Mar 23, 2014
Before the maddening minimalistic mundanity of mumblecore and the cinematic slacking of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), there was the innately superior deracinated Teuton Weltschmerz of German auteur Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974) aka Alice in den Städten, which is the first chapter in the filmmaker’s ‘Road Movie Trilogy’ (preceding Falsche Bewegung (1975) aka The Wrong Movie and Im Lauf der Zeit (1976) Kings of the Road) starring the perennially depressed and rather gawky Aryan wanderer Rüdiger Vogler. A sort of Teutonized melancholy take on Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and to a lesser extent Paper Moon (1973) directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Alice in the Cities is the tale of a lonely German journalist on the brink of existentialist crisis who, through a series of dubious circumstances, finds himself traveling around New York City, Amsterdam, and various parts of Germany attempting to help a talkative 9-year-old girl, whose mother essentially abandoned her with the stranger, find her grandmother. A work in the post-WWII German New Cinema tradition of Werner Herzog's Stroszek (1977), Flaming Hearts (1978) aka Flammende Herzen directed by Walter Bockmayer and Rolf Bührmann, Rosa von Praunheim’s Survival in New York (1979) aka Überleben in New York, and Monika Treut’s My Father is Coming (1991) in its depiction of a physically and metaphysically uprooted German living temporarily in the cultureless nation that defeated and colonized his own after the Second World War (notably, auteur Wenders was born in Allied-occupied Düsseldorf in August 1945), Alice in the Cities is an intentionally aimless film about lost people without spiritual ‘Heimat’ where a disconcerted dude finds temporary solace in the most unlikely of places—a little girl who initially annoys the hell out of him. A film that is a virtual prototype for Wenders’ arguable masterpiece Paris, Texas (1984), Alice in the Cities is , for better or worse, the director’s most tender and heartwarming work, as a film that dares to depict a friendship between a white man and young girl that does not involve pedophilia. Indeed, a work that temporarily depicts a preteen girl swimming topless yet never attempts to sexualize the child as so many depraved Hollywood films and TV shows do, Alice in the Cities was made at a time when there was still some sanity in the world and European cinema, especially West German cinema, offered a voice of reason in a mostly Americanized celluloid cesspool before Great Satan Steven Spielberg jumpstarted the culture-distorting blockbuster phenomenon with Jaws (1975). Love it or leave it, Alice in the Cities is a rare arthouse film with the innocence of a child that can actually be enjoyed by a child, or at least those kids that have yet to be exposed to the low-class hoe Miley Cyrus and the prepubescent porn network otherwise known as the Disney Channel. Featuring a score by krautrock Can, Alice in the Cities in undoubtedly one of the most distinctly German films to be partly set in the United States.
German exile Philip ‘Phil’ Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) has been assigned to write an article on his travels around rural America, but instead he has opted for taking countless Polaroid photos of seemingly mundane things like beaches and rundown gas stations, but these things seem rather real and organic to the grotesque brainwashing monster that is American television, which the protagonist is beat over the head with via commercials with such unintentionally hilarious pseudo-edgy lines like, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Give to the United Negro College Fund.” In fact, Phil must have forgotten to take a chill pill, as he opts for smashing a TV in his motel room after suffering too much American philistine broadcasting. After selling his car for a mere $300 to some sleazy scumbag, Phil visits his boss and tells him that he has not written a single line of his proposed article on America, which does not end well, with the journalist ultimately deciding to go back to Deutschland. Unfortunately for the homesick Teuton with a somewhat bizarre sense of writer’s block, flights to Germany have been temporarily canceled, though Phil does manage to bump into a fellow German named Lisa Van Dam (played by Wenders’ then-wife Lisa Kreuzer), who is married and has a 9-year-old daughter named Alice (Yella Rottländer). Being in a strange land, the trio come to truly appreciate one another’s company as they wallow in the idea of getting back to Germany as the land of the free and the home of the brave has surely let all three of them down, but most especially Phil and Lisa. As Phil’s female friend Angela tells him regarding his metaphysical affliction, “You lose touch when you lose your sense of identity. That’s why you always need proof, proof that you still exist. You treat your stories and your experiences like raw eggs. As if you only experience things. And that’s why you keep taking those photos. For further proof that it was really you who saw something,” yet Lisa and Alice help him to temporarily fill that void in regard to his lackluster life of meagerness and meaninglessness. During a moment of deep insight, Phil remarks to Lisa, “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.” After revealing that she has lived in four different cities over a 2 year period, Lisa tells Phil “I can’t sleep with you, but I’d like to share the bed with you” and the two sleep together in a less than erotic fashion, but the next day the mother vanishes and leaves her daughter and a note with the virtual stranger, thus beginning an odyssey for the German journalist that involves being the surrogate parent of a quite active 9-year-old girl.
Ultimately, Phil is forced to travel with Alice to Amsterdam in the hope of locating the girl’s mother, which to his chagrin, proves to fail. Phil attempts to dump Alice at a police station, but deep down he knows he enjoys the girl’s uncommonly warm company and the two tread on with not much more to go on than a couple old photographs. Instead, Phil goes to the Ruhr region of West Germany in the hope of finding Alice’s grandmother, but instead finds tons of empty old homes which are set to be bulldozed. Seeing the quaint uninhabited homes, the wise young 9-year-old Alice poetically remarks, “It’s too bad these lovely old houses have to be wrecked. The empty spaces look like graves…’House Graves.’” After taking a swim at a public park where Phil teases the little girl by calling her a “Fish Face” and “Bed Pisser,” Lisa asks her new friend: “I wonder if people take you to be my father?” To test her thesis, Alice asks a young woman who states “no” as she absurdly finds the scrawny journalist to be “too fat” to be her father. Phil and Alice end up spending the night at the woman’s house and become a pseudo-family of sorts. Of course, Alice gets jealous when she notices Phil and the woman sleeping together. While on a boat to visit the journalist’s parents, Phil randomly runs into the Dutch policeman (Hans Hirschmüller of Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)) he previously talked to upon arriving in Amsterdam, who reveals they have finally located Alice’s mother. In the end, Phil and Alice take a train back to Munich, where the journalist plans to finally finish his article on America.
Another road movie from the kraut king of the road movie, Alice in the Cities probably does not have a single amazing camera angle nor thrilling plot twist, yet it still somehow manages to be nearly immaculate in its pace and direction, as if directed by some mumblecore moron suffering from insomnia who decided to give up on the hipster posturing and direct a sincere film for once. Indeed, sort of the German New Cinema answer to Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948) aka Ladri di biciclette, albeit with the imperative added subtext of the disillusionment of the German mind in a capitalist American world, Alice in the Cities ultimately manages to be culturally and sociopolitically astute without being heavy-handed or preachy. In fact, I am still not exactly sure of Wenders' political allegiances, though he seems to understand from at least a metapolitical perspective American's corrosive effect on national cultural and cinema, especially in his own homeland. A partly autobiographical work in its depiction of an ‘artistic’ protagonist wandering between three nations (Germany being Wenders’ homeland, the Netherlands his mother’s homeland, and America being the director’s adopted homeland), Alice in the Cities ultimately depicts the destruction of identity and roots in a world dominated by American anti-culture hegemony. Alice in the Cities is also noted for being influenced by Wenders’ collaborator Peter Handke’s life as a single father. Additionally, the film is also a playful response to Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell (1972), hence the film’s utilization of various random clips from John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which is referenced routinely in the novel. Undoubtedly, what both Handke and Wender’s film demonstrates is that the melancholy hitchhiker character Robert Lander from Kings of the Road was not bullshitting when he famously stated, “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” Of course, since the release of Alice in the Cities, Wenders’ lifelong undying sense of deracination must have only grown as demonstrated by his on-and-off again relationship with Hollywood and his virtual statelessness as a filmmaker, with his upcoming work Every Thing Will Be Fine (2014) starring James Franco being a German-Canadian-Norwegian co-production. A work that demonstrates that America is a place where World War II propaganda featuring Kamikaze Japs crashing into Americans is absurdly played along side commercials for worthless consume products as if Americans died in the Second World War merely to perpetuate the freedom of tasteless capitalism, Alice in the Cities, like most of Wenders’ films, is ultimately about longing for the intangible, with the slow and pathetic death of the Occident via Americanization and globalization being a bitter(sweet) thorn inside the filmmaker's side ever since his birth in the untimely year of 1945 in Allied-occupied Düsseldorf. That being said, one can only hope the character Alice grew up to be better adjusted than her adult friend Phil, but judging by the current state of Europa today, it is quite doubtful and I would not be surprised if she now sells her body in one of those creepy display cases in the red light district of Amsterdam.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:08 PM
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