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Subtle, moving fantasy “Wings of Desire” on Criterion 4K

Updated: May 28, 2023


Swiss actor Bruno Ganz plays the invisible angel Damiel, who comforts a critically injured motorcycle rider at a Berlin intersection.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray; 1987; PG-13 for thematic elements and brief nudity

Best extra: Commentary with director Wim Wenders and actor Peter Falk

AFTER EIGHT years in the U.S. German director Wim Wenders was desperate for home. Once he arrived in West Berlin – at the time the Berlin Wall was still standing – he started to search for a story to become his 13th film. “It was time to plunge into my own language and into Germany again and something about my childhood,” he says in the excellent commentary, an assemblage of six hours of interviews recorded in 1996 and ’97 with DVD producer Mark Rance. Co-star Peter Falk also participates.


All of the bonus features are carried over from previous Criterion editions. Still, the interview/commentary with Wenders and Falk is a must-listen. “I love Berlin, and the only reason I left America was for the city. It was like a planet of its own at the time, an island, a no man’s land in the middle of nowhere,” Wenders says.

While walking the streets for days and days, trying to find an angle to make the movie, he took notes writing down anything that interested him. “I wanted the city to suggest the story,” he says. Looking back, he was shocked at how many times he wrote “Angels? Guardian Angels?” as the angelic beings made of stone, wood, and marble kept popping up on houses, cemeteries, and “in most unexpected places,” he recalls. At first, he didn’t take it very seriously, but “it survived on the notepad.” At the same time every night, he read the works of Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke, “In a strange way to reconnect to my language.” Much of Rilke’s poems are inhabited by angels. Plus, copies of angel paintings from Paul Klee clutter his desk.

Angels & Children

(1) “Wings of Desire” premiered in West Germany on October 29, 1987, and finally arrived in New York City on April 29, 1888. (2-6) Children have the special gift to see the angels. (7) Damiel puts his calming hand on the stomach of an expecting mother as she’s transported to the hospital.

Once the cameras began rolling on the fantasy masterpiece, originally titled “The Sky over Berlin,” it became Wenders’ first film in Berlin, since “Summer in the City,” which he filmed in 1969. He only had high praise for his cinematographer Henri Alekan (“Beauty and the Beast” (1946), “Roman Holiday”). As in his earlier films, Alekan provides striking and poetic imagery. “It’s light and shadows from the great master of black and white,” the director says in the 1987 French TV ‘Making of’ documentary “Cinéma Cinémas,” found on the Blu-ray.

Wenders hired two best friends, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (“Downfall”) to play the invisible angel Damiel and German actor Otto Sander as Cassiel. The two listen to the innermost thoughts of Berliners. One moment they hear the voice of a Holocaust survivor, or a mother worried about her son. They place a hand on the shoulder of a young person considering suicide and comfort a car accident victim. The two loom over the city standing on top of buildings or alongside a heroic statue, while people remain unaware of their presence. Children can catch a glimpse, but quickly forget. They’re seen in dreams, but only perceived as part of the dream.

No special effects dominate the film. The angels have been in Berlin since the end of World War II. “They’ve been wandering around for forty years now. Each of them has his own ‘patch’ that he always walks, and ‘his’ people, of whom he has grown particularly fond and whose progress he follows,” writes Wenders in his essay “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film,” in the enclosed booklet.

Damiel & Cassiel

(1-3) Angels Damiel and Cassiel compare notes while seating in a BMW showroom car. (4) They have a perfect view of a couple kissing at the corner of Kurfürstendamm and Uhlandstraßea near the Cinema Paris. (5&6) Another child spots Damiel inside a Berlin library.

During the 43-minute documentary “The Angels Among Us” Wenders says, “None of us at the time thought we would ever see that [Berlin] Wall come down.” He realized the angels “could cross through ‘The Wall’ and be omnipresent and allow me to have this complete overview of the city.” Additional interviews with German playwright Peter Handke, actors Peter Falk, Bruno Ganz, and Otto Sander, composer Jürgen Knieper, plus director Brad Silberling, who helmed the American adaptation “City of Angels” (1998), starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.

Wenders and Handke retreated to Salzburg, Austria, to develop the working script. “I was astonished by his idea. I never thought about angels in my life, except when I was a child,” Handke says. He pushed for one of the angels to become human – a similar subplot to Cary Grant’s character in “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). Wender first wrote a handful monologues, including one of the angels falling in love with a woman. Handke handled the rest, which became the endless stream of voices heard by the angels, many times written just hours before the cameras began rolling. “It was mainly brainstorming and talking about how we got in touch with this world of angels,” Ganz explains. American director Silberling had only high praise for Ganz’s mostly non-viable performance. “You think of his expression, and he is the window into the life in that film,” he says.

The initial core of the story is also a love affair between Damiel and a circus trapeze artist – a woman who could fly. The role was played by Wenders girlfriend at the time Solveig Dommartin (Marion). “I never imagined any actress in eight weeks could learn to be a trapeze artist,” he says. The sequence was finished without a single stunt double.

Additional extras: 1985 conversation with cinematographer Henri Alekan; another conversation with Wenders and Alekan that aired on French TV in 1988, and excerpts from a 1982 documentary on actor Curt Bois, A German Jew who fled the country in 1933. He plays Homer, the ancient poet.

Marion the Trapeze Artist

(1-4) Damiel develops a love affair with a circus trapeze artist. The role was played by Wenders girlfriend at the time Solveig Dommartin.


Wenders supervised the 4K restoration, which was handled in Berlin. For the first time, the 35mm black and white and color negatives were assembled and mastered in TRUE 4K, while preserving the preferred 1.66:1 European aspect ratio. The film grain is also completely intact without any compromise or alteration. Clarity is superb from close-ups to the beautifully composed wide shots.

An interesting factoid included during the opening restoration notes: the 1987 theatrical prints were six generations from the original negative and distributed on color film stock, which gave it a sepia tone. Also, the enclosed 2009 Criterion Blu-ray was sourced from second-generation interpositive and internegative, reducing clarity and overall grayscale.

Wenders and company decided no HDR grading was needed, especially since the negative provided a balanced grayscale while keeping the shadows deep and dark and mid tones full and rich, with controlled highlights. “Wings of Desire” and the “Heat of the Night” prove HDR isn’t required on all 4K films. The upcoming German release of John Struges’ “The Great Escape” (1963) with HDR, will be a great comparison to Kino Lorber’s non-HDR version of the WWII classic.

The primary success of “Wings” is its remarkable black-and-white photography, orchestrated by 80-year-old Henri Alekan. Wenders convinced him to come out of retirement to paint the angelic world in b&w, with only a dash of color – similar to Spielberg’s palette of light and color in “Schindler’s List” (1993).

Homer, the Ancient Poet

Retired actor Curt Bois, A German Jew who fled the country in 1933, plays Homer, the ancient poet. When Bois arrived in Hollywood he played hundreds of small roles including the pickpocket in “Casablanca.” (1&2) Homer views Wim Wenders’ favorite photography book, “August Sandler: People of the 20th Century.” (3-5) Homer and his guardian angel Cassiel walk past the Berlin Wall. Today, the space is occupied by Potsdamer Platz, the European headquarters for Sony.


Wenders’ original 2.0 German stereo soundtrack has been restored, while he approved a new six-channel DTS-HD Master track. It keeps the dialogue front and center, while providing a wider soundstage with Knieper’s haunting score of loneliness and choral tones led by a cello. English subtitles are provided.

The late film critic Roger Ebert considered “Wings of Desire” one of his favorites. He wrote, “The film evokes a mood of reverie, elegy and meditation. It doesn’t rush headlong into the plot, but has the patience of its angels.”

It’s a perfect way to be transported to the angelic world.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

World War II flashback & Peter Falk

(1&2) Cassiel rides inside a Mercedes Menz car and has a flashback to World War II. (3&4) To mimic the modern footage Wenders uses clandestine footage captured during wartorn Berlin. (5&6) American actor Peter Falk plays himself, a former angel, working in Berlin during the production of a WWII motion picture.


Damiel & Marion

(1-4) Damiel follows Marion into a rock club and dreams to become human to develop a true romance. (5-7) Damiel’s world turns to color.


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