“The picture never shows what it seems”
After directing three films he didn’t believe possessed a voice all his own, number four became Wim Wenders‘ make-it-or-break-it moment as far as whether to keep moving forward with cinema or to choose another path. Considering he’s still working today, we know the commercial and personal success Alice in den Städten [Alice in the Cities] provided. The first of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (although he would continue the motif throughout his oeuvre afterwards too), the film had its hiccups as the script written in response to collaborator and friend Peter Handke‘s novel Short Letter, Long Farewell mirrored Peter Bogdanovich‘s Paper Moon so closely that Wenders immediately canceled production. Cajoled by Samuel Fuller to do it anyway, Wenders retooled the script, rolled cameras, and jump-started his legendary career.
The film is ultimately an existential look at a German journalist who is—as his ex-girlfriend/lover/acquaintance Angela (Edda Köchl) says—psychologically lost abroad without an identity. He’s been traveling the winding roads of America for weeks as inspiration for a piece his publisher tasked him to write and he’s struggled from Day One to do anything other than snap Polaroids along the way. We quickly learn he’s doing this so that there’s evidence he has existed despite being alone and bored in a foreign land tainted by the love of his first stop: New York City. Here was a place he could embrace, alive and welcoming unlike the monotonous motels with nothing to do but watch TV. How could inspiration strike if every day remains the same?
Wenders ensures we sympathize with Phil Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) by showing us brief vignettes of car radio chatter, rained upon windshields, and silence save the click of his camera’s shutter spliced together with dissolves to black that last an infinity. It’s as though he’s putting us to sleep along with the character’s creativity, lulling us into becoming one with his struggle until a chance meeting at the airport introduces a smile through Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer) and her nine-year old daughter Alice (Yella Rottländer). They supply him a taste of home—a familiarity to break free from the doldrums of long roads and motionless trees. They give him purpose as a translator to acquire tickets into Amsterdam from which they can all take a bus back to Germany.
Alice also supplies the innocent excitement Phil could no longer muster. To her the Empire State Building was a destination and not another skyscraper competing with every other seen on his journey. Experiencing her enjoyment helps him finally start writing as it proves his ambivalence to the consumerist mentality of the Land of Free as legitimately lacking. It’s therefore a lark to spend a couple hours with the girl, waiting for her mother to join them, and a chore once the reality that Lisa isn’t coming to relieve him sets in. Suddenly this broken down and tired man longing for the comfort of home becomes babysitter to a stranger. Neither sought their current situation and both are drowning in self-pity, lashing out with no escape in sight.
This is where Wenders strikes gold because Alice in the Cities isn’t some cute odd couple pairing for antics or heartwarmingly revelatory meaning of life epiphanies. These two have been thrust together by the allure of a woman as lost or more than they are—her saddling Phil with her daughter a means to kick herself in the pants and return to Europe instead of staying with the boyfriend she’s working up the courage to leave. They try to put on a brave face at first, but arriving in Amsterdam to no Lisa can’t help make Alice feel abandoned and Phil frustrated by his new fate. What was once a laughter-filled adventure with an end in sight ultimately evolves into a tense journey towards the unknown.
The authenticity of this dynamic is beautifully rendered as two people making the best of a tough situation made worse by an utter lack of money. I love how easy it is for the pair to unwittingly con a stranger on the beach (Sibylle Baier) into putting them up for the night and feeding them all via the harmless question, “Do you think he’s my father?” Alice becomes the consummate wingman within this situation and they simply move on along their search for an ending afterwards. The longer they go on, though, the more we wonder whether it will all end horribly in some type of kidnapping misunderstanding. So it’s a welcome development when Phil rents a car to drive the girl to her grandmother’s home.
That in itself is a mystery as Alice draws a blank on her address, but it’s par for the course as far as forcing them in tight quarters to see whether they’ll blow. The risk is real and at one point Phil does get fed up, but these two have formed a bond that unites them no matter what comes their way. It’s a human connection they desperately need right now—she the third wheel in her mother’s globetrotting escapades and he alone seeking solace and pity from whomever is willing to provide it. They are kindred spirits, lonely and longing to be seen and heard when everyone else has pushed them aside. Doing the same to each other would be easy, but sticking together much more worthwhile.