New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Off the Radar: ‘Alice in the Cities,’ a guide for lost souls

Off the Radar is a weekly column surveying overlooked films available to students for free via NYU’s streaming partnerships. “Alice in the Cities” is available to stream on Kanopy.
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(Illustration by Yezen Saadah and Max Van Hosen)

When one is on the road, displaced from the warmth of home, an emptiness takes over. Sometimes, the only remedy for this vacuum is to reach out and share moments with the most unlikely of companions, and no film better encapsulates this than “Alice in the Cities.”

“Alice in the Cities” comes from the renowned director Wim Wenders, a pioneer of the New German Cinema movement that emerged in the late 20th century. Wenders has won a slew of awards for masterpieces like “The American Friend,” “Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire” and “Perfect Days,” the latter of which is being presented at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 11 and 12.  As a cosmopolitan storyteller and a lover of road movies, Wenders perfectly crafted “Alice in the Cities,” the first installment in a thematic trilogy. 

It’s the ’70s, and New York City is far from home for Germans Alice van Damm and Philip Winter. The film begins with Philip crouched under a boardwalk in North Carolina taking Polaroids of the Atlantic Ocean. He is tasked with writing an article about the American landscape, but wastes his time experiencing life in meager doses and growing trapped with a sense of despair. He returns to his editor with nothing written, so his boss sends him back to Munich. As fate has it, he becomes Alice’s unexpected guardian. No longer can Philip focus on himself when he must help a deserted child.

Meditative in pace and stunning in display, “Alice in the Cities” beckons the viewer to consider the profound emotions that reveal our humanity through the solitary figures of the two protagonists. 

Wenders is unmatched at writing wise children into his plots, like Alice, who asks questions like “Why is the time different here?” once they arrive in Germany. Once they land in Munich, she tells the despondent, broke Philip, “I could show you around; I used to live here.” 

There’s something in her nature that is impressively self-possessed, to the point that she takes pictures in rapid succession with Philip’s camera, bringing her incisive mind to the world. In a beautiful sequence, she takes a photo, and then Philip, looking down at the Polaroid coming into form, also catches Alice’s reflection in the photo. She is his focus now, as an active contributor to his life and practice.

The two embark on a meandering road trip with the end goal of finding Alice’s grandmother in a run-down home in Wuppertal. Suddenly, the landscapes of Munich — which Philip was meant to study — become an endless labyrinth of unknown homes and obscure streets. Philip’s existential angst, once so binding, is dispelled when his purpose of being Alice’s caretaker reigns supreme. 

Unapologetic determination generates forces of life which can bring sanctuary to the vulnerable. Viewers must discover for themselves the epilogue of Alice’s journey on the road with Philip. Her story proves that fate grips everyone, but we can face it, like Alice, with proactivity, hope and an unbeatable personality.

Contact Amalia Rizos at [email protected].

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