Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 3, 2013
Attention Wim Wender fans: tomorrow you have a chance to see Alice in the Cities (1974) on TCM. The fourth feature by the German director is, barring your access to an out-of-print VHS copy or a Region 2 PAL DVD, hard to come by and beautifully shot on B&W 16mm film that was later blown up to 35mm. I’m looking forward to seeing it with subtitles because, although I know some German and some of the film is in English anyway, there are still some details I’m sure I missed the first time. It’s the story of a traveling photo-journalist who befriends a nine-year-old girl, and their search for her missing mother. Alice in the Cities harkens to a kind of cinema made popular by Truffaut with naturalistic performances and an eye for subtle shifts in mood that make great use of actual city locations and lonely hotel rooms.
When I mention Wim Wenders to friends, they seem to fall into one of six camps. “He’s the guy who made that film about angels, right?” (Wings of Desire, 1987.) Harry Dean Stanton fans will single out Paris, Texas (1984) – which Stanton still claims as his own favorite acting role. Then there are those who remember him for the big splash he made in the late ’90s with the Buena Vista Social Club (1999) documentary, which revived the careers of several Cuban musicians in their autumnal years. Amongst my friends whose attention spans rarely go deeper than the past few years they’ll remember Wenders’ for his recent homage to the memory of the late, great German dance choreographer, Pina Bausch, which filmed her dancers performing some of her most famous creations in 3-D (Pina, 2011). Incidentally, Pina is, I would argue, one of the best 3-D movies ever made – or certainly one of the most artful. I think it really helps that Wenders studied medicine, philosophy, and painting before he went to film school in Munich.
In the fifth category I’d put in the bunch of grumps who were disappointed that Wenders dared to make a sequel to Wings of Desire with Faraway, So Close! (1993.) Or who didn’t quite understand Until the End of the World (released in 1991 its setting was a futuristic 1999, it had a great soundtrack). Admittedly, by the time The End of Violence (1997) rolled around, there was a sense that maybe Wenders was focusing a bit too much on great soundtracks instead of great stories. All was forgiven two years later with the Buena Vista Social Club, but just one year after that some fickle grumps forgot the feel-good “G” rated documentary of the previous year and declared Wenders career over after the highly-publicized debacle that was The Million Dollar Hotel (2000). Of course, they were wrong.
It is in my last, and admittedly very arbitrary category of friends polled at the bar, that we find the hard-core Wenders fans. These are the early career enthusiasts who speak fondly of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972, based on the novel and script by Peter Handke, and which feels somehow imbued with the kind of emotional notes you’d find in a film noir). Or who wax rhapsodic of Kings of the Road (1976), whose premise involves a road-trip with a traveling projection-equipment mechanic (boy, are those days gone). These same people get excited talking about The American Friend (1977), which is quite understandable when you’re dealing with a film that stars Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Nicholas Ray, and Samuel Fuller. That’s quite a catch. It’s not just the seventies, because The State of Things (1982) can still be thought of us falling under the aegis of Wender’s early career, but that’s about the threshold because once you hit Paris, Texas, the young filmmaker who was such an integral part of the New German Cinema stepped into a different stage of prominence.
If you are reading this and feel you can’t relate to the last category of people, consider this an invitation. Give Alice in the Cities a go. Rüdiger Vogler, in the lead role as Philip Winter, has been in over 50 films and is a frequent collaborator with Wenders – I was especially fond of him in Lisbon Story (1994). Yella Rottländer, the girl who plays Alice, would make an appearance in two other Wenders films, The Scarlet Letter, filmed one year previously to Alice in the Cities, and then much later in Faraway, So Close! Other things to look forward to include original music by Can (who also did film scores for Morvern Callar and, recently, The Bling Ring) and, somewhere past the hour mark, you get to visit a Chuck Berry concert in Amsterdam. Will our photo-journalist beat his writer’s block? Will both our protagonists find the missing mother? These concerns seem secondary to the journey itself, and the memories made at the roadside cafes and places visited along the way. In some ways, it feels like a preface to Paris, Texas, as well as being the first in a trilogy of road films, the next two being The Wrong Move, 1975, and Kings of the Road. What really makes it for me is the camera-work by famed cinematographer Robby Müller, whose great eye has assisted many personal favorites, such as Repo Man, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and Breaking the Waves, to name a few.
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