Alice in the Cities: A Girl’s Story

Alice in the Cities essay

Wim Wenders has said that the story for Alice in the Cites (1974) came to him from an insight into his own dissatisfaction with the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter he’d made two years before.He associated his creative block on that film in part with the fact that he had always felt more empathy for Hester Prynne’s child, Pearl, than for her. Lucky for us, he took the young actor he had cast as Pearl, Yella Rottländer, and answered his questions about that character with her in his next film.

Alice in the Cities has been one of my very favorite films, and a guiding light, since I first saw it at the Nuart in Santa Monica in the 1970s. How do you explain why you love someone or a work of art? Hopefully, it’s something you spend a lifetime trying to understand. Alice spoke to me specifically as a female in the world, as a young mother, confused, passionate, and messy, and as someone who remembered being a child filled with wonder and complicated feelings.

American cinema has presented a view of children as innocent and incomplete versions of adults since the very beginning of the medium. From before Shirley Temple to the present day of made-for-kids fare, we simply can’t seem to escape defining children on-screen as, at best, mini-adults and, at worst, idiot savants or creatures possessed of magical innocence. We rarely see them presented as complex, flawed beings full of desires that elude the control of their parents and other elders. And while male children may be allowed certain adventures, very few female children in American movies are given even that kind of freedom. (Oh, there have been a few exceptions. In the 1960s, for example, we were able to enjoy some freely self-defined adolescent girl characters in The World of Henry Orient and the Angels movies—The Trouble with Angels and Where Angels Go Trouble Follows!—but those were slightly older children and, in any event, serve only to prove the rule.) It’s as if the entire fabric of American life would come apart if a child were presented as whole and autonomous on the screen.

But Wenders, while so very influenced by American movies and pop culture, is not American and thus not constrained by this unspoken, insidious mandate to preserve the notion of children as idealized by adults. His freedom of imagination and thought to create Alice, and the room he granted his actors, Rottländer and Rüdiger Vogler, resulted in one of the screen’s most multifaceted child characters, and one of the most empowered female characters in cinema to this day.

Shot over the summer of 1973, Alice in the Cities was the first of Wenders’s Road Trilogy, and with it he discovered what would become the recipe for his many more road movies to come: shoot as much in sequence as possible, and most certainly shoot your locations that way. A decade later, for Paris, Texas, on which I was a young assistant, we shot first in Texas, then road-tripped to Los Angeles, and then went back to Texas, in story sequence—rather than doing what most producers would insist on: shooting all the Texas stuff at once, then doing the L.A. chunk out of order.

Alice begins its journey in a North Carolina beach town. We meet Phillip Winter (Vogler) literally under the boardwalk, in the midst of a grim existential crisis, taking Polaroids, trying to connect with the American landscape around him. The musical score that carries us through this opening is Japanese-inspired and by the German prog/hard rockers CAN. Just prior to this film, Wenders had found a mentor in the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, and the score is an homage to him and an acknowledgement of that creative debt.

The beauty of opening with Winter is that we are lulled into believing the film is about him, until twenty-odd minutes in, when we meet the true center of the story, who will be the undoing of his crisis. But she is not a character who exists only to facilitate his soul’s journey. She has her own journey to make, and, in fact, the film’s journey is hers. The adult male character we thought was our focus is actually the passenger; the girl child is driving this road movie.

The setup is simple. After randomly encountering Alice in a Pan Am Building revolving door—in a wonderful (almost) whimsical scene—Winter meets her single mother (played as stunningly whole by Lisa Kreuzer, a single mother herself) at the ticket counter. Alice’s mother is young, and while Wenders doesn’t judge her or ever suggest she doesn’t love her daughter deeply, she is clearly also in crisis, has been sidetracked in life, is maybe even a little self-involved. While the character is not defined by men, it seems she has chosen to give them more importance in her life than they might deserve.

When she leaves her daughter in Winter’s care, without asking either of their permission, we don’t get the impression she has abandoned her child—we know she will be back for her. We feel it in our gut. But neither Winter nor Alice knows this. And with a note of vague instruction and a little money, the girl is left in Winter’s care to travel to Germany.

This is where the adventure begins. We should have known from our introduction to Alice, when she took charge of the revolving door, who would be in control of the movement of this story; poor Winter finds himself instantly outwitted and has no choice but to succumb to her direction. But this could easily be passed over in our thoughts—she’s a kid, playing in a revolving door, like a million other kids. The next time we see Alice being very much a child is in a beautiful scene where Winter tells her he can blow out the lights on the Empire State Building from their hotel window. Of course, we can see that he has it timed perfectly for midnight, when the electricity is turned off. When he blows and the lights go out like candles on a birthday cake, Alice gasps in awe. Here, our point of view seems to be aligned with the adult character. But then Alice asks to see his watch and we are inside her head, not his. She’s trying to identify the logical reason for such magic. She’s fairly certain she’s been tricked, but doesn’t quite get how. This is the moment you realize that it is the point of view of a child, and a female child at that, that will be carrying us through the rest of the movie.

As they journey, Winter and Alice impact each other profoundly. At first, that impact seems simplistic; she is forced for her survival to place her trust in this adult she barely knows, while he is forced to become less existentially self-absorbed and be in the present, responsible for another human being. But as we move forward with them on their journey, the texture of human experience unfolds: joy, laughter, worry, fear, anger, jealousy, melancholy—when have we ever seen a child in a movie so melancholic? It’s impossibly poignant to see this in Alice.

The joys: Alice and Winter taking photo booth pictures in which they mirror each other’s expressions, which she will treasure later. And doing calisthenics together at rest stops along the road—so incredibly charming.

The anger: Winter’s, after Alice casually admits she has sent them on a wild-goose chase in the search for her grandmother’s house. She is remarkably centered and unapologetic, and offers no explanation as to why she failed to tell him before so many miles had been banked chasing her lead.

The jealousy: when Winter meets a woman in the park, and is clearly sexually attracted to her, Alice pulls a little sundress from her suitcase and puts it on, to compete for his affection. It’s a wonderful and not in the least inappropriate scene—because it’s completely from Alice’s perspective. The way this scene plays out deepens her character.

The melancholy: a weary Alice blinks, almost falling asleep, in the passenger seat. Director of photography Robby Müller stays on her face as the light softly, pastorally changes over it. And the last sequence, when Winter asks Alice what she will do after they arrive at last, and we see her thinking, and rather than move in on her face this time, Wenders chooses to pull back, and to keep pulling back from her melancholic expression, evincing a deep knowledge that she is a child at the mercy of adult decisions, that no one will ask her what she wants or needs. She will just have to go along with it, and somehow keep who she is intact. That long pull back away from Alice, away from the train, always brings tears to my eyes. It is deeply, profoundly moving.

Another thing Wenders said in regard to his disappointment with The Scarlet Letter was that, since it was set in Puritan America in the 1600s, he missed using his favorite pop-culture artifacts—photo booths, jukeboxes, records, movies, cameras, cars. In Alice in the Cities, we get to absorb all these artifacts and references, and they in turn deepen character. In the photo booth, Alice and Winter don’t merely take photos together—they do what most of us do when we sit together in a photo booth: they play off of each other second by second, for every shot. They vibe together.

The way Winter is constantly attached to his Polaroid camera is so like how nearly all of us are connected to our cell phones, and the cameras in our phones, forever putting distance between ourselves and what we are experiencing. We all know children now who revolt against the daily intrusion of cell phones recording their every move. They instinctively know that by constantly photographing them, we are distancing ourselves, we’re not in the moment, not experiencing them. Winter is a guy who throws blocks between himself and the world, and the Polaroid camera is one device he uses to do that.

Wenders himself is seen early on putting money in a jukebox. Later, a boy sits next to another jukebox, licking an ice cream cone, humming lazily along to “On the Road Again” by Canned Heat. The idea that a child would know that psych-blues song well enough to hum along is again a very different view of childhood than you are likely ever to get in an American film. As for the song itself—in anyone else’s hands, the use of it would be too on the nose, but not here . . . It works perfectly. And while we’re on the subject of music, the wonderful psych-folk singer Sibylle Baier sings a lovely song (“Softly,” from her album Colour Green) on camera on a ferry Alice and Winter have boarded.

Sadly, the CAN score is not available separately from the film; the tracks, Wim explained to me, never existed outside of the mix. So the only way to hear it is in the movie, and that is just one more reason to experience it.

It must be noted too that Müller’s 16 mm black-and-white photography is simply gorgeous, and lends itself perfectly to Wenders’s attitude toward his characters: he frames Alice and Winter as equals within most shots; the adult character does not diminish the child character within the frame, within the scene. They occupy the same amount of space.

At the same time that I was discovering Alice, and the rest of the Road Trilogy, my own daughter, Tiffany, had discovered another film series: the Swedish Pippi Longstocking movies. Like Alice, Pippi is free of the tyranny of the adult gaze. She’s her own person, with magical powers, which seem to come from within, not to be bestowed upon her by any adult. My daughter was smitten and emboldened and inspired by seeing this fully self-possessed girl on the screen. Likewise, I’m convinced that the adult life of the young Rottländer must have been empowered by the experience of portraying and creating a female character with such a rich inner life. When Wim and I had a conversation in 2015 for the website the Talkhouse, he told of how Rottländer, now in her fifties, had become a doctor.

If only girls had more characters like Alice to take them on such rich journeys.

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