THE ROAD TRILOGY (1974-1976, Wenders)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray Box Set, Release Date May 31, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long
I wish I could come up with a more passionate argument for Wim Wenders' last few decades worth of feature film output than the claim that “Don't Come Knocking” wasn't completely terrible. But that's all I got. Still, I feel protective of the former New German Cinema titan when critics take too much pleasure in celebrating his decline. “Quite possibly Europe's worst working filmmaker?” C'mon, there's always Gaspar Noe.
Besides, “The Salt of the Earth” (2014) was kind of a knockout, even if it wasn't all Wenders. OK, maybe that doesn't quite make up for “The End of Violence” (1997) or the lingering horror of “The Million Dollar Hotel” (2000). Starting at “written by Peter Handke” and taking a detour to “based on a story by Bono” has got to be the most depressing road trip of all.
Of course, the man who directed “Paris, Texas” (1984) and “Wings of Desire” (1987) has nothing to make up for. Add in The Road Trilogy and you've earned lifelong bragging rights. Even if The Road Trilogy was only declared a trilogy after the fact by American critic Richard Roud and even if the middle film in the trilogy isn't nearly a match for the bookends (or even much of a road movie), this crowning achievement of Wenders' peak period is enough to secure a legacy, and also to make for one heck of a new box set from the Criterion Collection.
The Road Trilogy might not have been shot as an official trilogy, but the three films are united by several defining elements: Wenders' laconic, unhurried direction; the equally laconic Rudiger Vogler as lead actor; and spectacular cinematography from a young up-and-comer named Robby Muller. The trilogy is also suffused with bursts of American rock 'n roll and a lingering melancholy containing equal parts of fatalistic resignation and suppressed passion. And, of course, the road.
Vogler had never starred in a film before, but the trilogy is unthinkable without him. His piercing eyes perched above a thick, elongated nose could give him a sinister look in the right circumstances; in these films, he often seems lost in contemplation, if not outright wallowing in his own misery. Looking a little unkempt even when dressed neatly, he seems comfortable only in the transitory space of the road. This isn't a man who struggles into a tie and reports for the day shift.
In “Alice In The Cities” (1974),the first film in the trilogy and also the film that served as a breakout for Wenders on the international festival circuit, Vogler plays Phillip Winter, a German journalist assigned to write a story about America. Driving along the east coast from one neon-drenched motel room to another, Phillip finds himself unable to articulate his experience, producing only a series of Polaroid snapshots which also provide insufficient insight because the picture “never shows what you just saw.” His New York-based editor has even less use for the Polaroids and banishes Phillip back to Germany for missing his deadline.
At the airport, Winter meets a mother (Lisa Kreuzer) and her eight-year-old daughter Alice (Yella Rottlander), also planning to limp back to Germany after an emotionally and financially draining experience in America. The emigres join forces, but soon mom leaves to attend to unfinished business in the Big Apple, asking this new stranger to bring Alice back to Amsterdam (they can't fly to Germany because of a labor strike) where mom will meet them in a few days.
You can probably guess that mom doesn't show on schedule, prompting the film's main action. Phillip finds himself both in charge of the precocious girl and also entirely in her thrall as he must rely on her strands of faulty memory to try to reunite her with her European relatives. In a rented car, the unlikely couple (more big brother-little sister than father-daughter) crawl along cramped streets in German towns and cities looking for Alice's grandmother's house and slowly bonding even as the independent spirits grow increasingly irritated with each other's presence.
Vogler shifts effortlessly from sullen to sunny, all modulated by an inner grief. Phillip is moody, but also kind and he is genuinely fond of Alice even though, as a man of the road, he's not much for responsibilities or burdens. Vogler also deploys his marvelous wry smile to great strategic effect. Alice is more than Phillip's equal, one of the most fully realized little girls cinema has ever produced. In one early scene, Phillip pretends to blow out the lights on the Empire State Building. Little Alice is initially amazed by this bit of magic, then spies Phillip's watch, vaguely suspecting the truth: he was just waiting for midnight. She is clever and petulant, projecting a confidence beyond her years in one moment, then retreating to the bathroom to cry in the next. Rottlander, only seven at the time, is so good it's hard to believe she would only play one more film role.
Europe winds up looking an awful lot like America with another series of motel rooms (less neon though) and the idiot drone of “barbarous television” dominating spaces not lucky enough to be graced with a jukebox, always a holy relic for Wenders and almost always playing American rock or blues. One of the miracles of the film is that while the sights we see are often shabby, they spark to life in luminous black-and-white photography by Robby Muller, then in the early stages of one of the greatest careers of the modern era, one shamelessly unrecognized by a clueless Academy. In a shot that has no business being so gorgeous, Phillip pulls back the curtains on a window to reveal a neon tableau: a gaudy, giant arrow pointing to the sign for the Skyway Motel. It looks like a lost Edward Hopper painting: “Room By The Highway.”
Where “Alice” presented life on the road as a decidedly low-budget affair, “Kings of the Road” (1976) traces a route through the no-frills apocalypse of the present: abandoned gas stations, worm-eaten roadside food stands, monochromatic landscapes devoid of signs of human life. Did anyone ever live in this place?
Bruno Winter (Vogler again) is a traveling film projectionist who wrestles his oversized truck along West German roads bordering their eastern cousin (faraway, so close) in order to wrestle equally oversized projectors into working order for one more night of providing light and shadow plays to sparse, disinterested audiences hoping for porn. Here, size truly matters. These glorious projectors are hulking machines made of metal and they contain fire! Yes, film used to be a tangible object with weight and volume and heat and power, nothing downloadable here. Ah well. Made forty years ago, Wenders' film was already bemoaning the slow death of cinema as a communal event; today it's a eulogy for a friend long since buried, yet remembered every single day.
The ambitionless Bruno can't even be bothered to wear much more than a pair of farmer's overalls most days, but a semblance of structure enters his peripatetic existence when he witnesses a Volkswagen Beetle plunging headfirst into the Elbe River. The driver calmly gathers his suitcase and tromps back to shore while Bruno watches idly. This soggy soul is Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler), just as lost as Bruno, though for different reasons that will eventually become clear despite Bruno's rejection of any attempts to provide backstory (smart man, that Bruno.)
For nearly three hours, Bruno and Robert trudge along through more immaculately grubby Muller black-and-white landscapes. If it seems they have no purpose in mind, perhaps that's because Wenders shot without a script, or at least no script aside from a map of Germany with a few small towns marked off, the only ones that still had theaters. The tiny film crew lived and traveled together, shooting whatever they passed on the road, often with dialogue written shortly before each day's shoot.
Vogler and Zischler develop the easy chemistry so essential to the road movie, playing off each other while also maintaining their own trajectories. Both of their lives are partially defined by the absence of women, with missing mothers as crucial as unavailable lovers. They won't really solve any of their problems – who ever does? But, yeah, they learn a few lessons from their time together, not the least being that there's a little more compassion in the world than a self-absorbed cynic is keen to acknowledge.
Did I skip over the middle entry in the trilogy? It's a little tough to describe. “Wrong Move” (1975) is one of those movies. You know the kind. One of those movies where the main character meets a guy on a train and that guy always has a nosebleed and plays the harmonica and he travels with a mute acrobat girl. And then they all meet a really bad poet who takes them to visit his uncle except he goes to the wrong house but that's OK because the guy who lives at this random house was about to commit suicide and he likes to deliver long monologues about loneliness and then one of them turns out to have been a Nazi. You know, one of those movies.
Writer James Robison argues eloquently in favor of “Wrong Move” in his essay in the accompanying Criterion booklet, but not enough to sway my feelings about this exasperating and tedious exercise in seemingly random behavior. The great playwright Peter Handke, a longtime Wenders friend and collaborator, adapted the script very, very loosely from Goethe's bildungsroman “Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.” Both Robison (in his essay) and Wenders (in an interview on the disc) explain that Handke actually wrote an antithesis to Goethe's story about a young writer who goes on a journey of self-realization, constructing instead a journey that doesn't change the main character in the slightest. Leaving home was the first of many “wrong moves” for our hapless non-hero.
Fair enough, but the characters are so thinly drawn and their behavior and dialogue so infuriatingly arbitrary it's difficult to take anything or anyone seriously, though I must confront the distinct possibility that the film is operating on a wavelength I simply don't receive. In any case, Vogler is back as the lead and we are treated both to the radiant Hanna Schygulla in a supporting role and a 13-year-old Nastassja Kinski (who could easily pass for 20) making her film debut as the aforementioned acrobat. So that's something. Maybe I would have liked it more if it wasn't the only part of the trilogy shot in color. I'm trying hard here.
I won't end on a sour note. The bookends to this unofficial trilogy are simply spectacular, some of the finest works the New German Cinema ever produced, and two of the best road movies of all time. That's more than enough to recommend the box set, and also to secure Wenders' place in world cinema in perpetuity. As long he doesn't work with Bono again.
As explained both in print and some of the features on the discs, many of Wenders' early films survived in a very perilous state. He also lost ownership of some of the negatives in an unfortunate business venture, so the process to restore them, headed by the Wim Wenders Foundation, he been an extensive and desperately needed project.
The negative for “Alice In The Cities,” for example, was so badly cracked and warped it had to be entirely digitally restored with some scenes in the original 16 mm negative supplemented by a later 35 mm duplicate.
Having said all that, it's amazing how great these restored transfers look. All three films are presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratios. For “Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road” this means they are shown in their original aspect ratio. In the case of “Alice” this means both a change and a return to the director's vision: it was released in 1.37:1 as mandated by the company that commissioned the film, but Wenders and Muller always framed for 1.66:1.
All three films look great with these new digital restorations. “Alice” and “Kings” both feature sharp contrast in the rich black-and-white imagery, appropriately grainy throughout. Image detail is sharp, and the total package is a completely immersive experience. Amazing considering how damaged the original negatives were. “Wrong Move” shows off a warm but unobtrusive color palette with crystal clear image quality.
“Alice” gets a linear PCM Mono track, the other two films arrive with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks. Lossless audio is crisp and robust for all three films, though obviously not too dynamic on “Alice.” Optional English subtitles support the German audio. For “Alice” and “Kings” you can choose a second subtitle option which provides English subs for the German commentary track.
Each film is housed in a separate keepcase, all three of which are tucked alongside the thick insert booklet into a cardboard box that houses the set.
Each film is accompanied by a commentary track, though none of them are new to this set. “Alice In The Cities” has a German-language commentary (with optional English subtitles) featuring Wenders, Vogler, and Yella Rottlander. It was originally recorded in 2009. “Wrong Move” comes with a 2002 commentary by Wenders. “Kings of the Road” gets a 2005 German commentary (with optional English subtitles) by Wenders.
The “Alice In The Cities” disc also offers a 15-minute feature titled “Restoring Time” in which Wenders explains the project of the Wim Wenders Foundation. Restoring the negative was labor-intensive enough, but on films like “The Goalie's Anxiety At The Penalty Kick” (1972) they had to record new music because they couldn't clear rights to the old songs.
The disc also includes a lengthy Interview feature (2016, 27 min) combining interviews with Vogler, Rottlander, and Lisa Kreuzer. The most interesting bit is Rottlander explaining how Wenders would find a way to combine play with work in dealing with his child star. There are also 16 mintues of Outtakes and On-Set Footage though none of it is particularly revealing.
We also get two early short films by Wenders. “Same Player Shoots Again” (1967, 12 min.) repeats the same two-minute shot five times, each time with a different color tint. Wenders explains that the structuring principle was that of a pinball player who gets to shoot five balls. “Silver City Revisited” (1968, 33 min.) is most interesting for its soundtrack, which employs long stretches of scratchy near-silence with occasional musical outbursts. Wenders was recording directly from some old records in the attic of his film school. The visuals move between busy city streets and deserted rural roads with a guest appearance by The Rolling Stones.
The “Wrong Move” disc features a lengthy interview with Wenders, conducted by filmmaker Michael Almereyda (2016, 64 min.) Wenders discusses the entire trilogy as well as some of his other work, including how he turned his disappointment with his adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” (1973) into the success of “Alice.” Wenders is quite revealing here, and tells a phenomenal story about the surprising, pivotal role a generous Samuel Fuller played in convincing Wenders to stick with “Alice” when he wanted to abandon it.
The disc also includes another interview (2016, 22 min.) with Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer and some Super-8 Footage shot on the set of “Wrong Move” (4 min.)
The “Kings of the Road” disc includes yet another lengthy interview (2016, 31 min.) with Vogler, Zischler, and Kreuzer. This was my favorite of the interviews as they talk about the intimate experience they and the crew had living together on the road for more than two months while shooting a film nobody knew much about. The final extra is another 21 minutes of Outtakes and On-Set Footage – nothing surprising here, though some footage of Wenders and Muller playing around on set is neat.
The square-bound insert booklet includes an overview of the trilogy by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and essays on each film by, respectively, filmmaker Allison Anders, writer James Robison, and writer Nick Roddick.
I think we can all agree this review is long enough already. You like a good road movie? This is where to look.