The Road Trilogy d. Wim Wenders Sping: #813 Blu-ray Release Date: May 31, 2016 Alice in the Cities (1974) Spine: #814 Wrong Move (1975) Spine: #815 Kings of the Road (1976) Spine: #816 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
Earlier this year, The Criterion Collection released Wim Wenders’ 1977 film The American Friend, the first 1970s film by Wenders I’d ever seen, despite the fact that I’ve heard so much acclaim for his 1970s output. It was exciting news, then, when The Criterion Collection announced that they’d be releasing a trio of films that seems to be most responsible for the blessed aura around Wenders’ 1970s work: The Road Trilogy.
These road movies, slow and pensive as a long journey on the road and through life should be. There’s a sense of aimlessness as well, though the characters are obviously searching for something. The artists behind the camera were searching as well. When Wenders decided to make Alice in the Cities, he was trying to determine whether he was really a filmmaker or not. The existential crisis imbues the film, and it is no surprise to learn that much of it was improvised.
There’s a sense of exploration in the filming as well. All were low-budget films, requiring innovation and creativity to get just right, and each was shot by cinematographer Robby Müller: Alice in the Cities in 16mm black and white, The Wrong Move in 35mm color, and Kings of the Road in 35mm black and white.
Despite the seeming limitations under which Wenders and his crew labored, I went in expecting greatness. My expectations were exceeded.
The trilogy begins with Alice in the Cities. Philip Winter, played by Rüdiger Vogler, is a German writer on assignment in the United States. As the film begins, he’s driving around the country, taking Polaroids of the seemingly mundane world he is witness.
What he isn’t finding, though, is a story he can write up for his German publisher. He hopes his photographs, though, will serve and speak volumes for him. This doesn’t work with his publisher, though, and when he misses his deadline he’s out of money and without prospects for more. At the airport, returning as a bit of a failure, he meets a German woman named Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer) and her nine-year-old daughter Alice (Yella Rottländer. They are also hoping to return to Germany.
The first flight they can catch, though, is the next day. Lisa asks Philip if he’ll stay with them and escort them home. He does, but when he wakes in the morning he’s surprised to find Lisa has already left. Alice is still with him, though. Lisa’s note says that she’ll meet them at the Empire State Building later, but she doesn’t show there, either.
Soon Philip gets a message that Lisa will not be coming with him on the plane, and she hopes he’ll still take Alice back to Germany. She says she’ll join him in a day or two. Unsure exactly what to do, the only way forward seems to be to get on the plane with the young Alice. After waiting around the airport for a few days, Philip knows that Lisa is not coming. He’s stuck with this little girl, and she’s stuck with him.
When he realizes that he has to leave, he asks Alice where they can find her family. She has a grandmother, she says, but she doesn’t remember where she lives. They have only a photograph of the grandmother’s home. They set off to find it. There’s really nothing else they can do.
Wenders has said that the film was inspired by Peter Handke’s experiences as a single parent as well as Handke’s own road trip around the United States, featured in Short Letter, Long Farewell (which you can pick up in a NYRB Classics edition). Handke himself would step in to help write the script for the next movie in the trilogy.
Wrong Move is an adaptation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering Years, and it stars Rüdiger Vogler as Wilhelm Meister, an aspiring writer who leaves his home to travel across Germany by train.
On his train ride he meets a couple of poor people who cannot afford their trip — Mignon (Nastassja Kinski) and Laertes (Hans Christian Blech) — but he also meets the beautiful Therese, played by Hanna Schygulla (another reason I was looking forward to this set was to see Hanna Schygulla again after loving her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder).
Led by a poet (also aspiring), Wilhelm, Therese, and a couple of the other passengers disembark for a castle the poet says is owned by his uncle. He’s wrong. However, there arrival at the castle prevents a catastrophe . . . for a time, at any rate.
The whole trip, then, becomes a series of encounters in which volatility can be deferred only so long. None of the characters knows what road they are on. It’s the bleakest of the trilogy.
The last film in the trilogy bringing together the hopeless (but not Wenders’ last film to deal with such people — indeed, Philip Winter from Alice in the Cities will return in Wender’s oeuvre three more times) is a three-hour masterpiece. Kings of the Road is shot with confidence garnered from the success of the first two films. Here Wenders is unafraid to let the film go where it goes, with most of the film being scripted as it was shot.
Rüdiger Vogler returns once again, this time as Bruno Winter, a film projector repairman who in his travel circuit witnesses a man, Robert Lander (played by Hanns Zischler), drive his car into a lake. Lander is running away from his past, having recently separated from his wife. Not actually wanting to die, Robert joins Bruno on the road.
That’s just one story out of many that fills Kings of the Road, a film that is about the passage of time and the creation of stories. The lengthy running time is intimidating, but it fits and emphasizes the aimless pace Bruno and Robert adopt for the course of the film.
Going through this set is a journey in and of itself. It can at times feel a bit mundane, as any trip, but it’s also go the beauty of witnessing time pass while allowing the mind to explore and examine.