Pick of the Week
Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy (Criterion)
A variety of factors gave rise to what came to be known as the New German Cinema in the late-’60s and 1970s, not the least of them the passing of time. German film carried on after the end of World War II, but it would take generational turnover for the country’s film talent to reinvent itself, a generation with the distance to survey the damage done by those that had come before them. Emerging at roughly the same time as Werner Herzog, Rainer Maria Fassbinder, and Margarethe von Trotta, Wim Wenders filled his 1970s films — and many of those that followed — with alienated drifters, young men and women (but mostly men) struggling to understand the world around them and their place in it.
Released a year apart from each other between 1974 and 1976, three of those films became what’s now known as Wenders’ “Road Trilogy,” ambitious, haunting, often wryly funny films that turned road trips into low-key odysseys. Released in 1974, Alice in the Cities follows a German writer Phil (Rüdiger Vogler) as he makes his way back from America where an article has failed to take shape. Along the way, he becomes charged with looking after Alice (Yella Rottländer) after her mother disappears. Together, the reluctant guardian and his charge look for Alice’s grandmother using only Alice’s vague memories of where she lives.
The film sets the tone for what’s to follow: Wenders’ lingers on the tedious details of travel — the stolen naps, the endless journeys via public transportation, the greasy spoon cafes — and finds a hypnotic beauty in them. The film’s visuals (aided by Robby Müller’s lovely cinematography), the film’s pacing, and the performances are all masterfully understated. There’s nothing sentimental here, but as the film reaches its end it becomes clear how much Phil has come to care for the girl. For all its meditations on what it means to be young and alive in 1974, it’s ultimately a traditional road movie in cool new garb, one that takes a long way to a familiar, and comfortable, destination.
Less comfortable in every way is Wrong Move, a loose adaptation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship starring Vogler (again) as Wilhelm, a young writer (again), who sets out from his home to make his way. Along the way, he picks up traveling companions ranging from a beautiful actress to an older street performer with a dark past as a Nazi and a mute companion (a young Natassja Kinski). The title echoes in nearly every decision Wilhelm makes along the way in a film that weighs the darkness of the past against the possibilities of the future and finds little to like about either.
It’s a haunting film, but the masterpiece here is Kings of the Road, a three-hour film Wenders and company largely improvised on the fly. Here Vogler plays a truck-driving repairman who travels up and down the border between East and West Germany repairing projectors at small-town movie theaters. He’s joined by Hanns Zischler, a semi-suicidal man recovering from a recent break-up and together they just kind of drift and talk, playing music, meeting locals, slowly revealing their pasts to each other, and taking stock of their lives. In the early ’90s, Wenders would set out to make the ultimate road movie with the continent-spanning Until the End of the World. Part of the problem: He’d already made it with this, using a much smaller stretch of land but capturing the allure of the open road and how those who travel it can never really use it to escape.
Long out of print in the States — these films were released on VHS in the ’80s and never since — this set does right by these essential movies, filling them out with commentaries, Wenders’ short films, and other extras. The most crucial is an hour-long documentary on Wenders by Michael Almereyda found on the Wrong Move disc.