It’s been 30 years since the release of Wim Wenders’ signature film “Der Himmel über Berlin” aka “Wings of Desire,” and the premiere of the newly restored version in Berlinale Classics is a way of kicking off its anniversary theatrical re-release in Germany this April by Studiocanal, via their Arthaus Classics label.
The Wim Wenders Foundation has already restored 16 of Wenders’ films, including “The American Friend” and “Alice in the Cities,” but it was only then that Wenders felt ready to tackle what he knew would be the biggest challenge.
“‘Wings of Desire’ was so much more complex because we shot three-quarters of it in black & white and one-quarter in color,” Wenders explains. “They were intercut in each and every reel, and that’s where the trouble began.” In order to marry the two formats, including seamless transitions, the film had to go through several generations of interpositive and internegative, losing quality with every step, to create the final negatives used for release. “As beautiful as it might have looked in Cannes ’87, Wenders adds, “every print ever since is six generations removed.”
Wenders remembers that his cameraman, Henri Alekan, famous for his black & white photography on Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” “suffered terribly because his beautiful black & white was printed on color negative. And he said, ‘Why can’t I get it right?’ and I said, ‘Henri, you will never get it right because it’s color negative and that’s the condition of the film.’ And also in the six generations, we lost some of the sharpness and contrast.”
While 2010 already saw a state-of-the-art HD mastering by Criterion for it’s Blu-ray edition, Wenders felt that “we needed to go deeper, because we needed something that was going to survive forever.” That meant getting back as close as possible to the original negative.
It took some time to hunt down the material, which was scattered among several archives, but all the elements were located in good condition. Everything was scanned at 4K and pieced together, with every effect not done in the camera being digitally re-created. The black & white and color sequences were reassembled, frame-identical to the original film with no generational loss, which revealed an image quality that had never been seen.
The painstaking work on the color correction became for Wenders an emotional experience, “I thought of Henri a lot and to regain that first generation brought such an enrichment of each and every shot,” he recalls. “Even before it was all put together – seriously, I sat there and cried. Because I so wished Henri could see it.”
But arguably his greatest collaborator was Berlin itself. “I always had a close relationship to the city of Berlin,” he says. “And I always felt throughout the making of ‘Wings of Desire,’ that the city was carrying the film, the city had sort of co-invented the story — the whole idea of the angels was something that I always felt that the city itself had suggested.
“And then of course two years later it became a whole different city,” he continues, “so I felt I had preserved a part of it that was very rapidly disappearing. Berlin changed in two or three years after ’89-’90, as if there was no tomorrow. And I realized I had just caught it in the nick of time, that strange, legendary island of a city that had made Berlin unique for 30 years. ‘Wings of Desire,’ more than any of my films, was a sheer gift. I was given this film as a gift from this city.”
Studiocanal has also acquired rights to a number of other Wenders films and additional releases will be forthcoming.