Alice in the Cities is the film where Wim Wenders found his cinematic voice. It’s a road movie, which is what he’s most famous for making, and the first part of an official trilogy that also includes The Wrong Move and Kings of the Road. It came after Wenders made a poor adaptation of The Scarlett Letter, which he regretted so much that he almost gave up filmmaking.
It’s a simple film, and one of Wenders finest. A writer who has been travelling in the US, Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), has become disillusioned with America, commercialism and television. He is supposed to have written an article about the US during his trip, but all he has done is take some Polaroids. It’s very much based on Wenders’ own experiences, and could be seen as an unofficial adaptation or response to Peter Handke’s novel Short Letter, Long Farewell.
Philip is about to book his ticket back to Germany when he meets a young woman and her daughter, Alice. They become friends and end up staying at the same hotel. As it turns out, there’s been a massive air traffic control strike in Germany, so they aren’t able to fly directly home. Instead they plan to fly to Amsterdam and travel on from there, and the woman asks him to take her daughter on ahead, promising to meet them in the airport the next day, because she has some unfinished business to sort out with an ex. When the mother doesn’t appear, Philip and Alice go in search of Alice’s grandmother in Germany, so he can drop her off and get on with his life.
The film was shot by Robbie Müller, one of the greatest cinematographers ever, on 16mm and in black and write. He really gets the desolateness of middle America very well during the first 20 minutes, while Philip is en route to New York. The first section takes place in North Carolina, and the film was shot relatively consecutively.
Wenders had been pushed to make the film by Sam Fuller, whom he had befriended while Fuller was living in Germany. He rewrote it after seeing Paper Moon, as he spotted similarities. It includes his obsessions—cinema and music—although he didn’t have much money for music and made do somehow with using music on jukeboxes, including Psychotic Reaction. He has never been great at using music in his films, it’s often just background noise but here it works. There is a simple theme used in the film that was an original made for the director by Can.
Alice in the Cities is worth watching to see the beginning of a director who, while he has also made some terrible films as well as great ones, has a very unique style. You can’t talk about road movies without mentioning Wenders, and you can see a clear line between this film and Paris, Texas, which would come along ten years later. It’s an amusing and affecting film.
The disc features a new 4K restoration supervised by Wenders, an interview with Wenders by Mark Cousins, and a conversation between Wenders and the two main actors. There’s also a featurette on Wenders’ Polaroids—he is a renowned Polaroid photographer—and a booklet with an essay by Walter Salles amongst others.