Alice in the Cities (1973)

a.k.a Alice in den Städten

D: Wim Wenders
S: Rüdiger Vogler, Yella Rottländer

There is an unsentimental tenderness to Alice in the Cities which is unique in the New German Cinema, dubbed by American critic Steven Schiff "Grey, angst-ridden films about grey, angst-ridden people." Its story of an alienated photo-journalist rediscovering himself and his country in the course of an international road trip with the abandoned daughter of a chance encounter perfectly encapsulates the common concerns of all New German film makers (and Wim Wenders in particular). Its concern with German identity and with the influence of American materialism on the spiritual health of a shattered culture is a familiar motif. Its uplifting ending and moments of charm and humour are more surprising.

Wenders has always been the most metaphysical of the radical young film makers who emerged from Germany in the 1960s and 70s. His concern is never with narrative and character so much as with what crises of personal and national identity he can anatomise through the use of striking cinematography and associations between images. Alice in the Cities was the first of a trilogy of 'road movies' which brought him to fame in Germany, all of them self-reflexively influenced by the American cinema and the American sensibility. It begins and ends with journeys, first in America, finally in Germany, and in between charts the spiritual journey of its adult lead towards a sense of himself as a modern German.

In the role of Phil, Rüdiger Vogler continues his performance as Wenders' cinematic alter ego; a man desperate to find something he feels he has lost but uncertain what it is. His disaffected wandering might well have rendered the film unwatchable if it were not for the arrival and the remarkable performance of young Yella Rottländer as Alice. Notable among child roles for a lack of obvious clichés and a persistent, realistically frustrating lack of focus, Alice is a perfect foil for Phil, who soon finds that a lack of direction is not the result of a wish for irresolution, but a simple inability to perceive the route to salvation.

In her case, it is trying to remember the location of her grandmother's house, which she knows only from impressions of the country and city. In his, it is a sense of purpose and meaning to his life which will allow him to write the photo-essay on America he has been sent abroad to work on. It is only by coming home physically and spiritually that his sense of perspective allows him to see things clearly, even through the lens of a camera.

Robby Müller's crisp camerawork combines with a haunting score to give the film a distinctive look and feel which works in conjunction with the often impressionistic script. As the journey takes in the sights and sounds of rural and urban Germany (and America), it is not so much the details as their overall effects which matter. The plot does not necessarily stand up to close reading, and raises several issues which are never satisfactorily resolved. But one senses, eventually, that the journey has been one of the spirit, not the body, and the mythic Grailquest of its central characters becomes concrete only through an inner realisation that home is where the heart is. Though it may seem obvious and trite from such a description, Wenders has rendered the film in such loving inner coherence that it ultimately doesn't matter. One comes away believing in Phil's transformation, and can't help but smile at Alice's apathetic curiosity at what will happen to him when they are parted and she returns to her own world.

Ultimately, Alice in the Cities is a hopeful meditation on the German present which holds promise for its future. That Wenders' own future would involve films made in America is an irresistible irony worth noting.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.