Alice in the Cities (1974)

Wim Wender’s 1974 feature Alice in the Cities has been restored and its aspect ratio finally corrected.  It’s the first in a series of welcome restorations that will include The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (for the first time in the UK), Kings of the Road, Wrong Move, The State of Things, Tokyo-GA and The American Friend.

While Wenders is rightly celebrated for his two breakthrough films Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, for me these are surpassed by his earlier road movies, in particular Kings of the Road and Alice in the Cities.  

Despondent German journalist Phillip Winter (played by Wenders regular Rudiger Vogler) has spent several weeks wandering the USA on an assignment.  Suffering from writers block, he has spent his time aimlessly taking endless Polaroids, trying – and failing – to capture his impressions of the US.  He wants to go home to Berlin.  At the airport in New York, he meets Lisa (Lisa Kreutzer) and her nine-year old daugher Alice (Yella Rottlander).  Faced with flight delays, the trio pass the time together in New York for a day or so.

Alice in the Cities - telescope
Alice in the City

Lisa has some loose ends to tie up and leaves Alice and Winter to explore New York, but then she disappears leaving a message suggesting that she will meet them in Amsterdam.  When Lisa fails to arrive in Amsterdam, Alice and Winter decide to drive to West Germany to find Alice’s grandmother.

The problem is that Alice can’t quite remember her grandmother’s name or where she lives.  She only has a photo, and some memories.  The pair set off on a journey without a clear destination, with as much left to chance as to design, the quintessential existential road trip.

alice-in-the-cities-01
A reluctant journey

It’s a strange set-up, one that feels impossible today.  Despite that fact that Lisa has abandoned her young daughter with a man she only met a day previously and barely knows, we somehow don’t feel that Lisa doesn’t care for Alice, or is a particularly cruel or negligent mother.  We just accept it – as the characters do – as a mildly frustrating inconvenience.  Winter is kind and he reluctantly assumes the responsibility to get Alice to her grandmother.  Although he expresses his irritation, the situation gradually gives him a sense of purpose.

Although Winter initially seems to be the main protagonist, this is really Alice’s story.  As Alison Anders says in the film notes, most child characters in films tend to be either mini-adults or winsome and childish.  Alice is a real person in her own right, shy, frustrated, curious, she knows her own mind.  I can’t think of many children in films that feel so natural.  Her character is exceptionally scripted and directed, and Yela Rottlander’s acting is wonderful.  Winter and Alice are equals in this tale.

Alice in the Cities bench
Yella Rottlander as Alice

There are many lovely moments in this film, which doesn’t worry about taking its time.  I found it a little slow when I first saw it in 2007, but each time I’ve seen it since I get more entranced by the character development and the atmosphere, and each screening seems swifter, I don’t want it to end.  Although its age and setting make it seem a little otherworldly, Wenders’s sentimental existentialism is timeless.

The film’s final sequence is still visually breathtaking.  Although we know Alice’s journey has a resolution, we don’t actually see the pair arrive at their destinations.  The film ends in motion.  Sitting on the train, soon to part company, Alice asks Winter what he’ll do next.  The journey – and Alice – has given him a new sense of purpose.  He returns the question, but she doesn’t answer.  In some ways we know that, as a child, she won’t yet be able to make her own choices.  But for both of them, their journeys continue, as the train rolls down the Rhine valley.

Wenders has an eye for the beauty of the mundane.  Working with the incredible cinematographer Robby Muller (Wings of Desire, Down By Law), the stark black-and-white images are beautiful.  Every shot could be a photograph still, carefully composed and framed.  Just as Winter is tries to capture an experience through his Polaroids, so does Wenders in this tale, and in many ways Winter is Wenders alter-ego.

In this screening, the premiere of the restoration, Wim Wenders gave an extended Q&A to reminisce about Alice and the Cities and to discuss photography and Polaroids.

Alice in the Cities - BFI Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders in conversation after the UK premiere of the restored Alice in the Cities at the BFI Southbank on 22nd October 2017

Because much of the script was developed during filming, it was difficult to get funding.  Wenders was restricted to shoot in 16mm.  The grain is very apparent – I was pleased that the restoration hasn’t tried to disguise it – and adds to the film’s atmosphere.

Muller had always wanted to shoot in 16:9 aspect ratio, but WDR who commissioned the film only allowed a 3:4 ‘academy’ aspect ratio.  Normally, in this situation filmmakers would create a widescreen frame by cropping the top and bottom of the film frame.  Wenders and Muller composed the shots for Alice in the Cities, marking these top and bottom frame lines on the camera lens, but they didn’t have the budget for the conversion.  When preparing for this restoration, Wenders took the opportunity to convert the film to his intended 16:9 for the first time [the film was previously restored by Wenders in 2007, so I don’t know why they didn’t make it widescreen then].  The widescreen framing looks entirely natural; I didn’t miss the top and bottom footage, so I think this was a good move.

Alice in the Cities photo
Alice and Winter in a photobooth.  Later in the film, we see Alice treasures the Polaroid

The restoration, from 2014, is great.  Wenders was very closely involved and the film has never looked better.  The original negative was in fairly poor condition; it produced around 100 prints and hadn’t been handled well.  The restoration was intensive, and they inserted footage from a 35mm dupe negative in places where the negative was unusable.  As well as having more detail, the images have more depth.

The soundtrack uses a lot of American music: Chuck Berry, Canned Heat (‘On the Road Again’) and others.  Wenders has a fascinating view of Americana; he’s captivated by it but will always be an outsider, and this theme permeates many of his films.  The soundtrack also uses a track by German band Can, recorded for the film and apparently not available in any other form. It’s atmospheric, soothing guitar arpeggios give a sense of constant motion, you go with the flow.

Alice in the CIties bike
A seemingly improvised moment, a boy on a bike tries to keep up with the car (this image is not from the 2014 restoration)

Wenders told an interesting anecdote about the Chuck Berry sequence, where Winter goes to see a concert.  In the restoration it still looks a little out of place, the image is cruder with higher contrast.  Chuck Berry performs his song ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (which Wenders referred to as ‘Long Distance Information’, it’s opening lyric).  The song is important thematically as it’s about a man trying to make a phone call, we eventually learn he’s trying to connect to his daughter.  Apparently Wenders filmed footage of Chuck Berry in concert for the film, but Berry demanded a huge fee for the rights, it would have blown Wenders’s budget.  He discovered that D A Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) had filmed Berry performing the same song, and owned the rights to the footage.  Pennebaker gave Wenders the footage for a much smaller fee that Wenders would have otherwise had to have paid to incorporate German footage that he’d shot himself.  However, the footage is not as fine as it’s a second generation print and it still stands out, much to Wenders regret.

The film was deliberately shot in chronological order, despite the additional cost.  This allowed the characters and their relationship to develop naturally, particularly as the script was both developed and improved over the course of the shoot.

Wenders ruminated on the difference between Polaroids and ‘photography’: for him Polaroids were fun, immediate and something you gave away.  It wasn’t ‘art’.  But, like Winter, he loved Polaroids and accumulated thousands.  The camera used in Alice in the Cities was a prototype, and the filmmakers were sworn to not release the film until the product was released.  They only had one precious camera and a finite amount of film – as it was a prototype product, you couldn’t buy film in the shops.  For the first time, you could watch the photos develop in front of your eyes (for previous versions of the technology, you peeled off a layer to reveal the image).  He claims (although I couldn’t see it) that you can see the caution in the actors faces when they take Polaroids, as they didn’t have enough film to make too many mistakes.

Alice in the Cities polaroid
At first, Winter takes Polaroids of everything but is never satisfied.  As the journey develops, he stops taking photos and experiences things more immediately (this image is not from the 2014 restoration)

The screening coincides with the opening of a new exhibition of Wender’s polaroids at London’s Photography Gallery called ‘Instant Stories‘ that runs until 11th February 2018 and an accompanying book of the same name.

The restoration is the same one that the Criterion Collection sourced for the US 2015 blu-ray, and it will be released by AX1 on blu-ray in the UK on 4th December.  It’s one of Wenders’s masterpieces and it’s great that it has finally been restored to how the director wanted it to be seen.

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