Musical leitmotifs play a central role in Wim Wenders’s “Road Trilogy,” acting as both mood-setters and structural backbones. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alice in the Cities, which contains in one track, an arpeggiated acoustic guitar and synthesizer loop banged out in an afternoon by German krautrock group Can, the entire methodology and temperament of what would become a philosophically linked series of films. In musical-theory terms, the piece drones on an Aeolian modal chord and never settles on the root, creating a suspended sense of irresolution and uncertainty that aptly sets the stage for the 1974 film’s meandering dramatic trajectory, as well as its ultimate view of life as a series of chance encounters without a clear end point.
The unlikely meeting of journalist Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) and pre-pubescent Alice (Yella Rottländer) is one such encounter, and their ensuing camaraderie develops serendipitously. The former finds the latter in a New York airport after being abandoned by her mother, and somewhere along the way Philip’s mission to document America by endlessly snapping Polaroids yields to a duty to escort Alice to her grandmother in Europe. The age gap between them affords Wenders ample opportunity to exercise his proclivity for sentimentality, such as a vignette of silly face-making at a photo booth, but what makes Alice in the Cities so noteworthy is the tender, lifelike rapport cultivated between Vogler and Rottländer.
Rottländer, despite (or perhaps because of) her young age, brings a charming spontaneity to Wenders’s on-the-nose dialogue and a buoyancy to offset the overcast monochrome of his images. Late in the film, in an emblematic scene whose languid pace is dictated by the duration of a song (Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again”) playing on a nearby jukebox, Alice admits that their European excursion up to this point has been based on a lie regarding her grandmother’s residence. The plot turn serves to justify Wenders’s aimless storytelling, but Rottländer sells it; she’s never less than wholly convincing as a plucky little girl making the most of peculiar circumstances.
A performer with Rottländer’s remarkable casualness is absent from Wrong Move, a platform for philosophical discourse that wrangles together a ragtag bunch on a cross-country pilgrimage whose destination ends up being just “somewhere in a crowd.” Here, Wenders’s penchant for schematics takes over, with each character rendered an ideological instrument through stilted dialogue. Vogler’s gloomy writer is the narrative’s center, belaboring a studied dejection with lines like “How can a person write if he’s alienated from politics?” Hans Christian Blech’s former Olympic sprinter and Peter Kern’s portly poet join the fray with their own verbose pontificating, while Nastassja Kinski’s speechless bohemian fills her time doing cartwheels and juggling dinner rolls so that Wenders can stress her free-spiritedness. Rounding out the cast of caricatures with a dash of humanity is Hannah Schygulla’s earthy actress, who rightly quips that Vogler’s “detached pose is quite ridiculous.”
Along the way, they cross paths with a man fresh off a suicide attempt in his lonely country mansion and various loonies who shout obscenities and carry out random violence in the distance, all while a chintzy minor-key piano-and-synth ditty thrums in the background. The point of the trip is for Vogler’s character to invigorate his creative impasse; the rest just don’t seem to have anything better to do but trail this emotionally unavailable mope. Discussions revolve to an absurd degree around the dialectic of passivity and participation in life, art, and politics (the script is by Peter Handke by way of Goethe), and everyone walks exceedingly slowly alongside a tracking camera.
Wenders seems at peace with the film’s distancing elements, twice even showing a television set beaming out a static signal as if to call attention to the film’s dramatic sine wave, but his self-awareness doesn’t compensate for the undercooked ideas or alleviate the sluggish tempo. When Vogler’s arbitrarily presented with a Super 8 camera at a train stop in the film’s closing moments by a pair of silent buffoons, it’s the obvious, belated punchline to a narrative that’s been treading water around the rather banal aesthetic lesson that to observe non-judgmentally is to create purely.
Wrong Move does boast the lovely muted color cinematography of Robby Müller, and when switching to black and white in the context of Kings of the Road’s improvisatory noodling, the cameraman is again the star. Working in the rolling expanses of the West German countryside, Müller further exercises the Antonioni-esque compositional tactics for which Wenders already showed a fondness. Figures are framed from a distance on a wide-angle lens against enormous landscapes, the high contrast transforming tableaus into minimalist displays of shape and line. On this score, Kings of the Road is an essential catalogue of the look and feel of rural Germany in the 1970s; even a rundown roadside bratwurst shack has a pristine design sense behind it.
Even more than Wrong Move, however, Kings of the Road is held together only by the husks of storytelling ideas, with the ballooned running time doing little to conceal this void. This time, the central driving expedition straddles the border between West Germany and the then newly formed German Democratic Republic, a liminal region as barren as the film’s two aloof protagonists. The trip runs on the romanticized assumption that a film projector repairman could cut a living in 1976 lending his services every now and then to single-screen theaters in ghost towns.
The handyman in question is the overalls-clad Bruno (Vogler), who’s cleaning up bushy ’stache when Robert (Hanns Zischler) drives himself into a river nearby. The suicide attempt fails, thus paving the way for a rebirth on the road that begins with the inexplicably wordless meeting of the two characters. There’s not one naturalistic salutation between two strangers in the entire trilogy, but at least this one isn’t inaugurated by a recitation of poetry.
Backstories are unhurriedly shaded in: Robert’s recent split with his wife echoes his estranged father’s bad habits with women, and Bruno has his own struggles with intimacy. But character study takes a backseat to a threadbare travelogue with these unsociable ciphers as our guides. Whenever Wenders does attempt conventional dramaturgy, as in a prolonged sequence detailing the excruciating reunion of Robert and his father, dialogue is stiff and chemistry low—which is surprising for a film shot without a script. As in Wrong Move, the little drama that does exist is a transparent front for Wenders’s thematic concerns, in this case the decline of movie-going culture, the loneliness of man, and Germany’s indeterminate historical position.
What’s left to glue all these mannered vignettes together is the score, a gorgeous slide-guitar ballad by Improved Sound Limited that weaves in and out of the film in much the same way that a particular album might routinely accompany a long road trip with a friend. It’s in this spirit that the films in the “Road Trilogy” are constructed, and it’s as lovingly photographed time capsules of off-the-beaten-path ’70s locales that they occasionally succeed.
The visual transfer of Kings of the Road must be considered one of Criterion’s finest to date: Though the film was mostly shot in even daylight, the gradations in the countryside recall a Caspar David Friedrich painting, with each blade of wheat sharp, each glimmer in bodies of water unspoiled, and each cloud of fog almost tangible. That’s not to say the other films suffer by comparison, only that their virtues are different. Alice in the Cities offers a rich grain structure that makes the image resemble charcoal, and Wrong Move’s colors are deep, with the dimly lit nocturnal scenes especially impressive. The films’ sound mixes are relatively sparse, filled mostly by pastoral ambience and music, so it’s not unexpected that quality here is equally strong.
Wenders isn’t exactly a stand-up comedian, but it’s amusing to listen to him recall shooting one of Kings of the Road’s scenes while drunk, or refer to Rüdiger Vogler’s "sausage" in his thick German accent. Elsewhere in the hour-long interview directed and conducted by fellow filmmaker Michael Almereyda, he remembers the technical challenges of pushing a car up a hill to act as a dolly, his experiences at Cannes premiering Kings of the Road, and the unique practice of shooting a film in transit. Similarly thorough are the interviews with Yella Rottländer, Lisa Kreuzer, Hanns Zischler, and Rüdiger Vogler, the last of whom recalls almost losing his job (and, by extension, his role as spiritual center of the trilogy) to Jean-Pierre Léaud in Wrong Move. These handsomely shot talking-head interviews are the main event of this box set, but also of note are the Super 8 behind-the-scenes footage from Wrong Move, outtakes from Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, a mini-doc clarifying the work undergone by the Wim Wenders Foundation in restoring these films, a pair of Wenders’s short films that lay down some of the visual strategies employed in the "Road Trilogy," and a booklet of typically passionate essays interspersed with photo collages from the shoots.
Criterion delivers a robust package for Wim Wenders’s "Road Trilogy," a breakthrough moment in the New German Cinema, if not exactly an unqualified artistic triumph.