“Alice in the Cities” (1974) | Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Filmverlag der Autoren
Some of my favourite creatives and cinephiles share a favourite movie experience:
the film that left a mark on them, that changed them, that influenced them
personally, creatively or both.
Film: Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities), 1974
Directed by Wim Wenders
Written by Wim Wenders and Veith von Fürstenberg
Starring Yella Rottländer, Rüdiger Vogler, Lisa Kreuzer
Words by: Georgina Guthrie
I don’t know why I chose to go to university on the Welsh coast. Perhaps I was seduced by the idea of studying by a beach. Or maybe I was drunk when I made my selection.
The university was so far away that I didn’t even get a chance to see it until I arrived. Predictably, the six-hour journey up there with my parents was grim: the latter half took us along narrow roads that nauseatingly twisted through slate-grey mountains, their tops obscured by heavy rain clouds. It drizzled relentlessly, and my mum and stepdad bickered the entire way.
When the car finally came to a crunching halt, the reality of my decision closed around me, thick and impenetrable as the cold November fog. I’d left my friends and the city behind and traded it all in for a grubby little seaside town. Arcades on the promenade, peeling fried chicken shops, wet sand and grey sea. Who chooses a university without having visited it first? An idiot, that’s who.
Eventually, I settled in. I met people, went to lectures and found the best pubs. But I missed city life. The town was dull and uninviting. The locals regarded the students with mistrust at best, but malice more often than not. A smarter person would’ve dropped out and moved to a different town. But I was not a smart person.
With no telly, very little to do in town and not much money anyway, I started filling my spare time with movies, which I borrowed free from the university video library. I devoured them. I swiftly moved from horror and exploitation movies to American indies and eventually on to ‘art house’ cinema, beginning with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities – a film I chose purely because of its romantic title.
For those unacquainted, it’s a stripped-back road movie about a German journalist and a young girl left in his care who set off on a journey to reunite her with her grandparents. Much of the film’s success lies in its emotional warmth and gentle plot: instead of fraught drama and a comic clash between the odd couple, there’s bemused frustration and an ending that’s hopeful, yet tinged with existential angst.
Philip, the journalist, is alienated in America. Something about the vast landscape, mindless consumerism and ubiquitous advertising leaves him in a psychological gloom. And though he can’t connect to Alice, who slips into US culture like a duck into water, her presence eventually draws him out of himself. Together, they meander through the landscape looking for her family.
The simple plot is buoyed by the charming, naturalistic performance of its two leads, while the gorgeous photography of cinematographer Robby Müller fills the screen with what would go on to become enduring images of Americana: neon motel signs glowing in the dusk, Coca-Cola adverts and diners with jukeboxes. The carbon-copy cafes and places of transit – hotel rooms, bus stations and airports – looked very different from where I was living, but I related to Alice and Philip’s inability to connect with their environment, and the malaise that arises from this sense of disconnect.
The film’s closing image resonated with me most. Philip and Alice take the train to Munich. Alice switches her radio off, Philip puts down his paper and they gaze out the window at the landscape speeding by. Neither character has really learned anything from their experience, nor have they learned much about each other. All that’s happened is the angst has lifted a little, and there’s a new, albeit indefinite, feeling of freedom and purpose.
“Alice in the Cities” opened up a new way of viewing films for me. It provided a stark contrast to traditional American movies with its meandering plot and inconclusive ending. It also showed me that films could be rich and varied without being flashy or dramatic. Most of all, “Alice in the Cities” helped me realise that some people never really feel rooted, and that doesn’t have to be a terrible or permanent thing so long as you find something that brings you out of yourself. And that something could just be a film.
Georgina is a Bristol-born freelance writer currently living in Toulouse, France.
She’s written on film and travel for Time Out, Little White Lies, Shelf Heroes,
Beneficial Shock! and others. She loves ’70s American cinema and has a penchant
for a good jump scare. Find her on Twitter as @GuthrieGeorgina.
Read the previous Favourite Film stories here.