Alice in the Cities
In the early 1970s, Wenders was already a rising star in the German film industry-a former film critic turned filmmaker who, like his French New Wave counterparts, was reinvigorating and reimagining the moribund film industry of his homeland. But this sounds much better than it actually was.
There had been a time when being a rising star in the German film industry meant something, back when the German film industry was the toast of the world. That was back before the Nazis came. And in Hitler's wake, that film community tore itself in two. One group fled the Nazi terror and continued their art elsewhere, such as Hollywood. The other group stayed behind.
That first group, the émigrés, built new roots in their adoptive homes. When they spoke of Germany, if at all, they spoke of it with anger, bitterness, and fury. The other group, the collaborators, would never escape the taint of having worked for Joseph Goebbels. Their country was destroyed, their theaters bombed, their bosses tried as war criminals. And when the war was over, the German film industry had ceased to exist. There were virtually no surviving, politically-acceptable filmmakers available to provide any continuity or institutional expertise. The entire thing had to be rebuilt from scratch.
The entrepreneurs who did the hard work of rebuilding that industry, as something new and distinct from the Nazi past, struggled for every dollar and deutschmark. The industry they built was a risk-averse, commercially-oriented, low-budget, genre-focused business. In other words, it was everything that champions of film as art would resist on principle. As film critics, Wim Wenders and his fellow German New Wave critiqued that commercial model-but as filmmakers, they would have to function within it, somehow.
This is where we pick up the story, in 1973, in Portugal. Yes, Portugal. That's where Wenders had been sent, as the director of a film adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorn's The Scarlet Letter. Wenders had already railed in print about how the German New Wave were disadvantaged compared to their French counterparts, in that the entire infrastructure of the Cahiers du Cinema and the Cinémathèque Française provided support and publicity for the French New Wave while they experimented with their movies. By contrast, Wenders and his German peers swam alone, with minimal support from the press at large. If someone offered him a job making a film adaptation of an American novel, set in colonial America, to be filmed in Portugal, it was his lot to accept the gig and make the best of it. And if the project was a total misfit to his talents and interests, well so be it. Limited by the well-known plot of the famous book, by studio expectations, by the period setting, and by other culturally alienating factors, Wenders found the entire experience unpleasant.
He suffered through the shoot, grumbling to himself that he would never again agree to make a movie that didn't have cars and radios in it. And he found little moments of indulgence-allowing himself to stray from the novel by shooting a short scene involving Rüdiger Vogler and child actress Yella Rottländer. The unlikely chemistry and charisma of these two performers enlivened this brief digression, and later, in the editing bay, Wenders allowed himself once again to linger on it. He played the footage to himself, ran it back and replayed it, and all the while let Chuck Berry's Memphis rattle around inside his head. Why can't the whole movie be like this? he wondered.
Inspired, Wenders moved to New York and began developing what would become Alice in the Cities-a simple and almost improvisatory vehicle for Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottländer, that would explore Wenders' sense of cultural dislocation. But no sooner did he let himself give in to this giddy sense of excitement at the prospect of making an intimately personal, low-budget movie by his own rules, then it was all threatened, and from an unlikely quarter.
Wenders attended a preview screening of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973), only to be shaken by the overwhelming similarity to what he had in mind.
That night, Wenders contemplated giving up. As in, giving up filmmaking altogether. It was all too hard, this stupid dance between personal vision and paying the bills. There were opportunities aplenty to make movies he didn't like for audiences that wouldn't much like them either, but to make something he did care about seemed insurmountable.
Despondent, he phoned a friend.
As it happened, that friend was also a moviemaking rebel. Sam Fuller was the unruly pulp movie maverick responsible for such cult classics as Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller patiently calmed Wenders down, and coached him to stick with Alice, adapting the story as needed to avoid direct comparison to Paper Moon.
The protagonist of the story is a rootless and disillusioned photojournalist named Philip Winter, played by Vogler. Through an odd series of circumstances, he finds himself responsible for caring for the movie's title character (Rottländer). Winter finds himself traveling from America to Europe with this young girl, in the quixotic hope of returning her to a home she can't properly remember.
To preserve his creative freedom, Wenders kept the project modest in scale. He reunited with Scarlet Letter's Director of Photography Robby Müller to shoot Alice in black and white 16mm (in an early scene, Wenders and Müller can be seen with their lightweight 16mm camera reflected in Winter's car).
The character of Winter was designed as a conscious alter-ego for director Wenders. The parallels between Winter and Wenders went beyond their rhyming names and into their shared sense of alienation, and shared passions of photography.
Throughout the film, Winter obsessively photographs his surroundings with a Polaroid camera, a device which was not commercially available to the public at the time. The Polaroid SX70 was a revolutionary camera that developed its own snapshots, allowing for a more immediate connection between photographer and photograph. Winter's cutting edge technology allows him to see his photographs more or less instantly, but even so he is dissatisfied that they don't reproduce what he saw. Perhaps without expressing it out loud, Winter may also rankle at how fundamentally American the Polaroid SX70 was: an American electronics company transforming the complex art of photography into a consumer gadget known primarily for its convenience and instant gratification. He can take endless pictures with the camera, but they are pictures of an eternal present, a timeless now, which leaves him feeling spiritually empty.
As Wenders later said, "He takes pictures because he doesn't know how to write about America. And I thought he was quite representative of the young man I was at a time."
Wenders had discovered an interest in photography at the young age of seven. It was an obsession he came by naturally. Wenders' father had been given a camera when he graduated from medical school, and set up his own darkroom, developing prints in his bathroom. Wenders remembered that his father's work "looked like early Ansel Adams. They were nice prints and then he gave it up altogether and I sensed the regret. Maybe that's what made me like it."
For all that the film is presented from the perspective of the Winter character, it is still named for Yella Rottländer's character. Reviewers have disagreed on how old her character is supposed to be-one critic confidently called her a five-year-old while another equally certainly called her nine. The ambiguity speaks volumes about Rottländer's singular and somewhat otherworldly performance.
The story of a young girl who falls out of one world, to be ushered through a series of unfamiliar spaces and strange experiences in her quest to return home, of course echoes the similarly titled Alice in Wonderland. Although Alice clings to Philip Winter with the same tenacity that the literary Alice pursued the White Rabbit, Winter is more than just a White Rabbit character in this reading. Lewis Carroll (A.K.A. Charles Dobson) was also an avid photographer, and he had an unconventional relationship with the young Alice Lidell, inspiring his famous novel.
Along with references to Alice in Wonderland, Wenders also quotes the films of John Ford, including an extended excerpt from Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which Winter watches on TV. A few years before making this film, Wenders had written an essay on Ford's cinema for Filmkritik, in which he mourned that "Ford has stopped making films." Wenders wrote "I miss the friendliness, the care, the thoroughness, the sureness, the earnestness, the calm, the humaneness of John Ford's films," and bemoaned that "the new American films are hopeless, like the new unusable iron pinball machinery from Chicago which makes it impossible to have any fun playing pinball again."
No one will mistake Alice in the Cities for a John Ford film. It is singularly Wendersian in its outlook, and launched a cycle of road movies for Wenders while also anticipating his later turn towards non-fiction filmmaking. It was a deeply personal project, in which a Wenders-stand-in wanders through America and Germany, trying to reconnect with his creative soul after a period of professional disillusionment. That something so intimate could also be an internationally appreciated work of cinema that holds its own decades later proves that Wenders had at last found his métier. The open road beckoned, and at last the future seemed promising.
By David Kalat
Durga Chew-Bose, "Not one picture leaves you in peace," This Recording Today.com (9/3/2010)
Steven Pill, "State of Grace: An interview with Wim Wenders," British Journal of Photography (5/17/2011)
Eric Rentschler, West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices (Holmes & Meier, 1988)
David Tacon, "Wim Wenders," Senses of Cinema (http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/wenders/)