Wings Of Desire DVD review

Angels walk the streets of Berlin in a masterpiece of cinematic fantasy that retains its hypnotic power after twenty years...

Bruno Ganz surveys Berlin from on high in Wings Of Desire

In the eighties, Ian McCulloch – lead singer with pop-rockers Echo and The Bunnymen – was asked by the arch-cheese and Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell what his latest hit single, Killing Moon, was about. McCulloch tartly replied “It’s about a Killing Moon; you don’t buy a book of poetry and then buy another book to explain it”.

Thus I have given up – after protracted struggle – the attempt to communicate the power of Wim Wenders’ 1987 tale of angels and incarnation, Wings Of Desire, to those who may not have seen it. I’ll tell you what it’s roughly about, and after that, we’ll just have to hope for the best…

Berlin in the mid-eighties has an ancillary and phantasmal population of trench-coat-clad angels, who watch benevolently and invisibly over the populace. These tranquil spectres are both wise in the ways of the world and totally innocent, never having been flesh. They flit at the speed of thought from one locale to another, listening to the miasma of ruminations, hopes and fears of the citizens of Berlin, and putting unseen hands of comfort on those in despair; in tube trains, apartments, libraries, they haunt the citizens with goodwill and compassion

But the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz)is as fascinated by the human condition as he is motivated to alleviate it, and confides in fellow ‘guardian’ Cassiel (Otto Sander)his wish to feel the cold, and the sunlight, and to know what colour actually is: in Wings Of Desire, the segments involving angels are shot in black-and-white, Wenders’ visual conceit to express the angels’ reductionist ability to see through to the fundamental.

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Enchanted by Berlin trapeze-artist Marion (Solveig Donmartin), Damiel resolves to descend into the incarnate world, to revel in the sensory and the visceral – and to seek his love…

But the real love-story in Wings Of Desire is that of Wenders’ passion and compassion for the denizens of Berlin; a city, too, that was to become so altered in the years after as to add an extra layer of nostalgia and timelessness to a richly poetic and lyrical cinematic masterpiece that already possessed enormous power to inspire and spellbind.

Henri Alekan’s astounding B&W/colour cinematography captures and beguiles the wild and bombed-out hinterlands that pockmarked mid-eighties Berlin, and the sinister and depressing Wall that symbolises here both the angels’ metaphysical distance from humanity and the isolation and heartache of the Berliners that the guardians try – sometimes in vain – to save from their own folly and despair.

But there is much joy as well as sadness in Wings Of Desire, and the inclusion of Peter Falk playing himself (did you know he used to be an angel in real life?) lends comedy and warmth to a tableaux of intense and spiritual communions between the angels and the ‘living’, most of which is punctuated by the poetry and pathos of the constant stream of thoughts of the Berliners.

This DVD edition does justice to Wenders’ original vision that the director admits was never rendered by any of the cinematic prints; though the black and white segments were filmed on real black and white stock, the entire film was ultimately output on colour stock that failed both the chiaroscuro segments of the angels and the polychromatic segments with the ‘living’. It’s possible that the colourists even went a little too far with the vibrancy of the colour in the later scenes, as we see mid-Winter Berlin bearing the highly saturated colour of a Mediterranean summer. But Wings Of Desire is a lyrical fantasy, and we can comfortably forgive it that.

There is a little more to forgive: Wenders cast his then-girlfriend, the late Solveig Donmartin in an absolutely crucial central role, though she had previously worked only as a director’s assistant. When she worked commendably hard to master the art of the trapeze, the director allowed her – as he now admits to being frequently criticised for – an interminable scene of her displaying her art. Additionally, Donmartin’s workmanlike acting skills were not necessarily the best place to deposit a five-minute monologue in the closing scene; you will have to fight your way past it, unfortunately.

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It’s appropriate enough, though; Wings Of Desire revels in the imperfect, evidenced when newly incorporated angel Ganz discovers to his delight that he has sustained a small head injury on the way from the ether to the real world; he has a quick taste of his own blood – the first thing he has ever tasted, and grins ear to ear as he corners a passing citizen to ask him what colour it is…and then what colour everything else is!

Jürgen Knieper’s astounding score truly knits together the retro feel of a very low-tech film with a huge heart and a fervent love for the bold geometry of German expressionism; from the cellos that signal the sadness of the empty Winter streets, to the discordant madness of Cassiel’s rage at having ‘lost’ a suicide victim, to the magnificent full orchestral sweep as the angels soar over unsuspecting Berlin, Knieper’s music constitutes one of the very best romantic scores of the 1980s.

So that’s what you’ll see and hear; but it explains very little, I’m afraid…


Commentary with Wim Wenders and Peter Falk A highly illuminating scene-specific commentary that seems to have been edited together from several sessions; Falk is clearly not present for the entire commentary, and seems to have contributed two sessions himself, once alone and once with the director. For those who love the film, the background found here is worth the price of the DVD on its own.

Conversations on Wings Of Desire (18m.32s) A typically quirky insight into Wenders’ methods and life, including the bizarre story of his life-changing brush with death after confusing dope-cookies with ordinary ones at a Berlin film-festival, and amusing excerpts from a previous documentary where he goes in search of a German town called Himmelreich (‘Kingdom Of Heaven’).

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Outtakes and deleted scenes (30m.54s) Not the usual off-cuts. This narrated look at what didn’t make it into Wings Of Desire is genuinely illuminating. The excised sequence where Cassiel amuses Damiel by aping passing citizens at a car showroom is very amusing, and Wenders rightly regrets that it didn’t appear in the final cut. Be warned, though: if you find yourself enjoying the deeply spiritual and warm mood that Wings Of Desire leaves you in, you might want to skip the hilarious but insanely inappropriate custard-pie fight that was once going to end the movie…

German trailer (1m.52s)


5 stars
5 stars

RRP: £15.99Discs: 1Runtime: 122 minutesLang: German English subtitles

Find it here


1 out of 5