Kings of the Road: Keep on Truckin’ . . .

On Film / Essays — Jun 2, 2016
kings of the road essay

Kings of the Road is one of the key European films of the 1970s, a high-water mark of the New German Cinema and, to my mind, the purest piece of cinema that its prolific director, Wim Wenders, has ever produced. It is a gloriously lyrical, ramshackle reflection on life, cinema (and cinemas), male identity, women, postwar alienation, children, and rock and roll, all wrapped up in a road movie that, if we are to believe Wenders, cast and crew made up as they went along, once the initial premise had been established.

That premise is a bungled suicide attempt by one of the two main characters, who drives his Volkswagen Beetle full tilt into the Elbe—in 1976, when the film was released, part of the border between West Germany and the German Democratic Republic—then climbs pathetically out through the sunroof, dragging his suitcase behind him. All this is observed from the riverbank with broad—indeed, exaggerated—amusement by a cinema equipment repairman who travels between the remaining single-screen cinemas in the small towns dotted along the border, fixing broken projectors and living in an enormous converted moving truck. A little under three hours later, after days and nights on the road, where the two encounter a number of lost souls, they part company.

The film was shot over a four-month period, with the truck itself doubling as the production vehicle, between July 1 and October 31, 1975. The journey starts on the Lüneberger Heide, a heathland running along the border just south of Hamburg and used, at the time, mainly for saber-rattling maneuvers on the Rhine by the U.S. and British armies. It ends, some 350 miles to the south, near Hof, a small town in Bavaria that is home to the New German Cinema’s key film festival, the Hofer Filmtage. Heinz Badewitz, the festival’s founding director—still at the helm (and still sporting the same Beatles haircut) after nearly fifty years when he died in early 2016—was the film’s sound recordist.

The repairman is called Bruno Winter and is played by Rüdiger Vogler, and the would-be suicide is Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler). Like Wenders, both actors are still making films today, Vogler mainly on TV, while Zischler recently played a celebrated theater actor, Henryk Wald, in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria.

Of the three films in Wenders’s Road Trilogy, Kings of the Road is by far the most “roadish”—if one defines the genre by a need to escape something rather than a desire to reach a particular destination, to run from rather than toward. Much of Alice in the Cities (1974), the first work in the trilogy, is indeed spent on the road (the Canned Heat song “On the Road Again” even plays on a convenient jukebox in one scene), but Philip and Alice have a specific goal: finding Alice’s grandmother and/or mother. Wrong Move (1975), the second film, is a road movie in name alone, wrapped as it is in the nonstop verbiage—voice-over and philosophical discussion—of Peter Handke’s screenplay. But Kings of the Road is a film in which dialogue is sparse and the movement the message. Wenders was a fan of Easy Rider, but the two men in Kings of the Road don’t go “looking for Germany” (nor, when it comes down to it, did Wyatt and Billy go “looking for America,” but that’s another story): they roam along the border between the two Germanys, sealed in the bubble of the truck’s cab, largely untouched by current events (although Robert occasionally picks up a newspaper). Like Robert Crumb’s iconic figure, they just keep on truckin’, their alienation from the politics and values of 1970s West Germany a foregone conclusion. That, at least, is something they share with Wyatt and Billy.

We know nothing about the characters’ backstories beyond a few details we pick up along the way. Bruno’s father died—or at any rate disappeared—in the war; he spent his summers in a house on an island in the Rhine. He bought the truck two years ago in Munich. He avoids commitment and contact, and is genuinely puzzled when Robert, near the end, describes him as “kind.”

Robert is presented in a slightly more detailed way: he has just separated from his wife, hence (presumably) the suicide attempt. His mother is dead; he is estranged from his father, the publisher of a small-town newspaper whom he visits in the course of the film. He claims first to be a pediatrician, then an expert in language development in children (which is not that different).

Apart from the prologue—in which Bruno quizzes an elderly cinema owner about the early days—the first half hour of the film is almost completely free from dialogue. Robert and Bruno don’t introduce themselves to one another until twenty-three minutes into the movie proper. When, after almost an hour of screen time, Robert volunteers that he has just split with his wife, Bruno cuts him off with “I didn’t ask you about that.” The past is of no interest to him (unless it has to do with the history of cinema).

Don’t be fooled by the postadolescent anomie, however: like many a movie slim on plot and dialogue, Kings of the Road is thematically very rich, with almost every encounter lifting the lid on some aspect of political, personal, or cinema history. And there is, moreover, a growing intimacy between the two men, who share a confusion of identity and a sense of alienation with the main characters in the trilogy’s two earlier parts (both played by Vogler, an iconic figure in Wenders’s early films): Philip Winter in Alice in the Cities (and again in 1994’s Lisbon Story); Wilhelm Meister in Wrong Move. It may be that they yearn for female company—Bruno says so explicitly in the final scene, in the hut on the GDR frontier; Robert repeatedly attempts to call his wife. But neither can really connect. “I don’t know how one can live with a woman,” says Robert. “I’ve always felt lonely inside a woman,” responds Bruno. The dialogue in these scenes is stilted, even clumsy. Much more expressive is the outcome of this discussion: Bruno and Robert cement their friendship by slugging it out with their fists, like characters in a John Ford western. There is more than a tinge of romanticism here; as with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, the model for the character in Wrong Move, there is an exquisite pleasure wrapped in their pain.

As in all road movies, the two must move constantly to stay in the same place, however limited the options: the road leads south but never east, blocked by the no-man’s-land, barbed wire, and watchtowers of the border. The old train timetables Robert consults offer destinations—Magdeburg, Dessau, Leipzig—to which tickets can no longer be bought because they are in the GDR. Less metaphysical than the quest at the center of 1991’s equally long Until the End of the World, the journey here is just to the end of the line, but it is equally intense, equally imbued with emotion. (Wenders, remember, grabbed the title we all wanted for our collected essays on cinema: Emotion Pictures.)

More than most of the director’s films—and more than either of the other two in the trilogy—Kings of the Road is a film about sound and image, not dialogue. Music is everywhere. A plangent slide-guitar theme (reprised by a saxophone after the visit to the Rhine island) accompanies the movement. The score, anticipating Ry Cooder’s for Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), is by the Krautrock band Improved Sound Limited.

After the two men, like naughty schoolboys, flee the cinema where Bruno has been “kind” by standing in for the projectionist, Bruno slots into his portable record player the film’s most joyous disc: Heinz’s “Just Like Eddie.” Appropriately, it is a song whose national identity is blurred but whose rhythms are irresistible, written and sung by a German-born, UK-based musician, Heinz Burt, bassist for the short-lived UK group the Tornados, who had gone solo by the time he recorded this tribute to Eddie Cochran, a U.S. rocker who died in a road crash in the UK. It is one of the most emotional moments in the film, with the pair back on the road, free from commitment, from kindness, from staying-in-one-place, and the song all but demands that the viewer punch the air along with them during the chorus.

Whenever I’m sad,
Whenever I’m blue,
Whenever my troubles are heavy,
Beneath the stars,
I play my guitar,
[Punch-punch] Just like Eddie

At the end of the film, as Bruno and Robert part ways, the truck keeps pace for a while with Robert on a train—a public, social space with a destination, as opposed to the cocooned loneliness of Bruno’s open road. It is a virtuoso shot, the truck framed in the train window as Bruno’s record player defiantly and perhaps inevitably blasts out Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

The German landscape, bathed in the milky summer light of Robby Müller’s magnificent monochrome photography, is as crucial to Kings of the Road as the desert is to Paris, Texas. It is a landscape sandwiched between the West, with its shameful past, and the East, with its bleak, “jam tomorrow” socialist future. Along with everything else, Kings of the Road is a film about figures in this landscape—and figures sometimes melding with it, as when Robert mimics the gesture of the flying Christ they find beside a road.

Politics has never interested Wenders—he is the least committed of the New German Cinema directors—but history has a way of permeating his films, as with the Berlin Wall in 1987’s Wings of Desire. Here, the watchtowers and barbed wire on the far side of the Elbe are clearly visible when Robert climbs out of the sinking VW. The GDR guards had, Wenders told me, been keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings. More significantly, Bruno and Robert’s last night together introduces yet another culture, one whose influence on Wenders is all but overwhelming. That night is spent right on the border, in a hut covered in graffiti left by American GIs, with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (the ultimate rock-and-roll prop) and a phone connected to an American operator. This scene gives the film its most oft-quoted line: “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious!”

But if political history remains in the background, cinema history comes to the fore. What really fascinates Bruno about the old cinema owner in the prologue is not that he was once a Nazi Party member but his memories of the 1920s—of working as an accompanist to silent movies, and of the unemployment that hit cinema musicians with the coming of sound.

Later in the film, in a sequence recalling Wenders’s 1995 documentary about German cinema pioneers Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky, Bruno explains the workings of the Maltese cross mechanism in a projector. And what has all this history led to? The soft-core porn that was the mainstay of the German film industry in the 1970s. Thus, in the film’s epilogue, another elderly cinema owner, this one a woman, explains why she has closed her cinema rather than show such films. Her words are not that different from those of the Oberhausen Manifesto, generally seen as the starting point for the New German Cinema movement: “Better no films than these ones!”

Never one for theory, Wenders nevertheless poses an abstract aesthetic question at the beginning of the trilogy, in Alice in the Cities, and answers it at the end, in Kings of the Road. At the beginning of Alice, Philip Winter, a photographer, constantly takes Polaroid pictures and is constantly unhappy with the result. “It just never shows what you’ve seen,” he says. At the end of Kings of the Road, Robert encounters a young boy on a station platform jotting things down in a notebook. Robert asks him what he is writing. “I’m describing a station. Everything I can see,” says the boy. “It’s as easy as that?” (“So einfach ist das? ”), asks Robert. “So einfach,” says the kid.

Characteristically, the answer to Philip’s original question comes from the mouth of a child. For the boy, what he writes, what he captures, is exactly what he sees. He understands more about the meanings of words than Robert, whose field of study they are—and more about images than Philip. Things are as they are: we just need to be able to see them and, having seen them, show them. Cinema is that simple.

So einfach.