Alice in the Cities was the first of Wim Wenders’ trilogy of road movies and also his most poignant homage to photography. It plots a double journey, one across the neon and billboard landscape of the Unites States and one through the German industrial hinterland – both portrayed in stunning black and white cinematography, echoing the photographs of Robert Frank and Walker Evans.
In the opening sequence, journalist Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) sits under a boardwalk, laying out Polaroids from his prototype SX70. Commissioned by his publisher to write about America, Winter has instead traversed the country photographing anything and everything. Dissatisfied with the results, he shakes his head: “They never really show what it was you saw”. This theme is reaffirmed in his later observation that in waiting for his Polaroid images to develop, he could hardly wait to compare the picture with reality – but inevitably the pictures never caught up with reality…
Philip decides to return to Germany, and while trying to book a flight encounters a German woman and her nine-year old daughter Alice (Yella Rottländer), whom he befriends. When the woman disappears, he reluctantly accepts temporary custody of the child. Although they initially resent each other, a rapport develops between them as they embark on a journey across Germany in search of Alice’s grandmother. Their only clue: a photograph of a front door, with no house number and no one in shot.
Both inventive and dryly amusing, Alice in the Cities is a film about fading cultural identities that reflects on the way American pop culture has influenced postwar Europe. The film mirrors Wenders’ love/hate relationship with America – partly symbolised in the prickly bond between Philip and Alice – and closely foreshadows the themes in his later, critically acclaimed Paris, Texas.
“A fine and perhaps unique example of that trickiest of genres, the road movie, and the sort of film that really does deserve the clichéd response: they don't make them like that anymore. Because they really don't.” – Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
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