Alice in den Städten
Wim Wenders, Federal Republic of Germany, 1974, Les Acacias
As the sequence starts a young girl and a man are having a conversation in the front seats of a small car. Despite the fact that they hardly know each other, Philip, the driver, has agreed to help Alice find her grandmother, who she thinks lives in the Ruhr. While the names of the places mentioned – the Rhine, Duisburg, the Ruhr – bring back childhood memories for Philip, they inspire nothing more than word games for the little girl (Essen means ‘to eat’ in German). They pay scarce little attention to the landscapes that they travel through, which we see whizzing past the window.
Having arrived at their destination their investigation proves somewhat fruitless. Neither the two old people, sitting on the bench – enigmatic guardians of a bygone era, nor the children who they meet further along seem to recognize the house in the photographs. These photos, along with the little girl’s vague memories are the only clues available to guide their search.
We see a mix of shots tracking across the spaces, alternated with shots on Alice’s face. These are landscapes that “say nothing” to him about his own past, but are charged with other mysteries, and other stories – who lived in these huge ruined and abandoned houses that are soon to be demolished? What are these strange, scrubby, liminal spaces of wasteland and abandoned railways? There investigations soon take on more than one dimension as they wander through a land where time has stopped still. There’s Alice’s enquiries and those of Philip, a journalist, in search of inspiration, trying to capture the mystery and essence of places through the filter of his camera. Choosing to have filmed in black and white, and with the arrival of music in the scene, mixed with the voices of characters that they’ve encountered, whose role, whether as extra or passer-by, as captured from moments of real life makes the quest feel elegiac and sad. The director, like the audience, chooses to take a bit of distance from their original objective, that of trying to find the family of the little girl. The little car becomes an improbable space for the characters to meet and get to know each other, this man and little girl not linked together by any family ties, who slowly tame to each other in the heart of this strange road movie.