At night, in some village hotel room, I would sometimes be overcome with terror. I would be sitting around, and it would be midnight, or two or four in the morning, and I still had no idea what we’d be shooting in the morning.
—Wim Wenders, on the making of Kings of the Road, 1976
The films in Wim Wenders’s Road Trilogy—Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road—are supremely elegant examples of that routinely raggedy and uncentered genre: the road movie. They were made in quick succession, one per year, from 1974 to 1976, when Wenders had the good fortune to collaborate with a small, tight crew helmed by cinematographer Robby Müller, working under the constraints of shoestring budgets that nevertheless allowed a surplus of freedom, mobility, and invention. Wenders never intended them as a trilogy, as he confides in an interview accompanying this release. (The designation arrived after the fact, courtesy of American critic Richard Roud.) All the same, they are unified by shared themes, an exacting formal rigor, and the presence of Rüdiger Vogler, the taciturn, mulish yet mesmerizing leading man established in the trilogy as the director’s evident alter ego.
Wenders’s first two features, Summer in the City (1970) and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), also involve aimless journeys undertaken by fairly desperate men trying, with defiant laconicism, to outrun clear or implied trouble. But his movies didn’t fully hit the road until Alice in the Cities, wherein travel not only propels the story but also absorbs and reshapes it. Wrong Move and Kings of the Road follow this precedent—the narrative in each movie seems to follow a map rather than a plot. The three films also share an abidingly vivid present-tense quality defined by Wenders’s eye for contemporary reality: lush landscapes and skies coexisting with the drab congestion of signs and cars, fraying housing tracts, and a rich variety of jukeboxes. The films offer detailed descriptions of drift, disconnection, restlessness, and uncertainty—but almost every frame is resolute, clear, and glowing, like a window rinsed clean by rain.
Within this visual clarity, Müller’s sublimely natural lighting and something in Peter Przygodda’s editing—a sense of patience, and a tension within that patience—can make reality seem heightened and dreamlike, an impression sharpened by the fact that Wenders’s characters are often shown sleeping and dreaming. Awake, however, and in motion, these same characters radiate a rare and convincing sense of privacy, an inner life, as Wenders was proving himself expert at conjuring performances that are unforced, low-key, and fine-grained.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of Peter Handke—“my oldest friend,” according to Wenders—on this trio of early works, even though Handke received direct credit on only one film, Wrong Move. Handke, by the mid-1970s, ranked as one of the most exciting new voices in European literature, having refined a prose style notable for its unsentimental matter-of-factness, a penetrating, almost harrowing honesty. These qualities are mirrored in the lucidity and candor of Wenders’s first films, though other influences come into play: Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Walker Evans, Edward Hopper, blues-based rock and roll—all non-Teutonic. The resulting sensibility, crystallized in the Road Trilogy, can seem at once minimal and romantic, austere and lyrical, and the films made a significant international splash when first released, even though they are at a remove from the ferocity, the expressive frenzy, that flares up in the work of Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, and the other brave souls constituting the New German Cinema.
Passion in a Wenders picture is steady but restrained, riding on an undercurrent, a stoic coolness—as embodied by Rüdiger Vogler. Wenders first took note of the actor in a 1966 TV movie scripted by Handke, then cast him in nameless bit parts: “the idiot” in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, “the sailor” in The Scarlet Letter—compelling cameos, though there’s little in them to suggest the charm and depth Vogler would bring to the features that followed. Within a shifting but unique persona—he’s a blocked writer in Alice and Wrong Move, an itinerant film projector repairman in Kings of the Road—he shares Wenders’s low, soft voice and his beguiling aloofness, shyness, and physical assurance. He makes for an unlikely protagonist: slow, wary, self-protective, detached; a loner, with eyes that seem permanently skeptical—then his face cracks in that sudden goofy smile. For Wenders in the seventies, Vogler became as distinct and definitive as Elliott Gould was for Robert Altman during roughly the same period, projecting slow-burning intelligence and, at his best, a sly, sad, gentle mode of being.
Midway through Wrong Move, Peter Kern recites a poem ghostwritten by Handke, a poem that, despite its intentional awfulness, yields a piercing last line: “Why must there be such a vast space between me and the world?” In a way, all Wenders films are asking this question, and their underlying romanticism can be defined by how the films describe—and attempt to narrow—this vast space: the gap between the individual and the wider world of other people, the distance between culture, with its heavy burden of history, and nature, with its casual cruelty, its blind habit of surrounding us with beauty and death.
A parallel Wenders theme—or simply an inwardly telescoped take on this same question—involves the puzzle of identity and the mundane trauma of accepting, or avoiding, responsibility for your own life. And for a German citizen born in 1945, as Wenders was, this trauma is tangled, of course, with considerations of the poisonous Nazi past, whose gentlest legacy is a bottomless shadow of guilt and shame. You see this most explicitly in Wrong Move and Kings of the Road, accounting, at least partially, for the way benumbed characters maneuver around an unspoken crisis or wound. There was, for that matter, a double shadow in the midseventies, cast by a sense of failure and futility following the revolutionary spirit of the sixties.
In all three of these films, at any rate, and in nearly all that have followed, Wenders displays a fascination with photographic images, with movies and the way we allow them to buffer and displace direct experience. Most pointedly in Kings of the Road, Germany’s national consciousness is conflated with the state of the movies, by the fates of run-down theaters tended by Vogler’s repairman, who presents Lisa Kreuzer’s ticket taker with an abject token of affection, an eight-second celluloid loop spliced from dismal movie trailers: a self-contained, repeating parade of images that cheerfully encapsulate the degradation of the medium.
Yet Wenders never veers into despair. Grace notes arrive, throughout the journeys traced in these films: stray jokes and gags, perfect blasts of rock and roll, and sustained wordless scenes that allow characters to recognize a look, a spark, a spirit of true connection. Wenders insists—scene by scene, frame by frame—that cinema is by its nature the recorder of vanishing places and lives, the custodian of culture, the rescuer of lost time.
The Road Trilogy was made by a young filmmaker extending his reach, his resources, achieving early maturity and mastery. It’s extremely rare to find movies this open-ended and assured, lucid and lyrical, tender and truthful, anchored in the here and now yet timeless. They are brimming with a sense of shared adventure.