A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)

The Alice of Wenders's movie, played by 9-year-old Yetta Rottländer, is not the plucky Victorian girl of Lewis Carroll's books, but I think they might recognize one another. Both find themselves cast adrift in a strange world in which what little guidance they have is decidedly eccentric. In Wenders's film, Alice has come to America with her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), who is caught up in a relationship that's not working out. Having decided to return to Germany, Alice and Lisa find themselves at a ticket counter with a German writer, Philip (Rüdiger Vogler), who is also going home after flubbing an assignment to tour the States and write about his experiences. Flights to Germany have been canceled by an air traffic controllers' strike, but Philip helps Lisa book tickets on the same flight he's taking to Amsterdam, where they hope to make it home by ground transportation. Because Lisa speaks no English, he also helps her book a hotel room that he ends up sharing with them. And then Lisa decides to make one last effort to connect with her boyfriend, and leaves Alice with Philip, saying that she'll meet them in Amsterdam. Which she doesn't do. Philip, a cranky egotistical loner, now has a 9-year-old girl on his hands. Moreover, she hasn't lived in Germany for several years and remembers only that she has a grandmother whose name she doesn't know but who she thinks might live in Wuppertal. And off this unlikely pair goes on an oddball odyssey. What makes the film work is Wenders's lack of sentimentality, Rüdiger's depiction of Philip's gradually eroding self-centeredness, and Rottländer's entirely natural portrayal of a child in search of roots that she has never been taught she should have. It's shot in a documentary style by Robby Müller, who captures Philip's experience in an America where every place -- gas stations, fast-food joints, cheap motels -- tries to look like every other place, as well as Philip and Alice's journey through a Europe that's beginning to develop the same syndrome. Like Wenders, Philip takes photographs of urban desolation, but in the end his essential humanism prevails.