Alice in the Cites

[Originally published in the Oregon Daily Emerald on December 1, 1977]

After a striking opening shot—partially reversed at the end of the film—Alice In The Cities (1974) introduces a solitary figure, forlornly sitting on sand, his back against a post, self-descriptively singing, “under the boardwalk, down by the sea, on a blanket with my baby, that’s where I wanna be.” The upbeat lyrics ironically counterpoint the grim image, and the German-speaking character has slightly garbled the great Drifters’ song line, which actually ends “on a blanket with my baby, is where I’ll be.”

Alice in the Cities
Yella Rotlander and Rudiger Volger: “Alice in the Cities”

This sequence is one of many, here and throughout Wenders, that use the artifacts of popular culture in the films as atmospheric details and comments—often wry—on the action. Thus, the mournful character in Alice listens to a radio play the song lyrics “I feel depressed I feel so bad,” and sees a German newspaper reporting the death of John Ford. Even the television ad line, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” becomes both a piece of cultural garbage and an ironic call to action that the character answers by breaking the television screen. (In The American Friend (1977) a character played by Dennis Hopper introduces the cultural artifact, simultaneously evoking his character’s dislocation and the actor’s iconic significance and erratic career trajectory by shuffling across a grey Hamburg balcony, singing, from the Ballad of Easy Rider: “The river flows, it flows to the sea, and wherever that river flows God knows that’s where I wanna be.”)

Alice, shot (by Robby Muller) in black and white 16-millimeter is, like most Wenders films, a “road movie” (Wenders’s production company has “road movies” in the title.) It follows a German journalist (frequent Wenders alter-ego Rudiger Vogler) wandering the U.S., increasingly resigned to his inability to complete an unspecified assignment. Cars cross urban nightscapes, the absence of color draining the hard, cold surfaces of the perverse sensuality of similar images in The American Friend. Alice likewise captures the sterile texture of airports and hotels. (There is even a brief, characteristically futile encounter with a used car dealer).

But there is something a little studied about the character’s alienation, and some of the bleakness in his surroundings is self-created, as when, watching television in his motel room, he opens the curtains, creating a predictably grim tapestry. Similarly, his obsession with watching Polaroids develop—to assure him of his own “reality,” he explains—seems hard to take at full face value as evidence of a genuine emotional crisis. It seems almost as if he imagines this is how a European journalist visiting the U.S. is supposed to react.

Through assorted plot quirks, he finds himself temporarily responsible for the abandoned nine-year-old Alice (Yella Rotlander). He accepts this as impassively as everything else that happens to him. But gradually, as he helps her search for her grandparents in Germany, her unstudied spontaneity erodes his detachment until, near the end of the film, he even cracks a smile. This may sound either vaguely sentimental or self-consciously “unsentimental,” but in Wenders’ hands it is neither; the film matter-of-factly observes, with subtle intelligence, as the trek unfolds.