Movie Review – Alice in the Cities

Alice in the Cities (1974)
Written & Directed by Wim Wenders

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. – “The Stolen Child,” W.B. Yeats

The world is Hell, and more so for children than anyone else. They are ultimately the most powerless of the humans on the planet, seen as property by their parents, animals to be tamed by systems of education, and future labor to be squeezed dry by our institutions. I was an elementary school teacher from 2010 to 2020 and saw the spectrum of joy & pain that children are forced to endure. I had homeless students, transient & ping-ponging between schools for years, raised by severely drug-addicted guardians, and subject to physical/sexual abuse. Wim Wenders, one of the great directors of late 20th century German cinema, thought a lot about what was heaped on the shoulders of children and, after adapting The Scarlet Letter years earlier, found he sympathized far more with Pearl, Hester Prynne’s daughter than he did any of the adults in the story. So he decided to cast the young actress who played Pearl in this next film, where he focuses on her experience.

Phillip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), a West German writer has been traveling the United States to write an article about its culture for a newspaper back home. He’s come to the end of his trip when we meet him in the film’s opening, meandering through the East Coast from Florida to New York City. He finds himself reviled by much of the country & is also experiencing a midlife crisis. Mostly he takes Polaroids of empty spaces, reflecting the hollow space he feels within himself. When Phillip can’t even provide part of a draft, his editor kicks him off the job, so the writer books a ticket back to Munich with a layover in Amsterdam. He meets Lisa, a fellow German trying to get home with her young daughter Alice (Yella Rottländer).

Phillip spends the night in Lisa & Alice’s hotel room only to wake up and find Lisa gone to ‘deal with the broken relationship’ that has sent her packing. She promises to meet Phillip and Alice at the airport that afternoon. Lisa never shows up but leaves a message that she will come a little later and meet them in Amsterdam. Phillip takes Alice into his care and ensures she is provided for while they wait for her mother in the Netherlands, only to have Lisa be a no-show when the date comes. Alice hides in the airport bathroom crying until a cleaning lady implores Phillip to go in and talk to her. Alice remembers a Grandmother, so Phillip starts listing German cities, and one stands out to the child. They make their way to Germany and, between driving around and mass transit, fail to locate the house. 

All the while, tension builds between this man and the little girl. He wants to return to his life, child-free, but also realizes nothing has much meaning anyway. There’s no job waiting for him in Munich, so what does it matter if he putters around Germany with this kid for weeks? The only thing that worries Phillip is his dwindling cash reserves, making eating and lodging tricky. Alice’s memories are understandably fuzzy and change daily, making things even more frustrating for the man. Yet, he can’t stay mad at Alice. She’s a sweet kid stuck in a shitty situation, so Phillip constantly finds moments to laugh with her and be silly. However, the closer they get to the final step of their journey, he begins to feel sadness about continuing his life without little Alice.

Over the course of ten years of teaching, I had approximately 180 students in my charge, just in my classroom. This doesn’t include children that came to my room for Intervention programs or after-school clubs. In my system, elementary teachers from 3rd grade (8-9-year-olds) and below taught all subjects. I made a concerted effort to get to know my students not just as receptacles of knowledge but as human beings in a critical development period. I ate lunch every day with my kids unless a headache or some ailment kept me from doing so, and most of those lunches were eaten in the cafeteria at the table with them. I was the only teacher to do this, and half the faculty saw me as admirable just as much as the other half viewed me as a weirdo. On Fridays, five students who had been outstanding that week would have lunch with me in my classroom, where we would watch age-appropriate YouTube videos, and each one would get something out of the treasure chest I kept. Of course, I ensured every student got included, even if they weren’t perfect all year. Now, two years removed from teaching, that is the part of my job that I miss, just talking with the kids, asking them questions, and hearing what they say about the world and themselves. 

Like dogs, we do not deserve children. We are jaded, angry people who seem to only take what these kids are born with and stomp on it until it resembles our own rotten hearts. This doesn’t mean children are cherubic bundles of innocence. No, children can hold some of the coldest cruelty in their hearts, and there is undoubtedly a hierarchy imposed even within their group. Where I came from, boys were also valued more than girls. Girls were expected to become “good, subservient, Christian wives” who did as their future husbands told them. Fathers were essentially owners of their daughters’ virginities and would hand them over to a man one day who asked them, not their daughters, for permission. As much as we like to think we’ve progressed in the West, we are mere footsteps away from the apes we descended from.

The American media is terrified to present a child as a whole human being. To make the public view a child as a complicated collection of aspects would break down the oppressive structures everything is built upon. Wim Wenders manages to get a performance out of Yella Rottländer that is unlike any you’ve seen in an American film. This is not a child performing precociousness for the collective “awww” of the audience, but a little girl who doesn’t know what happens next in her life. She is dragged along by adults who often don’t care to ask her what she thinks. It doesn’t surprise me that Wenders drew much inspiration in this period from the domestic slide of life family dramas directed by the great Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu also refused to see children as props in a scene but fully realized human beings.

One of the most critical scenes in the film in understanding how Alice sees the world comes early on when Phillip pretends to blow out the lights on the Empire State Building. This is achieved because he knows the time when they shut them off. Alice gasps at first but quickly changes her tune, which we know when she asks to see his watch. She’s no dummy. She knows what is happening and how adults often lie to children to create a false air of magic. The photos the duo take together in a photo booth while putzing around Amsterdam are treasured by Alice. Unlike Phillip’s shots of the void, these are scenes of two people enjoying each other’s company. Alice bristles when Phillip seeks the attention of a woman they meet in the park, not because Alice sees Phillip in a sexual way, but because she’s used to her mother’s pattern of pursuing lovers and Alice being dragged along. 

When Phillip and Alice leave us, their journey is coming to an end as they ride a train to Munich, where someone waits to pick up the girl; we are filled with melancholy. Phillip truly takes her in, and we know his thoughts. He understands this child is returning to a world where her thoughts, needs, and questions will be secondary to some oblivious adult. Phillip won’t let himself cry in front of her, but are we so dense to think Alice doesn’t feel the sadness vibrating off him? She knows, but what can she do? Alice is a little kid, and this is her lot in life until it won’t be. Then she’ll be another adult drifting in the world, looking for some meaningful connection with someone. Alice is not a character suspended in the adult gaze but a fully-realized person separate from what you or I might perceive. 

I think a lot about the world my kids, my former students, are inheriting. I think about how a lot of them never experience the feeling of being loved & cared for. I hope they can find a way in this sad, broken place. I have been fortunate to keep in touch with a small number of them, but there are many more I will be haunted by until the last breath leaves my body one day. I will be left wondering if they made it if they found a way through the mess, if they are loved and able to love those around them. I can’t ever really know, but I will never stop thinking about them. All I can do is stand true to what I believe in and try to shape the world in the small ways I can to make it better for them.


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