As I have gotten older I have become more acutely aware that my entire adult life — and even before — has been spent online, engaging with a version of reality curated for constant attention. Without discounting the real relationships I’ve formed with people over the years, most of it has been a gigantic waste of time — addicting shots of dopamine from a facsimile of reality initially curated by my tastes and then chiseled down by algorithms designed to keep me clicking. Even as I’ve tried to leave the latter behind, I’m still constantly speaking to friends and family about anything that comes to mind. Everything outside the screen passes while I’m distracted, engaged fully in the partial thoughts and feelings of people I don’t necessarily know and never will while missing out on the potential level of the people around me — my sons, my wife, my coworkers, my friends. What am I doing?

What is the “awareness” of strangers’ online musings worth if it’s just a hit of dopamine? If it’s not real? I often wonder what it is like to not always be connected. I wonder if my brain would be capable of it.

Made before the ubiquity of the internet, such a notion is not really the point of director / co-writer Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire. But while I know very little about the day-to-day life of Cold War-era Berlin it depicts, the film — now available on 4K UHD Blu-ray from Criterion — still connected with me where it hurts.

Along with Cassiel (Otto Sander), Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is an angel who has observed the city before it was Berlin and before there were even people. Damiel is aware of the thoughts and dreams of those he observes but cannot interact with them in any way. His days are spent simply watching. He sees love, he sees hate, he sees life and death and everything i between with passive eyes and divine determination.

That is, until he witnesses a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) and falls in love with her, leading him to debate giving up his eternal life in search of psychical joy.

Wenders’ masterpiece is one told patiently. Damiel’s internal debate is expressed through the spoken poetry of an angel’s tongue, which Marion echoes in her beauty. Peter Falk appears as himself, once an angel and now a film star. He went through the same conflicting feelings Damiel is experiencing. His appearance cuts to the chase. He can tell Damiel is there even if he’s not corporeal and he speaks to the angel’s heart and tells him it’s OK to experience the world as people do, in all its messy truth.

I’m certainly not equating online engagement with heavenly observation. But endlessly scrolling through the projected thoughts of strangers feels as futile — and perhaps more futile — as Damiel’s place in things and the consideration of what he wants out of his new life. It’s not like the lesson I took from Wings of Desire is to log off, though. That feels overly simplistic. This isn’t a film that promises a simple life for Damiel. Far from it. Although he connects with Marion, nothing is promised to them. We never see what happens to Damiel, but we understand the complicated implications of his decision; maybe that’s why it’s so much easier for us to keep scrolling, to constantly run back to the aloofness allowed by looking away.

Special Features

  • A Wenders-supervised and -approved 4K restoration, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • One 4K UHD disc of the film and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • Audio commentary featuring Wenders and Falk
  • The Angels Among Us (2003), a documentary featuring interviews with Wenders, Falk, Ganz, Sander, co-writer Peter Handke and co-composer Jürgen Knieper
  • A 1987 episode of Cinéma cinémas featuring on-set footage
  • Interview with director of photography Henri Alekan
  • Deleted scenes and outtakes
  • Excerpts from the 1985 film Alekan la Lumière and from Ganz and Sander’s 1982 film about actor Curt Bois
  • Notes and photos by art directors Heidi and Toni Lüdi
  • Trailers
  • An essay by critic Michael Atkinson and writings by Handke and Wenders