Alice in the Cities (1974)

“The inhuman thing about American TV is not so much that they hack everything up with commercials, though that’s bad enough, but in the end all programmes become commercials. Commercials for the status quo. Every image radiates the same disgusting and nauseated message. A kind of boastful contempt. Not one image leaves you in peace, they all want something from you.”

‘Alice in the Cities’, directed by Wim Wenders in 1974, is a road movie set in the US and West Germany. A writer, Philip Winter, comes to the end of an unsuccessful trip to America and encounters a mother and daughter in New York. The mother disappears and leaves Alice, the daughter, in the care of Winter. Winter takes her back to Europe and travels from town to town looking for Alice’s grandparents. What could have been a dark concept is told lightly and with humour. Despite the starkness of the black and white and the realism of the performances and shooting, ‘Alice in the Cities’ is a subtle and understated, but humorous examination of the relationship between the two mismatched characters. As with Kurosawa’s ‘Stray Dog’ though, what struck me was the pervasiveness of America and American culture in post-war Germany and Japan: the differences between the cafes and streets of the US and European settings blur and become indistinct, even the languages spoken seems malleable. Televisions and cameras are all-pervasive throughout the film giving the sense that we are one step behind the characters, denied a view of what they perceive and forced to watch them watching the events that unfold around them. The focus is clearly on the two characters and how, through semi-improvised conversations, they develop an innocent relationship, but, as with all road movies, a second focus is clearly on the country they explore. The performances, especially Veith von Fürstenberg as Alice, are natural, relaxed but intensely believable. It reminded me slightly of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy, one of those films that after it has finished you’re left with a strong desire to know what the characters do next. The final scene, the two characters leaning out of a train moving towards Munich and the girl’s mother, is an emotional and the visual climax for the film that relays everything it needs to without a word of dialogue.

Would I recommend it? Yes – maybe with ‘Stray Dog’ or, more conventionally, with Wenders’ other road movies, but I’ve yet to come to those.


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