims he took his role solely on the basis of being told he’d play an ex-angel. Rounding out the first disc are the German trailer for Wings of Desire and one for a career retrospective for Wenders, in which he is misidentified as "Wen Wunderts" and then finds himself interrupted onscreen by actor Curt Bois pitching him a comedy script.
Disc two offers a doc with production principals from the previous 2003 DVD release, with Handke citing his desire to write about "the urgency of love" as the key to his contribution, Wenders revealing that the interior monologues were not conceived of until postproduction at Handke’s suggestion, and composer Jürgen Knieper recalling his coaching of the "angelic" choral vocalists. A French TV profile of the director from 1987 captures him on the set, blocking a scene with Falk. The most remarkable aspect of the deleted scenes and outtakes included is Wenders’s cataloguing of the changes in the locations since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, such as a massive Sony Center in the then-desolate Potsdamer Platz; the biggest curiosity is a slapstick cake fight among the three leads, wisely cut from the ending. Also: a gallery of stills and text by production designers Heidi and Toni Lüdi illustrate studio sets of the Berlin Victory Column and other landmarks built to complement location work; two excerpted profiles of veteran camera whiz Henri Alekan, who is seen implementing a fascinating array of "supernatural" lighting effects; and a clip of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander’s doc on Bois, an exile to Hollywood during the Third Reich. The package’s booklet has a Michael Atkinson essay focusing on the angels’ observations as a metaphor for film watching, a Handke poem that recurs on the soundtrack, and an excerpt from Wenders’s original treatment promising a "story about division."
Even for non-fanatics, this packaging of perhaps the most beloved European film of a generation is heaven-sent.