Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) is a German writer driving across America, trying to get a sense of the place as he prepares to pen a magazine article. However, the more he travels the less he knows what to write, and has spent the last few days going from motel room to gas station, checking out a beach here or eating at a cafe there, all the while taking photographs with his instant camera to record the journey instead of taking notes about it to be written up later on. At times the ill feelings can be overwhelming, as he watches television in a motel room and is so incensed by the advertising constantly appearing that he destroys it, so back to New York he goes...
Alice in the Cities, or Alice in den Städten as it originally was in German, was the first of director Wim Wenders' road movie trilogy, followed as it was by Wrong Move and Kings of the Road later in the decade, and one work which truly put him on the map internationally as one of the brightest lights of the German New Wave in cinema of the seventies. As with those other two efforts, this was deceptively simple, basically taking a seemingly inconsequential journey across America and then Europe, for the most part accompanied by a little girl, the Alice of the title, played by Yella Rottländer. She doesn't appear until the film has gotten well underway, as first we have to establish Philip's reasons for doing what he does.
Which would more or less be because he has writer's block and that has harmed his thought processes to the extent that he is now drifting through life waiting for his money to run out since he is having so much trouble working out what to write. Once in New York, his frustrated editor tells him no, he cannot have an advance, and maybe he'd better return home to Germany to recharge his batteries, but before he does that he happens to meet Alice and her mother Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer) who also want to return to Europe except there's a strike on which prevents them getting the flight they wanted. Recognising fellow countrymen, they spend the day and night together in New York, growing friendly.
But here's the part which would make today's audience balk, as it is so unlikely unless there was more to the story we were not being told, but on the morning Lisa and Alice are supposed to catch the plane to Amsterdam, the mother walks out on her daughter and Philip, leaving them at a loss of what to do next. He thinks she will be taking a later flight, so both he and the girl travel across the Atlantic to their destination without Lisa, who appears to have abandoned the girl to Philip. The rest of the story plays out as a search for someone in Alice's family who will look after her, for if Lisa isn't going to show up maybe he can drop the continually hungry child off at her grandmother's - well, he could if she could remember any crucial details, as she is bright in some areas but annoyingly vague in others.
That suited Wenders' style, as he was as much interested in portraying the influence of American culture over his European one as he was exploring the amiable relationship between Philip, who is buffeted along by life's tides, and Alice, who being nine years old is the same, which makes her new, unofficial guardian wake up to things like responsibilities which he had not otherwise considered. All the way through Wenders has his characters as observers, either watching screens which play Hollywood movies and programmes, through the camera lens as if taking photos makes the experience more real than without that record, or even through windows, watching the world go by, suggesting that the new role of passively witnessing life is the way society is heading unless you actually grab the bull by the horns and take action. What Philip does may not amount to much on the surface, the conclusion is content enough, but having someone to look after has made him a more vital person, and this may be slight, but its resonances echoed on. Music by Krautrock titans Can.
German director and writer and one of modern cinema's most important European filmmakers. Wenders films tend to blend social commentary with genre material - thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy. It was his acclaimed "road movies" of the mid-seventies - Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and the epic Kings of the Road that first brought him international attention. 1977's The American Friend was a post-modern thriller starring Bruno Ganz, and although the making of Hammett was a difficult experience, he won his greatest acclaim for the moving drama Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepherd.
1987's Wings of Desire was another triumph, and if he's yet to equal those classics, subsequent work has at least been a series of fascinating failures. Until the End of the World was an ambitious sci-fi piece, Faraway, So Close sequalised Wings of Desire, while The End of Violence, Million Dollar Hotel and Land of Plenty were dark, offbeat dramas. Wenders' latest film is Don't Come Knocking, written by and starring Sam Shepherd. His best recent work have in fact been documentaries, including the The Soul of a Man for Martin Scorsese's Blues series and the Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club.