Alice in the Cities

(Alice in den Städten, Wim Wenders, West Germany, 1974)


Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road (1976) form a summit in Wenders’ career that he has never quite recaptured. In fact, it would be impossible for him to do so now: not because of any loss of artistry (Wenders is still evidently a genius at matching an actor’s gesture to a camera movement and a song, and his films are often dramatically and formally satisfying in their own terms), but because the terms of his struggle with seizing, living in and narrating History have irretrievably changed, along with the times themselves.


Alice in the Cities is a film of special poignancy and beauty. With it, Wenders became one of cinema’s supreme poets of twilight, alongside Jacques Tourneur and Pedro Costa (it is no coincidence that Wenders’ early cinematographic collaborator Martin Schäfer worked on the shoot of Costa’s Blood, 1989). He also emerged as an expert dissector of what can be called the Half-Life Syndrome: the withdrawn, detached, introspective, often indifferent life of an individual who simply drifts through landscapes and interpersonal situations – an ambulant voyant in the sense diagnosed by Gilles Deleuze (for whom Wenders in the ‘70s is a key figure) in his Cinema books.


The characters in Alice in the Cities speak of having no past or future, of having lost their secure identity in some unspoken crisis of long ago, of not even knowing how to live. Due to the vagaries of chance encounters and mishaps, Philip (Rüdiger Vogler, a constant actor for Wenders) falls into an extended wandering with a prepubescent girl, Alice (Yella Rottländer); their perfectly sexless relationship (it is intriguing to look back on this film from the vantage point of our hyper-sensitive, politically correct times!) is a testament to the ephemeral catalogue of little laughs, irritations and miracles that somehow compensate for the wretched conditions of an alienated Half Life.


In fact, Alice in the Cities replaces ego-based misery with an ego-less state – a zone in which neither the man nor the child are as yet fully formed beings. The film captures a blissfully prolonged (110 minute) moment of ego-less suspension – substituting a temporary, fluid sense of commitment, in place of the grimness associated with the conventional Mummy-Daddy-Child nuclear family unit.


Alice is one of Wenders’ best and fundamentally happiest films because it, too, accepts the many meanings of that word easy, as in Bob Rafelson’s work: its Half Life is empty, but open. To Philip’s final question, “What next?”, Alice simply shrugs and hangs out a train window, taking in the countryside.


And here is a curious musical footnote: what might be taken as an unofficial soundtrack to the movie, the remarkable ‘basement tape’ album Colour Green by Sibylle Baier (whom we glimpse singing on a boat near the film’s end), which only came into the public realm in 2006 when Baier’s musician son found and released the recordings his mother had privately made between 1970 and 1973. A happy instance of filial transmission, of a kind we so rarely see in New German Cinema of the ‘70s!


I pursue my thoughts on Wenders at length in the audio commentary for Alice in the Cities released by Madman (Australia) in 2007 in their DVD pack Wim Wenders’ Road Movies.

MORE Wenders: The Blues, The Brothers Skladanowsky, Buena Vista Social Club, The End of Violence, Hammett, Land of Plenty, The Million Dollar Hotel, Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire

© Adrian Martin 1992/2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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