English Title: Alice in the Cities
Original Title: Alice in den Städten
Country: West Germany
Language: German, English, Dutch
Director: Wim Wenders
Veith von Fürstenberg
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Wim Wenders’ fourth feature, ALICE IS THE CITIES heralds a seminal change in his career, the first film of his road film trilogy (follows by WRONG MOVE 1975 and KING OF THE ROAD 1976, all three are starring Rüdiger Vogler), which designates Wenders’s definitively poetic and nihilistic trait in his future feature film-making, and would reach its apex in PARIS, TEXAS (1984) and WINGS OF DESIRE (1987).
Philip Winter (Vogler), a German journalist drives in rural America like a lone wolf, takes pictures from his Polaroid camera, checks in dingy motel rooms, chafes at soul-destroying TV shows and radio programs remitting their diet of pap non-stop, where is his destination? Soon after, Philip arrives in New York, audience then has been informed that he has been assigned to write an article about the United States four weeks ago, but he has been struck by writer’s block and is unable to produce any texts, except for a stack of Polaroid snapshots. Running out of money, Philip decides to go back to West Germany with a one-way ticket, in the booking counter, he chances upon a German woman Lisa (Kreuzer, Wenders’ second wife) and her 10-year-old daughter Alice (Rottländer), Lisa also wants to leave for Germany as soon as possible but is hampered by language barrier.
Being a Good Samaritan, Philip book three tickets to Amsterdam the next afternoon (being the nearest flight possible), finds the mother-daughter a hotel room to stay, where he soon joins them after being rejected by his New York friend Angela (Köchl, Wenders’ first wife) to stay overnight, who acerbically pinpoints Philip’s problem: he takes pictures to reproduce what he sees, but forever discombobulated by the futility of the transmutation, he can feel no attachment to the world.
Lisa confesses to Philip that she has just undergone a breakup and invites Philip to sleep in the same bed with the proviso that sex is off the table, the next day, Lisa leaves Alice in Philip’s care and fails to take the flight with them, but gives her word that she will meet them in Amsterdam the next day, a promise which she will also ultimately break. From then on, Philip is unwillingly saddled with an odd travel companion, Alice, an unadulterated force of childish simplicity and bluntness, from New York, to Amsterdam, then to West Germany, where they try to locate the house of Alice’s grandmother, whose name eludes the ten-year-older. From public transportation to roaming together in a rented car, in hotels or bedding down at a stranger’s home, the mismatched pair forms a tactile but uncharacteristic bond. The entire film strikes one as disarmingly detached, even in the narrative-wise turning points, e.g. Alice runs off from the police station and reunites with Philip, or Alice admits that she has been lying about where her grandmother lives in the first place, Wenders refuses to leave any traces of emotional manipulation, as a reward for dedicative audience, these scenes stamp an indelible mark for incorporating authenticity into acting.
Meanwhile, Philip starts to scribble on his notes with thoughts pouring in during his journey with Alice, although at first he deems her as a nuisance and a liability, but there is no denying that Alice’s presence does bring a whiff of freshness in his negative disposition and passive existence, it forces him to move about, to make up his mind, to communicate and to reconnect with the world which he seems to forfeit, and in return, he insouciantly bears with a surrogate father figure, makes ascertain Alice will return to her mother in safe hands.
As a dialogue-sparse existential essay, ALICE IN THE CITIES has an amazingly meditative and minimal soundtrack cooked up by the krautrock band CAN, although the Black-and-White standard is rudimentarily grainy and sometimes looks grotty, it suffices to say, just as the fact that there is no negative for Polaroid, Wenders’ body of work is also a brand of his own uniqueness, imitated by future directors but can never be superseded – as a nostrum for wanderlust cineasts.