Wim Wenders' "Road Trilogy:" Finding Significance in the Day-to-Day
Ever since I saw Paris, Texas (1984) last year, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Everything about that movie is perfect to me: the casting choices (especially Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, and Dean Stockwell), the subversion of western tropes, the haunting score of slide guitars from Ry Cooder, and of course, the cinematography was some of the best I had seen from any movie.
Paris, Texas (1984)
I really couldn’t fathom that a real person had made that movie; it seemed almost mythological to me. Wim Wenders, with his knack for pacing and direction, had made the perfect road movie. After that, he would go on to make Wings of Desire (1987), another poignant movie widely lauded by critics and specifically the Cannes Film Festival that year. Paris and Wings certainly highlight Wenders’s expertise in emotional storytelling and creativity, but I wanted to know how he got to those two movies. So, I decided to check out his “Road Trilogy'' on the Criterion Channel, three films connected by theme and casting which pioneered both the genre of road films and Wenders' own filmography.
Alice in the Cities (1974)
In this beautifully shot and incredibly relaxing movie, Rüdiger Vogler (the recurring lead actor in all three movies) plays Phillip Winter, a disillusioned journalist traveling across the United States but coming up short on discovering anything meaningful. He reflects on his Polaroids and still feels empty in the wide-open landscapes of America that he’s been capturing. His luck swiftly changes as he comes across another German woman, Lisa, and more specifically, her daughter Alice (played by 9-year old Yella Rottländer), who ultimately becomes the responsibility of Winter when Lisa must leave to deal with personal matters.
The two are left to fend for themselves as they make their way from New York City to Amsterdam to the Ruhr Valley. The last hour is pretty much what anyone who’s seen Logan and Paper Moon would expect: initial reluctance from Winter to take care of Alice, and then Alice proving that despite her naivety, her wisdom and fun nature is exactly what Winter needs for fulfillment (as Alice also needs his compassion as a stand-in-father-figure). The two bond through crossword puzzles on the road, sarcastic insults, and swimming.
Eventually, a cop locates the duo, informing them that the police have found Lisa. The two are expectably reluctant to leave each other. However, the movie doesn’t end with them crying and hugging each other; rather, they open the window of the last train car they’re on to enjoy their final time together on the road. Alice in the Cities has proven to be influential for the road movie trope of the two main characters fitting the “stoic father figure” and “creative and sagacious child” archetypes. Also, the film starts to hint at Wenders' fascination with the USA, seen side-by-side with his home nation of Germany, which viewers are able to see in both the subtextual criticisms of American culture in Paris, Texas and the blending of cultural worlds with Peter Falk’s cameo appearance as a former angel in Wings of Desire.
The Wrong Move (1975)
I’m still trying to decide how I feel about The Wrong Move. Vogler plays the lead once again, this time as Wilhelm Meister, a self-harming writer encouraged by his mother to “go out and live.” With not much else to do, he goes on a journey through Germany alongside quirky characters including an Austrian poet, a mute acrobat, and an actress until they arrive at the castle of a suicidal German elitist. When the castle owner hangs himself shortly after, the party rushes out, and conflicts arise due to communication errors, sexual frustration, and moral differences. Finally, Wilhelm leaves the party to climb the Zugspitze (the tallest mountain in Germany) and contemplates his journey to determine whether or not it was the “wrong move.”
I enjoyed the eclectic group of characters and of course, the long shots of Germany were splendid, but I don’t know what else captivated me. The Wrong Move stands out as being the angstiest of Wenders' movies that I’ve seen. Nothing feels resolved, and the character dynamics are melodramatic to the point of immaturity. If the movie does anything successfully, it is the way that it puts the viewer in the mind of their characters, leading to them acknowledging their own insecurities. At the very least, The Wrong Move provides a cautionary tale about terrible coping mechanisms. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie, this one would definitely be the “wrong move.”
Indirectly, however, I still think it has an indirect influence on the culture of road movies. The impulsivity of the characters reminds me of those in American Honey, a movie that I love and think captures a sense of questionable morality and maladaptive behavior in a way that’s much more entertaining and meaningful than Wenders' second outing in the trilogy. The Wrong Move is fine, but it can be seen as the black sheep of the trilogy, and the most disconnected of the three films.
Kings of the Road (1976)
The final installment of the trilogy is long, emotional, and epic, clocking in at just under three hours. Vogler plays another Winter, this time a film projector technician by the name of Bruno who lives in a van. One day, Bruno sees Robert Lander, a depressed recent bachelor, trying to drown himself by driving into a lake. Bruno saves his life, and the two strike up a friendship. He and Robert (who has been nicknamed Kamikaze by Winter) travel along the border of West and East Germany to fix movie theaters. The character run-ins, as you can imagine, are abundant, and in Kings, they include a widower who recently lost his wife to suicide, an ex-Nazi theatre owner haunted by his past, and Robert’s father, who is reprimanded by his son for the way he dealt with his marriage. After opening up to each other and fighting over talk of sex and romantic relationships, the two men part ways and move on with their lives.
I really enjoyed Kings, and I see it as The Grapes of Wrath of Wenders’s filmography due to both its length and grandiose scope. It contains both my favorite scene and my favorite quote from the whole trilogy. The scene is when Bruno and Robert are trying to fix a projector behind a film screen for an audience of children when a maintenance worker turns on a light, revealing their shadows. Instead of showing embarrassment, Bruno and Robert go full Marx brothers and play with the shadows to put on a show for the jovial children, complete with shadow puppets and slapstick. Compared to the otherwise existential drabness of this film and its themes, that scene is a beacon, figuratively and literally, shining with hope. You see that kind of optimism juxtaposed with the dreary nature of Wenders’s stories in the endings of both Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, which give some sense of buoyancy, rather than drowning, of the respective characters in their otherwise harsh settings of an unforgiving American South or hopeless Cold-War-era Berlin. The aforementioned quote also explores this idea, coming from the widower through his tears: “Life is all there ever is, death doesn’t really exist.”
Overall, I have mostly positive feelings about Wenders' “Road Trilogy.” Their plots and scripts feel like real-life road trips: messy, impulsive, and like they were made “on-a-Wim” (sorry, I had to). However, that sense of sporadicity contributes to the authenticity of the genre and Wenders' filmography. Like humanity, this trilogy thrives on its imperfections and irregularities. People don’t have control over things that happen to them, but they do have the ability to pave their own roads and give those challenges meaning.
The "Road Trilogy" is streaming on the Criterion Channel.