However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbours and friends sometimes.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden


On Images

Alice in the Cities ends with a death, not of a central character, but of an age of cinema. As a train takes Alice back to her mother and Philip Winter towards some kind of redemption, a newspaper he is reading reports that John Ford has died. With him departed the cinema that informed Wim Wenders’ education in film.

Wenders is concerned with images and their meaning. Television has overburdened us with banality and the sales speak of round-the-clock advertising. We cannot see the world that exists around us. His fear of this loss is reflected in Winter’s inability to engage with his environment in any meaningful way.

Early in the film, Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln plays on the television in Winter’s hotel room. It appears emasculated by the size of the screen, less accommodated than the succession of advertisements that interrupt it and that lead Winter to destroy the set. His exasperation with the constant barrage of consumer-baiting imagery prompts a hiatus in his writer’s block and allows Wenders one of his most vehement attacks on American culture:

American Television is inhuman not because it’s all hacked-up with commercials, though that’s bad enough, but because, in the end, all programmes become commercials. Commercials for the status quo. Every image radiates the same disgusting, sickening message, a kind of boastful contempt. Every image wants something from you.

It is these images, Winter claims, that have robbed him of his ability to record the world around him. Unable to document his experiences in words, he has resorted to a Polaroid camera, but still fails to capture the essence of what he sees. If Alice succeeds in bringing him back into the world, it is a photograph she owns, of the house her grandmother once lived in, that restores his faith in the image and his ability to see. This image (like the photograph of the Mostar bridge by Josef Koudelka, in which an old image of the intact bridge is held in front of the remains of the same bridge, destroyed during the Balkan conflict) re-establishes the link between the recorded image and the real world, and finally allows Winter an emotional response to what he sees.

On Dreams

‘AMERICA’ always means two things:
a country, geographically, the USA,
and an idea of that country, the ideal that goes with it.
‘American Dream’, then, is:
a dream of a country
IN a different country,
That is located where the dream takes place.
The word ‘DREAM’ is ambiguous, too.
On the one hand it means
A regular ‘dreaming’, in your sleep,
And on the other, an ‘imagining’, ‘hoping’
In waking life,
Mostly of a better future.
Thus, the ‘American Dream’
Is doubly yearning, doubly removed.
- Wim Wenders, The American Dream

Dreams are present throughout Alice in the Cities. In his polaroids, Winter is attempting to capture that archetype, or dream, of America. His perception of the country more closely resembles that of Robert Frank and William Eggleston than the idealised world of Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post, or the famous men praised by Walker Evans and James Agee. The reasons for his inability to see are articulated by a friend and ex-lover:

You lose touch when you lose your sense of identity. And that is long gone. That’s why you always need proof, proof that you still exist.

The photographs were meant to be a way of re-asserting reality, but instead they keep Winter trapped in a different kind of dream, one in which he remains awake and aloof. In an early scene in the film, a young black boy asks Winter why he is being photographed, but fails to appear in the developed image. Winter concludes that ‘They never really show you what it was you saw’, unwilling to accept that he is dislocated from reality and that the photographs he takes do show the real world; a world he is unable to recognise.

Although Alice brings him in contact with the world once more, she is not immune to the dream-like effect of American culture. However, her dreams are distinct from her waking experience. In Amsterdam, she tells Winter of a funny dream she had:

I turned on the TV set and I sat down in a chair. I tied myself to it and then suddenly a scary movie came on. I couldn’t untie myself. I couldn’t turn off the TV. I couldn’t close my eyes either… So I had to watch the film.

This dream, or nightmare, could have been an actual experience for Alice in America. It is now a dream because she is no longer there (as she tells the story, Winter switches on a radio, not a television, which plays soothing music). For Wenders, throughout much of his work (and overtly referenced in films such as The End of Violence), the American Dream, whatever it may have represented in the past, is now the product of television. It is this medium that dictates each day what the collective dream should be.

On Music

The filming of The Scarlet Letter was hellish, but there was one short scene between Rüdiger Vogler and little Yella Rottländer, a very precious moment, when I said to myself that if the film was all like this it would be bliss. During the editing, I listened to Chuck Berry’s song Memphis. For most of the song the words give you the impression it’s about a woman, but just at the end you’re told he’s talking about a six-year-old girl. I said to myself: that scene with Rüdiger and little Yella, with this song over it, would make a film. Near the end of Alice in the Cities you see Philip Winter at a Chuck Berry concert and he’s singing Memphis.

Wim Wenders, ‘le soufflé de l’Ange’, in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 400, October 1987


The importance of music in Wim Wenders’ films is underlined by his brief appearance close to the beginning of Alice in the Cities. Winter stops at a beachside café to look at a Polaroid he has taken. In the background, Wenders chooses a song on the jukebox. Music – particularly rock ‘n’ roll – represents a form of communication whose power and emotional honesty is never questioned or compromised. It is frequently a sign of a character’s redemption or recovery.

Philip Winter finally looks at ease, even happy, at the Chuck Berry concert. Music allows communion with performers and between characters. Moreover, live music (Nick Cave and Lou Reed have also performed in Wenders’ films) offers the immediacy of experience that so many of Wenders’ characters crave.

Like Ry Cooder’s score for Paris Texas and Graeme Revell’s atmospheres for Until The End Of The World, the German group Can opt for a pared-down, minimalist accompaniment to Winter’s journeys. As with the film, the score has no beginning or end, no crescendo or epiphany. It just haunts the landscapes that Winter and Alice pass through, until the final, aerial shot, when the train carrying them disappears from the frame.

ALICE AND THE CITIES and many more Wim Wenders' titles are available on DVD and VOD through AX1 Films