The other night I watched a film I hadn’t seen since those precious late-undergrad years when I wrote a paper on it for my German Cinema class: Alice in the Cities, the second full-length feature (after The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) by Wim Wenders, from 1974.
I went into it with apprehension, unsure if time or my own aging would do the movie good or harm. But there was no reason to worry—it’s a wonderful film.
The storyline is simple enough. Philip Winter, a German writer who’s spent 4 weeks driving from California to New York to write an article, is going home. He’s nearly broke, and has just been bawled out by his boss because after 4 weeks, already past his deadline, he’s got a box full of Polaroids but nothing written. Then, at the PanAm office he befriends a German woman also heading home, leaving her husband in New York and taking their 9 year old daughter, Alice.
The mother takes to Winter, and tells him how distraught her husband is about her leaving. She lets him stay at their hotel the night before the flight (which can only get them to Amsterdam due to a German airport-workers’ strike), and in the morning he wakes to a note asking him to bring Alice to the top of the Empire State Building at 1pm, where she’ll meet them after she’s done talking again to her husband.
Of course, she doesn’t make that meeting, and when they get back to the hotel she’s checked out, leaving a note that she’ll meet them in Amsterdam a day late.You can see where the story is going. Winter, a loner, finds himself in charge of this precocious child, going with her to Amsterdam, and then on a trek to find the girl’s grandmother in a town the girl can’t remember. It’s the relationship between the two (and the wonderful performance by the young Yella Rottländer) that keep this story moving so beautifully along.