Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy

by Glenn Erickson May 16, 2016

A major talent of the New German Cinema finds his footing out on the open highway, in a trio of intensely creative pictures that capture the pace and feel of living off the beaten path. All three star Rüdiger Vogler, an actor who could be director Wim Wenders’ alter ego.

Wim Wenders’ The Road Trilogy
The Criterion Collection 813
1974-1976 / B&W and Color / 1:66 widescreen / 113, 104, 176 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date May 30, 2016 / 99.95
Starring Rüdiger Vogler, Lisa Kreuzer, Yetta Rottländer; Hannah Schygulla, Nasstasja Kinski, Hans Christian Blech, Ivan Desny; Robert Zischler.
Robby Müller, Martin Schäfer
Film Editor Peter Przygodda, Barbara von Weltershausen
Original Music CAN, Jürgen Knieper, Axel Linstädt.
Directed by Wim Wenders


This morning I ‘fessed up to never having seen David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Now I get to say that until now I’ve never seen Wim Wenders’ three ’70s films called ‘the road trilogy.’ Two of them played frequently in Los Angeles, more than early New German Cinema pictures by Fassbinder and others. I think I was put off by the thought of sitting in those uncomfortable Fox Venice Theater seats for three hours. Maybe I wasn’t ready for them. My taste at the time was for classic Hollywood pictures, being a self-anointed expert on American genres long before I saw enough of them to get a real handle on the subject.

That makes seeing Criterion’s new disc set of Wim Wenders’ The Road Trilogy a real treat, especially now that the pictures have been restored and remastered. I am rather disconcerted to find that Wenders’ has lost controlling ownership of them — at least, that’s the impression given in one of the commentaries — but happy that they’re all being refurbished. Criterion has already graced us with a terrific new encoding of The American Friend. With various distribution contracts expiring, I’m hoping that they’ll soon get around to the ultimate Wenders road picture, Until the End of the World.

Of the New German Cinema upstarts Wim Wenders was the least concerned with politics. But his films have an acute sense of his generation’s place in history. What he brings to the fore is an impassioned ability to create film drama without traditional theatrical underpinnings — the three road pictures are by turns partially scripted, heavily scripted and almost un-scripted, but what grabs us in each are moments where something ephemeral is captured — a behavioral reality that marries the actor to the scenery and to a wider context that we can’t see. The pretension factor is way down, especially when compared to a theatrical artist like Fassbinder. We’re aware of a binding humanism.

The main actor in each film is Rüdiger Vogler, a fellow with a slightly dour face and easygoing manner. Vogler played a variation on the same character in at least five Wenders films, and took the name ‘Philip Winter’ in four of them. Wenders’ male characters have difficulty figuring out their place in the world, being young men stranded in the West Germany of the 1970s, a landscape in recession-transition. European youth were much more aware that political progress had been stagnant after the delirious optimism of 1968. We had Woodstock and Altamont, but Wenders’ generation was still stuck with that Communist wall bisecting their country. The idea that we couldn’t trust people over thirty was already a cliché for us, a residual joke to be used in Planet of the Apes. Wenders is acutely aware that a good percentage of his German elders over fifty were once Nazi party members.

The impressive thing is that out of this uneasy malaise, Wenders’ movies stress a brand of optimistic humanism. That’s a lot better than the empty nihilism of some American cinema rebels of the ’70s, the ones that turned this film student away from the idea of socially committed movies. Wenders’ characters say they’re frustrated in their artistic ambitions and alienated from their surroundings. One even asks how he can become a writer if he doesn’t like people. But watching a Wenders movie, we can tell that he likes people quite a bit. This applies to the killers of The American Friend as much as it does the amused angels in Wings of Desire.

Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) is Wenders’ breakthrough, a gentle road movie that expresses his basic strengths. It posits an original response to commercial cinema, not just Hollywood-type studio movies, but the soft-core porn that was overrunning what was left of commercial movies in Europe. As soon as TV spread out to the boondocks, theaters folded; we’re told that the only reason Italian genre filmmaking kept up pace in that decade is that the poorer southern part of Italy was still without comprehensive Television service.

Wenders and a tiny crew followed his main actor Rüdiger Vogler (as Philip Winter) around part of America and then a big swath of Germany. A writer at odds with his publisher because he’s been unable to get words on paper, Winter fixates on his little Polaroid camera, taking pictures as a substitute for engaging with America he’s there to study. He says that the pictures don’t capture what he sees, which foresees in capital letters the premise of Until the End of the World, the little dream-recordings that people would rather interact with than deal with real life. Not unlike Ross McElwee in Sherman’s March, Winter’s artistic mission takes a ‘completely personal’ left turn when he’s saddled with little Alice (Yetta Rottländer). He meets her helping her mother Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer) at the airport. Lisa stays behind to settle something with her husband, leaving Philip with no choice but to accompany Alice back to Europe. He ends up traveling all over Germany with Alice, trying to find a place to drop the little girl off. Alice says she can take him to her grandmother’s house, a claim that Philip shouldn’t have accepted at face value. They take trains and rent cars only for Alice to finally make a teeny-tiny confession… she’s not sure at all where she’s going.

Part of the tension of Alice in the Cities now comes from the fact that any adult male accompanying a girl not his own would be suspect at all times; as soon as it became apparent that he’s not her father and he cannot locate a proper relative, Winter would find himself crucified in the international tabloids. Instead we get a delightful movie of human discovery, as their friendship grows… it actually seems to happen on camera. Wenders’ accomplishment tops that of the makers of the famed Little Fugitive — little Yetta is both authentic and credible. Wenders’ loose way of filming allowed the child actress to play scenes as she wanted them to play. Was it just a sensitivity for actors capable of ‘living’ naturally in front of the camera? The movie has its key ‘cute’ scenes, and they’re devastatingly endearing — a session in a photo booth, a roadside exercise regimen. What’s more important is the way Alice helps Winter ease his frustration — when she tells him bad news, he responds with patience and understanding that any parent would envy. Characters in later Wenders movies ask bluntly how they should be living, and Alice in the Cities shows Philip Winter finding out.

Alice in the Cities was filmed in 16mm by Wenders’ cameraman Robby Müller, but the images are so fluid one would hardly know except for the increased grain. We suspect that the free-flowing locations were chosen just because Wenders liked them — we hang around one town because of its wonderfully practical-looking monorail system. We need the exact same thing crisscrossing Los Angeles!

Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer return in the second road picture Wrong Move (Falsche Bewegung), but as different characters. Vogler is a frustrated young proto-writer named Wilhelm, whose mother (Marianne Hoppe) sends away to find himself. Lisa Kreuzer’s part this time is even smaller, as a girlfriend he leaves behind and apparently doesn’t miss. This time the movie is only about 15% road picture; the rest is a stylized screenplay by Peter Handke, based on a story by Goethe. Handke helped get Wenders started by allowing him to film his book The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick as his first movie. Filmed in 35mm and in color (again by <Müller), Wrong Move is a much more structured, set-in-stone drama than we expect, made watchable by Wenders’ ability to make things seem improvised and natural.

The movie is a much more conventional art picture. The very unexceptional Wilhelm is joined almost immediately on his train journey by an itinerant performer/pickpocket called Mignon (Nastassja Kinski) and her somewhat Schigolch-like companion Laertes, an old grifter that makes no bones about being an ex-Nazi responsible for killing enemies of the Reich. Laertes is played by the respected actor Hans Christian Blech. American war movie fans will remember Blech’s scarred face from movies like The Battle of the Bulge and The Bridge at Remagen. They’re joined by movie star Therese Farner (Hanna Schygulla), who spots Wilhelm from a train window and is immediately attracted to him. It’s a nice idea; I would have enjoyed getting on a bus in 1970, meeting Susan Sarandon or Barbara Hershey, and finding out that they have an immediate crush on me.

The group sticks together, and picks up Bernhard Landau (future director Peter Kern), an amateur poet of no talent. In the kind of development that only happens in art films, they accidentally alight at an ominous villa, and are hosted by its owner, ‘the industrialist’ (Ivan Desny of Anastasia and The Marriage of Maria Braun). Wilhelm can’t connect sexually with either woman, despite Therese’s willingness and Mignon’s silent come-on. Somebody commits suicide, and somebody else is threatened with strangulation.

Nobody quite connects, but Wrong Move is still highly enjoyable. Working again with few resources, Wenders again gives the film a special look. Robby Müller’s color effects are terrific, and the various moods — bright exteriors, a long unbroken-take walk up a steep road, moody interiors — all blend nicely. Wenders and Müller pull off a slick trick perhaps inspired by Georges Franju’s short subject Le Metro: Wilhelm and Therese make eye contact from opposite windows in two trains that for a short time run parallel to each other. Art-movie unlikelihoods crumble as we see Schygulla’s smiling face peering back at us… we’re ready to climb out the window to get to her.

Known as Wim Wenders’ road-movie masterpiece, Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) surely helped stumbling critics to formulate the whole road-movie aesthetic; I’m not sure that Easy Rider was codified as a road epic until Wenders’ film came along. It’s in 35mm B&W and 1:66, as stated in the opening titles, a joke that becomes meaningful when the main character Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler once more) is revealed as a traveling motion picture projector maintenance man. A ‘king of the road’ in his large van, Bruno teams up with a companion that he watches plow his Volkswagen bug into the Elbe River, at perhaps fifty miles an hour. (It’s true, the darn thing took quite a while to sink). Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) has just broken up with his wife, and the VW submarine stunt at least clears his head a bit.

The two begin an exceedingly loose three-hour Odyssey along what was called the ‘interior border’, the 350-mile barrier between East and West Germany (did Erich Honecker make the West Germans pay for it?). If the heroes of the first two films are slightly alienated, Bruno and Robert are true wanderers on the highway, looking for a Germany they understand, and of course, themselves. In more pretentious moments they try to express their estrangement from women, from knowing their place in the flow of things. Elsewhere they hit upon a marvelous epiphany or two. Rocking out listening to music on the open road, they exclaim that “American culture has colonized Germany!” and it sounds like a brand-new idea.

The three hours goes quickly enough, but I think Wenders exhausts the format. Bruno and Robert stretch the limits of aimlessness, taking a motorcycle & sidecar excursion to the Rhine. Some of the rural theaters Bruno makes stops at have devolved into porno houses, and the old folks who run them are discouraged — one owner maintains her equipment but no longer shows movies, in protest. Bruno’s dalliance with a ticket taker (Lisa Kreuzer again) seems unproductive to no great effect, while Robert’s inability to talk to his estranged wife will make more sense to someone who’s gone through that problem. One amusing scene sees the pair entertaining a group of kids in a theater with a shadow-show, a moment that looks forward to the glorious kiddie circus in Wings of Desire. When the two camp out in an abandoned allied border bunker, across the no-man’s land from the East German guard towers, we fear that Robert is going to do something really suicidal.

Wenders reuses the converging-diverging vehicles/destinies visual at the end. We’re also conscious of a similar train and bus motif at the end of George Sidney’s Picnic. At least, that’s what a viewer still mired in conventional old-school filmmaking thinks of. And although I can see Wenders’ strategy for smashing barriers and breaking free of convention, I need to tell viewers that Kings of the Road has some raw sexual content and scatalogical explicitness that will surely offend many. It’s casual and human and I can make a good argument for saying that this kind of openness will heal society, but I feel the need to flag it anyway.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Wim Wenders’ The Road Trilogy is a terrific way to discover the origins of a great filmmaker that for me runs neck and neck with Werner Herzog at the forefront of the New German Cinema. It’s a pleasure to watch every scene — with his ability to improvise on the spot, Wenders even gets shots of lightning striking in stormy shots of his motorcyclists in Kings of the Road. The earlier Alice with its magical performances is the one I’ll be eager to see again.

The restorations are exacting. All three films are presented in a 1:66 ratio. The soundtracks often feature characters listening to source music, recorded from radios or record players or jukeboxes on location: Chuck Berry, Canned Heat, Deep Purple. This enhances the sense of ‘being there.’ The official scores by CAN, Jürgen Knieper and Axel Linstädt stand out as well. We’re told that CAN just whipped up several minutes of music after one of their recording sessions, after Wenders and his editor drove hundreds of miles to beg for it. Wenders repeats the cue several times in the movie, and it plays as if it were tailored to fit.

Each disc has a full Wenders commentary in German, (subtitled), sometimes joined by his actors. Criterion disc producer Susan Arosteguy has also produced a battery of excellent interview documentaries that include Wenders, Ms. Kreuzer, Vogler, Zischler and others. They come off as happy campers to be associated with these great pictures. The picture we get of Wenders is a little fuzzy. He’s able to motivate his small (11 people) crews on these marvelous movie expeditions, but is sometimes described as remote and humorless, veering more to the Peter Handke view of humanity. Ms. Kreutzer expresses pride that her son has a prominent part in Kings of the Road. We’re also thrilled to see actress Yetta Rottländer, who forty years later is still beautiful. Yetta answered a late call to study medicine and is now working as a doctor. It’s a perfect happy ending button to Alice in the Cities.

We also get a big slice of outtakes from each film; in the case of Kings of the Road there were a lot of ‘adventures’ that didn’t make it to the big screen. A Wenders film gives the impression that the life we’re watching started before ‘action’ and continued after ‘cut.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Wim Wenders’ The Road Trilogy
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent, with Alice in the Cities Excellent – Plus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Alice: German-language audio commentary featuring Wenders and actors Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottländer; New interviews with Vogler, Rottländer, and actor Lisa Kreuzer; Outtakes from the film; Restoring Time, a 2015 short about the restoration work done by the Wim Wenders Foundation; Same Player Shoots Again (1967) and Silver City Revisited (1968), two newly restored early short films by Wenders.
False: Audio commentary featuring Wenders; New interview with Wenders, directed and conducted by filmmaker Michael Almereyda; New interviews with actors Rüdiger Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer; Super 8 footage from the film’s production.
Kings: German-language audio commentary featuring Wenders; Outtakes from the film; New interviews with actors Rüdiger Vogler, Hanns Zischler, and Lisa Kreuzer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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