Alice in the Cities

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Alice in the Cities
Phil winter.jpg
Directed by Wim Wenders
Produced by Peter Genée
Joachim von Mengershausen
Written by Wim Wenders
Veith von Fürstenberg (de)
Starring Rüdiger Vogler
Yella Rottländer
Music by Can
Cinematography Robby Müller
Edited by Peter Przygodda
Distributed by Axiom Films (UK and Ireland)
Release dates
  • 1974 (1974)
Running time
110 minutes
Country West Germany
Language German

Alice in the Cities (German: Alice in den Städten) is a 1974 German road movie directed by Wim Wenders. This was the first part of Wenders' "Road Movie Trilogy" which included The Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976). The film is shot in black and white by Robby Müller with several long scenes without dialogue. The film's theme closely foreshadows Wenders' later film Paris, Texas.


German writer Philip Winter has missed his publisher's deadline for writing an article about the United States. He decides to return to Germany, and encounters a German woman, Lisa, and her daughter, Alice, who are both doing the same thing. After Lisa leaves Alice temporarily in Phil's care, it quickly becomes apparent that he will have to look after her for longer than he expected.[1] Phil finds himself stuck with Alice, searching various cities of Germany for her grandmother, whose name and address Alice cannot remember. The only clue they have is a photograph of her grandmother's front door with no house number and no one in the shot.



External video
Wim Wenders on Walker Evans, polaroids and road movies, 3:18, Museum of Modern Art

According to Wenders, Alice in the Cities, his fourth feature-length film, came at a major turning point when he was deciding whether to remain a filmmaker. He felt that his first two features were too heavily indebted to John Cassavetes and Alfred Hitchcock, while his third was an ill-advised adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Alice in the Cities was a conscious attempt to make something only he could do.[2]

The scenario of a young girl and a writer thrown together was inspired by his long-time collaborator Peter Handke's experience as a single parent.[3] The influence of Handke's 1972 novel Short Letter, Long Farewell, also featuring an alienated German-speaker travelling across the United States, can be inferred from the film's use of clips from John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, itself heavily referenced in the novel. The film can be seen as a response to Handke's novel.[4]

While Wenders was preparing Alice in the Cities, a friend took him to see Peter Bogdanovich's new film, Paper Moon. To his horror, the film appeared to be very similar to the one he was making, prompting him to call his production office and break the news that he was canceling the project, believing the film they were going to shoot "had already been made." Soon after, Wenders went to Samuel Fuller, who had invited him to come visit after a prior encounter in Germany. Wenders mentioned to Fuller that he had just cancelled a project, and upon finding out that Wenders had already secured the financing for the film, he convinced Wenders that it was a mistake. After a few hours of discussion, Wenders realized he could still proceed, albeit with some extensive rewrites to differentiate Alice in the Cities from Paper Moon, and he called his production office to tell them that the film was back on.[5]

Wenders and Robby Müller had hoped to shoot in 35 mm with the Arri BL, which had just come out at the time, but it was too difficult to get a hold of one, a common problem with newly issued cameras. Combined with their budgetary limitations, they were left with no other option than to switch to 16 mm. They filmed with a 1:1.66 wide-screen format, a common European format at the time, and drew it on the viewfinder. According to Wenders and Müller, that was the format they preferred, but due to television broadcast demands, they had to provide a 3:4 full frame format of the film, even though they never composed for it. This would create some problems in later years before everything was rectified with a definitive restoration in 2014.[6]

The film was shot close to chronological order beginning in North Carolina, proceeding to New York, then continuing in Amsterdam and finishing in Germany, all throughout the summer of 1973. As the film progressed, the production grew more confident about improvising each scene. Some parts, like certain hotel scenes and almost anything filmed in a car, closely followed the script due to logistical reasons, but by the end of the film, Wenders said they virtually ignored the script altogether.[7]

Licensing became an issue when Wenders tried to include footage he had shot of Chuck Berry in Frankfurt (presumably in late July 1973). The footage was important as it included a performance of Berry's classic song, "Memphis, Tennessee", where the singer is trying to re-connect with his daughter. According to Wenders, it was also an additional inspiration for the film, but Berry's camp demanded a clearance fee that they could not afford to pay. Instead, Wenders approached D.A. Pennebaker, who had footage of Berry singing the song from the concert that yielded Sweet Toronto. This became a viable workaround as licensing Pennebaker's footage (which they had to decolorize for the film) was substantially cheaper than clearing their own with Berry's camp.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

Philip French of the Observer calls Rottländer's performance as Alice "unforgettable". He goes on to say that the movie would not be able to be made today "partly because of the invention of the mobile phone, partly because of our obsessive fear of anything that might be interpreted as paedophilia."[9] Nora Sayre and Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times say that it is "a film with a great deal to say about Europe and America, about the exhaustion of dreams and the homogenization of nations, about roots and the awareness of time, about sterility and creativity, about vicarious and real adventure and, eventually, about the possibilities of the future."[10] In recent years, Jonathan Rosenbaum has hailed Alice in the Cities as one of Wenders' strongest works, calling it a pungent hybrid of European and American elements "with its effective broodings over American and German landscapes and their ambiguous photographic representations."[11]


The film was scored by the German band Can. When interviewed about the experience, Can's Irmin Schmidt stated that it was recorded by Schmidt, Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit and that they were not able to see the movie before recording the music. Instead, they went through a collaborative approach with Wenders, who was very short on time. It was all done in one day.[12]


  1. ^ Alice in the Cities at the Internet Movie Database
  2. ^ Post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Modern Art Tuesday March 3, 2015
  3. ^ King of the Road by Chris Petit in the Guardian Saturday January 5, 2008
  4. ^ Brady, Martin; Leal, Joanne (2011). Wim Wenders and Peter Handke: Collaboration, Adaptation, Recomposition. Amsterdam: Editions Ropodi. pp. 169–170. ISBN 978-90-420-3248-4. 
  5. ^ Post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Modern Art Tuesday March 3, 2015
  6. ^ Wenders' restoration notes from Wim Wenders Stiftung
  7. ^ Post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Modern Art Tuesday March 3, 2015
  8. ^ Post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Modern Art Tuesday March 3, 2015
  9. ^ French, Philip (5 January 2008). "Alice in the Cities". The Observer. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  10. ^ "Alice in the Cities (1974)". The New York Times. 9 October 1974. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  11. ^ "Wings of Desire (1987)". The Chicago Reader. 15 July 1988. Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  12. ^ "An Interview with CAN’s Irmin Schmidt". Screen Slate. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 

External links[edit]