Travel writer and journalist, Philip (Rüdiger Vogler), is suffering from writer’s block. He has no clear idea of where to take his article on the United States as seen from a European eye and has instead taken snapshots of his travels on a polaroid camera. ‘They never really show what it was you saw,’ laments a Philip who could just as well have been talking about his article.
I’m not sure what the societal inclination was to child safety back in the 1970s, needless to say, Alice in the Cities has a plot that is almost unthinkable to 21st century sensibilities. Philip decides to go back to Germany to complete his feature and befriends a mother and daughter also heading home. On the day of the flight, the mother mysteriously disappears and leaves Philip in sole care of Alice (Yella Rottländer), assuring the newly acquired baby sitter that she will meet them at the connecting flight in Amsterdam. Of course, she never turns up and Philip decides to help Alice find her grandmother in Germany
It is an odd movie that drifts just like its two main characters. There is no real dramatic tension or high-point in that regard – even the crucial plot point that brings Philip and Alice together isn’t quite as dramatic as it reads. It just sort of…happens and the film continues on.
And while it feels sometimes a little too adrift, Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottländer give terrific, natural performances – Rottländer turns in the sort of performance that seems as if it should not be achievable by a child. The same cannot be said for all the bit-part actors who look to be using every thespian bone in their bodies to not look awkwardly at the camera.
The search for identity and purpose runs quietly and profoundly in all aspects of Alice in the Cities. Philip seems detached until his union with Alice gives him renewed drive. But this is also evident in Wenders’s exploration of the homogenisation of European and American culture in which the latter has bulldozed its way into the consciousness of the former. Coca Cola products and advertising litter restaurants and streets, and American music and television has made its way into European homes.
Alice in the Cities is an enigmatic, confidently told road movie. (7)