Alice In The Cities Review
Alice In The Cities would turn out to be a significant landmark in the career of Wim Wenders, disillusioned after his tortuous experience on The Scarlet Letter and on the point of giving up filmmaking altogether. Its story of a German writer who unexpectedly finds himself travelling from American back to Europe with a young girl in tow seems simple and charming enough on the surface, but through this story the director would explore his own complex relationship with America and filmmaking, discovering an appropriate way of doing so through the format of the road-movie – a subject and method that would creatively revitalise the director and come to play a prominent part in his subsequent career.
In the interview included on this DVD with Mark Cousins, Wenders recalls that the impetus to make the film quite clearly. The only good experience he had on the making of his troubled production of The Scarlet Letter was a small scene between the actor Rüdiger Vogler and the young girl Yella Rottländer, a scene invented by the director himself rather than it being adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original novel. Wenders recalls that he wanted to recreate the simplicity and fun he had in that scene and extend it into an entire film with those two actors. Freeing himself also from any strict script, Alice In The Cities then grew along with the relationships between its characters, largely improvised and scripted as they journey through the movie.
As a road-movie however, Alice In The Cities starts rather unconventionally, the principal character Philipp (Rüdiger Vogler), a German writer who has been commissioned to write an article about America, already coming to the end of his journey across the States having gained nothing from the experience. Disillusioned and unable to write about what he has seen, Philip decides to return home but, due to a strike at the airports, he is unable to get a flight to Germany. While waiting for a flight to get him at least as far as Amsterdam, he meets a Dutch woman (Lisa Kreuzer) and her daughter (Yella Rottländer), also planning to make the same journey. The woman however leaves their hotel to sort out an emergency with her ex-husband, leaving Philip to bring Alice over to Amsterdam alone, promising to get a flight the following day. When she doesn’t turn up, Philip – at a loss himself and short of money - finds himself stuck with a young child who has no notion of a place called home and no immediate family to rely on.
This sounds like the set-up for an unlikely buddy movie of two very different personalities thrown together expectedly on a journey together, but Wenders manages to avoid cuteness and sentimentality, using the process of making the film as an exploration for himself, as much as for the characters. Rüdiger Vogler maintains a detached presence and Philipp doesn’t become attached to the young Alice in the manner that might be expected. There is a connection of course, but it’s a subtle one, the writer in his lonesome occupation finding a way through simple human contact to see the world again as if through the eyes of a child, reconnecting and relating again to a world that during his American trip he had only come to see and photograph, but no longer understand.
Wenders has a wonderful way of making this evident in the landscapes of both America and Germany. There is certainly disillusionment shown in the soullessness of the America Philip leaves behind, represented not only in the familiar forms of the mindless TV, anonymous motel rooms and sterile airport lounges, but also in the high technology (or what passes for high technology in 1973) of slot pay-per-view televisions, automated signs that tell you what to do and, of course, in the photographs taken by Philip on the prototype of the newly-invented Polaroid camera. Like his view of such objects in his documentary Tokyo-Ga, Wenders seems to despair of how technology and commercial considerations towards creating objects of convenience somehow create a certain inhuman distance from reality. In Europe with Alice on the other hand, Philipp finds that places and objects can have life when associated with memory - and they can even have deaths, Alice referring to the “house-graves” where old buildings have been demolished.
It’s not Wenders’ intention however to contrast the perceived superficiality of America with the historical richness of Europe, as much as finding a means of reflecting where Philipp is mentally and emotionally – disillusioned, rootless, alone, having broken up with his girlfriend, creatively blocked and unable to write – and how he manages to find himself again. Much later in the film, finds a key he has retained from one of those American motels and is able later to look on it with fondness, forgetting the terrible time he spent there. Similarly, paying respect to John Ford and Chuck Berry in the film, it is only when he is away from America again and in touch with himself that Philipp is able to fully appreciate its qualities. And if we are to judge by Wenders’ subsequent career, distance and perspective also play a part in allowing the director to come back revitalised and continue that exploration through the road-movie, falling in love again with that initially remote and intimidating American landscape, expressing his respect for it most fully in Paris, Texas.
Alice In The Cities is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Having been recently revived for theatrical distribution again, one would expect that there has been some restoration done with the print, but there is little evidence of it on this DVD release. Filmed cheaply on 16mm however, there probably isn’t a great deal of improvement that can realistically be made to the print here. Accordingly, the image is very soft, there is a lot of grain in evidence and some minor instability in one or two frames of the rather rough and ready print. The tone is a little bright, but it’s hard to tell whether this is simply down to the almost documentary-like filming conditions in which the film was made. The print is largely unmarked however, and transferred progressively, it’s unlikely the film is going to look much better. There is however occasional chroma cross colouration evident in backgrounds and apparently some smeariness due to compression artefacts, but these are unlikely to be evident on most displays, particularly during normal playback, only really being noticeable in freeze-frame.
There are no notable problems however with the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack which, despite the conditions and low-budget nature of the film, remains clear throughout for all the elements in the mix. It’s basic certainly, but the overall tone is good.
English subtitles are provided in a white font and are optional.
Mark Cousins interviews Wim Wenders (33:07)
A recent interview with a mature Wim Wenders – looking very different now with long greying hair tied back in a pony-tail – covers the inspiration and creation of Alice In The Cities in great detail, touching on all the underlying themes and subjects that interest the director. Typically, Mark Cousin’s questions are direct and appear deceptively naïve, a method that often manages to get surprisingly in-depth information out of his interviewees, and this yields better results here than most commentary tracks manage to achieve.
Interviews with Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottländer (16:49)
It’s marvellous also to see recent interviews with the two original stars of the film. Taken from Marcel Wehn’s documentary ‘Wim Wenders’ Story of His Early Years’ (apparently due to be released on DVD by Axiom) DVD Vogler and Rottländer are introduced by Wenders, who is clearly very fond of them. Although there isn’t a great deal said in the interviews – it’s extended by long clips from the film – it’s clear also how much the film also meant to both of them.
The DVD also contains a Booklet of essays and interviews, which wasn’t seen by this reviewer, but if it contains the Statement on the Film by David Tacon and the Biography of Wenders viewed in the pressnotes, it should be highly informative.
Due to its low-budget nature and the apparent simplicity of its story Alice and the Cities might appear a little bit light and aimless, but it’s an important film for its director Wim Wenders, allowing the director to refine his technique, finding an appropriate method to explore other ideas and concepts. Aside from its importance as the prototypical road-movie that the director would later take to greater heights (Wrong Move, Kings of the Road, Paris, Texas), there remains an easygoing freshness to Alice and the Cities, the evident freedoms enjoyed by the filmmaking crew and the actors extending to the characters and their story, the film retaining a seemingly effortless charm.