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Wings of Desire: Special Edition

There has been no more stunning and disheartening an artistic slide over the last 20 years than that of Wim Wenders. One of the most prodigiously talented international filmmakers to emerge in the mold-busting era of the 1970s, he made two masterpieces in the '80s before rattling off an endless string of self-consciously arty disasters that have yet to abate (the most recent was the long-delayed and frankly unwatchable The Million Dollar Hotel); ergo, there could not be a more opportune time to finally release what is arguably the director's finest achievement, Wings of Desire, to DVD. Made after an eight-year absence from his native country (Wenders came to America to make the over-produced but fascinating misfire Hammett, which he then followed up with Paris, Texas), the director had returned to Berlin after failing to secure financing for Until the End of the World. Having blown two years on that endeavor, he wanted to make something quickly. What emerged from his imagination was a profoundly humanistic statement that continues to resonate to this day; a hypnotic tone-poem that considers our inherent isolation and suggests that there are angels tending the collective garden of our thoughts as they collide in the ether, reassuring us when they can, observing in empathetic agony when they cannot. The achievement brought Wenders the Best Director award at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, and perhaps set expectations for his subsequent films so high that he's been unfairly castigated for not achieving this rare level of transcendence since. Wings of Desire's narrative concerns the wanderings of two seraphs, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Dumont), who hover and perch about the expressive architecture of Berlin, listening into the hopes, fears, and aspirations of the city's populace, periodically meeting up to exchange notes on what they've been hearing. They complement each other nicely; Bruno is expressive, whimsical, and enamored of the tactile minutiae of being human, while Cassiel is of more stoic stock, acknowledging the undeniable uniqueness of mortality, but never expressing a fervent desire to experience it. Bruno is, of course, the film's protagonist. His wish to be tethered to the finite thrill of living is encouraging to those of us who have no choice in the matter. When he comes across a lovely, but moody trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), Bruno's fate is sealed. He now has the torturous hunger to experience for the first time the sensation of being in love. But this is a long time in coming; in the meantime, Cassiel tails an elderly "people's storyteller" named, appropriately enough, Homer (Curt Bois), who, when he's not haunting the library, wanders the free side of the Berlin Wall. Bruno and Cassiel also both become fond of following a visiting Peter Falk, cast as himself, as he goes about shooting what appears to be a World War II movie. When Bruno, after much introspection of his own, finally decides to make the transition from ethereal to human being, he ends up receiving a bit of assistance, monetary and otherwise, from the garrulous Falk — who, it turns out in one of the film's most endearing strokes of genius, knows a thing or two about falling from the heavens.

*          *          *

Wenders precariously went into production on Wings of Desire without a script (it was written on the fly and submitted piecemeal to the director by writer Peter Handke), but he protected himself by casting two longtime friends, Ganz and Dumont, to play the principal angels. Shot quite often in close-up, both men possess endearingly memorable visages, and the remarkable economy of expressions they utilize constitutes a veritable master class in film acting. Meanwhile, Falk — no stranger to improvisational film either, having collaborated a couple of times with John Cassavetes — revels in this freedom as well, conjuring up glorious moments whether he's gently hassling a wardrobe woman as he selects a hat for his character or imparting to Damiel the ineffable pleasure of coffee and a cigarette on a cold day. But the movie is, above all, a visual feast of sumptuous black-and-white photography (captured by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast), and fluid camera movement choreographed by Wenders at his intuitive best. As his gaze cranes up over walls, creeps through an old air-raid shelter, and floats through a wide-open library, one gets the feeling that the director is forever seeking to surprise himself, giving the audience a sense of the unknown lurking around every corner. Wings of Desire is a film of constant discovery. MGM presents Wings of Desire in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras on this Special Edition include an excellent commentary from Wenders and Falk, most of which is dominated by the director, though Falk (who clearly adores the film) manages to chime in often enough, even during scenes in which he was not involved. Next up is a substantive documentary titled "Angels Amongst Us" (43 min.), which yields tremendously fascinating insights on the making of the film and features interviews with most of the key cast and crew, though director Brad Silberling, who helmed City of Angels, feels a tad out of place (it should be noted that Wenders has expressed satisfaction with this remake). There also are deleted scenes (32 min.), offered up in bulk and with non-optional commentary by Wenders, an interactive map that offers brief tours of the film's memorable locations, a collection of advertising artwork, an amusing promo featuring Wenders and Bois, and both German and American trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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