Thousand Words: Assimilation and Alienation in Wenders’ Alice In The Cities (1974)

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A decade before Wim Wenders’ Palm d’Or winning Paris, Texas, came Alice In The Cities, a gentle road movie that introduced the key themes of alienation and angst that would later define Wenders’ oeuvre and firmly cement his reputation as an artistic force in the canon of new-wave German cinema.

Jack Kerouak’s novel On The Road inspired the post war ‘beat’ generation in the 1950s, whilst the 1960s brought the genre to the mainstream with films such as Bonnie and Clyde.Continuing this trend, Alice In The Cities – the first instalment to Wenders’ 1970s Road Movie trilogy – draws heavily from the classical ‘epic journey’ tradition of storytelling, bringing the theme of self-discovery so associated with such tales into 1970s America by documenting the protagonist’s existential crisis against a backdrop of America and the fallacy of the ‘American Dream.’

Wenders’ alienated hero is Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), a German journalist who has been commissioned to drive across America and write a report on the country from a European’s perspective. Somewhere along the way, however, America has broken his spirit: he struggles with the monotony of motels and diners, American culture and essentially his sense of identity, which appears to have been swallowed up by the vast landscape. He obsessively takes photographs on a Polaroid camera in an attempt to confirm his existence, but something within him is preventing him from writing – like all great existential heroes, he has lost his sense of self.

Failing to complete his report, Winter decides to return to Europe in the company of a young woman (Lisa Kreuzer) and her daughter, Alice (Yella Rottländer), who he meets at the airport. Winter is subsequently left as surrogate father to Alice when the young woman disappears, and the unlikely pair return to Europe after receiving a note from Alice’s mother requesting that they rendezvous in Amsterdam.

When it becomes apparent that Alice’s mother has failed to meet them, the pair resolve to drive around West Germany in search of Alice’s grandmother, with nothing but a photograph of her house to aid their progress…

As with many of Wenders’ films, Alice In The Cities errs towards the cerebral, and much of the director’s own concerns are placed in the mouth of his hero’s. When a television advertisement interrupts John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln, the usually placid Winter pulls the television onto the floor in a moment of frustration. This is followed by a verbal attack on American culture when Winter reads out a vitriolic dialogue about the corruption of images, the American film industry and advertising – a theme that Wenders would continue with his third road movie Kings Of The Road.

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Whilst Winter is able to write again upon his return to Europe, this indicates not so much a finding of the self as a regression back to the womb of the familiar: he is out of touch and his character represents a cultural unwillingness or inability to assimilate. As Alice’s character represents the new generation of modern Europeans, Winter is older and unable or unwilling to adapt – relief occurs only upon his return to Europe and his mild acquiescence with select aspects of American culture. The contrast between the two characters is symptomatic of the post war generation, and Wenders’ character study firmly reiterates this sense of cultural and spiritual fragmentation.

Yella Rottländer is delightful as Alice, whilst Rüdiger Vogler plays the lost Philip (Phil) Winter with an understated naturalism. The relationship between the two characters is a fascinating one: neither learns much about the other – rather, they regard each other with a mild curiosity. As with America, Winter is both fascinated and despairing of Alice; whereas she is the embodiment of American consumerism, excessively eating hot dogs and ice cream, and addicted to television. The chemistry between the two actors conveys this unusual relationship flawlessly, and Wenders would go on to use Volger throughout the Road Movies trilogy.

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