“I had a funny dream: I turned on the TV set, and sat down in a chair. I tied myself to it. Then, suddenly, a scary movie came on. I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t turn off the TV. I couldn’t close my eyes, either… so I had to watch the film.” (1)
The 1970s was a time of significant transition for the countries of Western Europe. Nowhere was this more apparent than in West Germany, a country still recovering from the post-Second World War traumas of occupation, partition and socioeconomic hardship (2). This is the partially geographical – and wholly psychological – milieu in which Wim Wenders’ Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities, 1974)is set.
Although Alice in den Städten was Wenders’ fourth feature, he describes it as the first in which he discovered his “individual [cinematic] voice” (3). His immediately previous work had been an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1973), a difficult shoot that wound up a critical and commercial failure (4). With Alice in den Städten, however, Wenders worked from his own script, drawing closely from his own experiences as a visitor in the United States (5). Through this film, and the remainder of his loose “road movie” trilogy – culminating in the stunning Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road, 1976) – Wenders became one of the most important figures in the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s.
For a film about national identity, Alice in den Städten is paradoxically fixated on disconnection from place. Philip Winter, the film’s key protagonist (Rüdiger Vogler, a Wenders regular), is as much a foreigner in the United States and Amsterdam as he is in his own country. As he explores Germany’s Ruhr district with his 9-year-old companion (the eponymous Alice, played superbly by Yella Rottländer), it is as if Philip has carried America back with him; his homeland now replete with fast food, country music and Coca-Cola machines.
Wenders takes a critical approach to this cultural imperialism, but does not merely condemn it. There is, after all, no lost Germany to mourn; after Hitler, such simplification is impossible. How can one confront colonisation without reference to what was colonised?
In the aftermath of World War II, West Germany was arguably the European country most susceptible to Americanisation because, after the defeat of National Socialism, it was the country with the most necessary void (6). If that void must be filled, Wenders muses, why not with American culture? And if not that, then what else?
As in Im Lauf der Zeit, Wenders’ analysis is not limited merely to the issue of national identity. The 1970s also saw a technological shift in the West, as the ubiquity of television began to increasingly threaten the long-time dominance of the cinema over how and where moving images were consumed. By the end of the decade, the emergence of the blockbuster and the multiplex had at least postponed the medium’s downfall; in the mid-1970s, however, cinema’s future was looking grim.
This concern – one echoed in our own time – is a central theme in Alice in den Städten. While both films’ concerns have echoes in cinema’s contemporary crises (the end of celluloid; online migration), it is the earlier work that perhaps carries even more modern relevance.
A recurring motif in Alice in den Städten is the pervasiveness of “screens”. Wherever Philip goes in the United States, he carries his camera, attempting to use it as a tool to translate and explain the foreign landscape he traverses. The photos, however, offer no illumination: “they never show what it is you saw”. Even a supposedly unfiltered screen, a pair of binoculars at the top of the Empire State Building, only gives him the opportunity to look helplessly at a major narrative event that he has no control over: the departure of Alice’s mother. Like the narrow dimensions of an aeroplane window, this is an act of mediated observation; one in which the viewer is only permitted to see within specified limitations. That Wenders sees this kind of mediation – epitomised by the medium of television – as a loss of agency (and thus a tool for manipulation) is clear: “The inhuman thing about American TV is not so much that they hack everything up with commercials – though that’s bad enough – it’s that, in the end, all programs become commercials; commercials for the status quo” (7).
Philip’s response to these intrusions is visceral, reacting to unwanted programming interruptions by smashing a television in his motel room and kicking a car radio. His young companion, however, is a native of this new Western Europe, and appears to watch TV uncritically, switching channels indiscriminately at the airport and initially ignoring the boarding call (even though further screens and new programming will greet her on the aeroplane). In food as well as entertainment media, she consumes compulsively. To Wenders, this is simply another by-product of the spread of American ideology (8).
The two lead actors play out these conflicts and anxieties in a wonderfully subtle manner. As Alice, Rottländer is exceptional, with much of her character conveyed through body language as opposed to expository dialogue. Her reactions are almost a counter-narrative in their own right; the “searching for an old house” plot device hindered by her Wuppertal fiction, her growing assertiveness and her fixation on the seemingly mundane details of streetscapes (complete with cyclists and “house graves”). To Wenders, this childish inefficiency is a vital aspect of storytelling: “Children have a sort of admonitory function in my films: to remind you with what curiosity and lack of prejudice it is possible to look at the world” (9).
Alice’s own role in this drama – ward, equal, benefactor, or even jealous lover – remains fluid. In some respects, she is a member of the ultimate fragmented family unit: daughter to a couple who meet, appear to share a mutual attraction, but cannot act on it (“I can’t sleep with you, but I would like to share the bed with you”); to a mother who abandons her to a stranger; to a “father” who resents his newfound responsibility (“do you think I’m crazy about driving little girls around?”). Just as the Old Europe of Alice in den Städten is in its death throes, Wenders seems to argue, so too is the nuclear family that those cultures once fetishised; the still-burgeoning sexual revolution flattening the old structures but leaving nothing substantial in their wake.
Neither Alice nor Philip have any control over these transitions. As they take the train to Munich in the final scene, Alice switches off her radio and Philip puts down his newspaper. They stand up, pull down the train window and look out at the landscape not yet marred by industry and high-rises. They are not looking through a lens, nor through somebody else’s carefully edited choice of images, punctuated by advertisements telling them what to buy or how to think.
In 2014, the era of Facebook and Angry Birds, that window would stay closed; a modern Philip and Alice plied with opportunities to experience an ever more mediated, colonised reality. Their whole road trip could have been avoided with an iPhone. What could the broken television at the Skyway Motel have ever been but a futile, minor act of rebellion? America is here.
1. All dialogue quoted is taken from the English-language subtitled DVD of Alice in the Cities in Wim Wenders’ Road Movies, Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, 2007.
2. Roger Bromley, From Alice to Buena Vista: The Films of Wim Wenders, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 2001, p. 20.
3. Wim Wenders, Wim Wenders: On Film, London, Faber and Faber, 2001, p. 254.
4. Wenders, p. 252.
5. Wenders, pp. 136-137.
6. Bromley, pp. 21-22.
7. Philip in Alice in den Städten.
8. Gerd Gemünden, “Oedi-pal Travels: Gender in the Cinema of Wim Wenders”, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative and the Postmodern Condition, ed. Roger F. Cook and Gemünden, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1997, pp. 213-214.
9. Wenders, p. 323.