Wim Wenders’ best films are populated by itinerant loners, roaming around territories foreign to them with a keen eye for observing the curiosities of a different culture and landscape to their own. Though his earlier films had, to varying extents, exhibited a debt towards the American road movie, it was his 1974 film Alice in the Cities which fully betrayed the director’s love for that type of film, as well as signalling his intent to reinvent it in a European setting and context.
Shot in a choppy, improvisational style belying a debt to Truffaut, the film first follows German writer Philip Winter trawling around the United States, on an assignment to complete a piece of reportage about its culture, from the standpoint of this steadfast European cynic. Mesmerised by its neon-lit boulevards and cheap roadside motels, he takes copious polaroid photographs of everything, but the stifling atmosphere of tacky television and the ever-blaring radio has choked his creative mojo, and he finds himself unable to actually write anything, to the consternation of his agent and publisher.
He decides to return home, but at the airport befriends a woman who proceeds enigmatically to disappear in order to sort out some personal issues, leaving Philip in charge of escorting her precocious nine-year-old daughter Alice back to Europe. It is here that the real journey of discovery begins; Philip, so jaded from his unfulfilling trip to the States, suddenly finds himself responsible for something other than himself, and while initially the relationship between them is frosty, the man and the girl strike up an unusual bond in their search across Germany for her grandmother’s house. He stops taking pictures of everything, and is able to write again. Alice, on the other hand, loses some of her coldness and comes to relish her new found freedom with her newly-found chaperone. For all of her precociousness, we are reminded that she is still a naive young girl – unable to understand why Philip sets his watch back six hours on arrival in Amsterdam.
It is unusual for a ‘road movie’, in that there are no real great revelations, no big surprises, no grand changes in the characters’ outlooks on life; neither is the film a picture-postcard advertisement for travelling around Germany, although there are some wonderfully captured moments – the windmill designs on the Amsterdam hotel room window shutters, the brief monorail trip from Wüppertal, the factories of the Ruhr valley, the pair performing physical jerks in a car park before sunbathing. In their search for Alice’s grandmother’s house, Wenders’ camera scans passing houses, so elegant and provincial compared to the skyscapers and seedy motels we had seen in America earlier.
At times, the film seems almost monotonous, capturing moments where nothing is actually happening – in one extended scene, they order ice-cream in a small cafe whilst watching a boy humming along to a rock and roll song on an old fashioned jukebox; in another the camera lingers for a noticeably long time on a young girl following the pair’s car along a residential side-street on her bike. But these moments in the film give breathing space – an effect similar to the ‘pillow shots’ employed by Wenders’ forefather Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu – and it is the fact that the two of them are increasingly able to do nothing together so easily which illustrates their strengthening bond.
There is little in the way of sentimentality, and unusually for a road movie, it is at times difficult to see exactly where everything is heading. Yet by the end, one cannot help but feel saddened by the pair’s inevitable parting, and moved by the way that they have enriched each others lives in such a simple but unlikely way. Wenders himself cannot bear to split the two, so he finishes with the two of them on the train taking Alice back to her mother, before sweeping away into a panorama of the German countryside, the backdrop to their voyage of self-rediscovery. A similar journey will be undertook in Wenders’ Palme D’Or-winning masterpiece Paris, Texas, though Travis’ and Hunter’s journey will be more about forgiveness and redemption; Alice in the Cities reminds us of the infinite capacity to rediscover ourselves through other people.