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American Cinematographer Magazine

Wings of Desire (1988) Special Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
(German with English subtitles)
MGM/UA Home Video, $24.98

A DVD doesn't often look far better than the film that played in theaters, but this new release of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' brooding story of angels floating about Berlin, absolutely does. Legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, whose beautiful black-and-white photography and stunning in-camera effects helped make Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast an enduring classic, was the perfect choice to give Wenders' surreal film the visual statement it needed. Alekan's black-and-white images are crisp yet ethereal, but theater audiences saw a compromised version of his work; because sections of the film are in color, all of the release prints were struck on a color positive stock, which yielded softer, slightly tinted monochrome images. For this disc, MGM went back to the original source materials, and the resulting images have a purity never before seen.

In his audio commentary, Wenders proclaims that this transfer is the first time the film has looked as he imagined it would when he directed it. The filmmaker is quite revealing and straightforward about his approach to making Wings of Desire, which has become a cult classic, if not simply a classic, in the years since its release. Wenders' was keen to capture his hometown, Berlin, on film; inspired by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, he settled upon the notion of angels who could somehow float through the city and secretly share in moments of some residents' lives. Wenders asked German novelist Peter Handke to write dialogue for just a handful of scenes, and the filmmakers made up the rest of the film as they went along. The director recalls that without a script, everyone on set became an active participant in the production; however, he also acknowledges that some sequences would have been more effective if they had been scripted.

According to Wenders, Alekan was sold on Wings of Desire the moment he learned it was about angels, and his only non-negotiable demand was that he be allowed to do all of the visual effects in camera. Though the cinematographer was 79 years old at the time, he worked tirelessly to find visual details and refine his approach. When scheduling constraints allowed little time for lighting, Alekan rose to the challenge; when time allowed, he was astoundingly meticulous. An example of the latter was his lighting of a trailer interior: Wenders was called away from the location to tend to another matter, and when he returned a couple of hours later, Alekan and his crew were still lighting the tiny space. Wenders was astounded to find 38 Inkies inside the trailer, and is certain that Alekan would have lit for three more hours if he'd had them. The director notes that although Alekan's lighting of that scene is far more elaborate than he'd expected, it brings a tremendous texture and dimension to the scene. (In 1995, the ASC honored the inventive Alekan with its International Achievement Award.)

Wenders decided to film scenes depicting the human perspective in color, and those depicting the angels' perspective in black-and-white. Whereas color shows the surface of things, he explains, black-and-white shows their essence. Most of the film's power comes from Alekan's black-and-white rendering of mid-1980s Berlin, which is all the more fascinating today, now that it's a record of a city that no longer exists in the same form. The no-man's land of West Berlin leading up to the Berlin Wall gives the film one of its most evocative backdrops.

This disc will be treasured by the film's devoted fans, who have never seen the black-and-white sections presented in their full tonal range, and it's also worth a look for those who were somewhat put off by the film at first viewing. Wenders' commentary and a short documentary that's also included help explain why aspects of the film are as perplexing as they are, and provide a better sense of what the filmmakers had in mind.

- Jon Silberg

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