German filmmaker Wim Wenders has made two of my all-time favorite movies, the beautifully sad Paris, Texas (1984) and the transcendent fantasy Wings of Desire (1987). Oddly, however, I’ve yet to encounter another Wenders movie that I genuinely like, even though he’s been prolific in both documentary and fiction features since making his first full-length movie in 1970. I mention my ambivalent relationship with Wenders’ work in order to create a context for my thoughts on his breakout feature, Alice in the Cities, which is beloved by many. While I appreciate the integrity, originality, and thoughtfulness of the picture, I find it needlessly arty and opaque; furthermore, the story is so contrived that it’s impossible for me to buy into the principal narrative device. Having said all that, it’s entirely likely I’m overlooking some key into the movie’s modality, so I hope that others have a more rewarding experience with the film.
In any event, the story begins in America, where despondent German Phil (Rüdiger Vogler) travels from city to city, taking Polaroids of such soulless sites as run-down gas stations and highway underpasses. It turns out Phil is a writer on assignment, and his task is to write a color piece about the American heartland. However, Phil found America so monotonous that he lost the will to write. Accordingly, his editor is none too pleased upon Phil’s return to New York. Phil decides to go home to Germany, but while still in New York he meets a woman (Lisa Kreuzer) with a young daughter, Alice (Yella Rottländer). Bizarrely, the woman leaves Alice in Phil’s care, with instructions for Phil to escort the girl back to Europe, where mother and child eventually will reunite. Rather than surrendering the child to authorities, Phil follows the mother’s instructions, only to have the mother miss the planned rendezvous. Then Phil and Alice bum around Europe while Alice struggles to remember the name of her hometown.
While Alice in the Cities is meant to seem quite innocent, the vision of Phil bathing while Alice sits in the same room is one of many such troubling images. Plus, because Phil is shown pursuing sex with (adult) women on two occasions, the illusion of a harmless surrogate-father dynamic is far from persuasive. Putting that worrisome aspect aside, Alice in the Cities has undisputable virtues. The performances are loose and naturalistic, while the grainy black-and-white cinematography by frequent Wenders accomplice Robby Müller offers a vivid travelogue of America and Western Europe. Moreover, Alice in the Cities has a unique tone, because Wenders blends hopefulness and melancholy in a singular way. (Raised to a much higher level and put in the service of a stronger story, that same tonal blend later became a distinguishing characteristic of Paris, Texas.)
Many admirers have read deeper meanings into Alice in the Cities, praising the film as not only an examination of the gulf between elegant Europe and vulgar America but also a rumination on the strange modern-day blurring of those traditional geopolitical classifications. Yet whether the picture is viewed as a simple story about lost souls bonding or as something loftier, the importance of Alice in the Cities to Wenders’ career is inarguable. Wenders followed Alice in the Cities with two more entries in his “Road Movie Trilogy,” both starring Vogler, The Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976). More importantly, Alice in the Cities firmly established Wenders as a leading light in the New German Cinema, and the movie defined the idiosyncratic style that has characterized his work for decades.
Alice in the Cities: FUNKY