Wim Wenders' Road Movies as Journeys of Disaffection

by Chadwick Jenkins

27 June 2016

With his "Road Trilogy", Wenders suggests that to find our place, we must be displaced.
Alice in the Cities (1974) 
cover art

The Road Trilogy

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Rüdiger Vogler, Yella Rottländer

Wrong Move

Cast: Rüdiger Vogler, Hanna Schygulla, Hans Christian Blech, Peter Kern, Nastassja Kinski

1975

Kings of the Road

Cast: Rüdiger Vogler, Hanns Zischler

US theatrical: 31 May 2016
1976

The road movie as a genre typically involves the protagonists leaving their quotidian lives to journey elsewhere. Often these protagonists come to some kind of realization about themselves; they are in some way transformed. The model for this plot paradigm, it seems to me, is Homer’s Odyssey. The adventures experienced by Odysseus are in themselves entertaining, of course, but they serve ultimately to test Odysseus (testing being a major theme of the Odyssey), to force him to contemplate who he is, and moreover to realize a personal and renewed vision of the self.

Identity is a chief concern of the Odyssey. Over and again, Odysseus is asked to reveal his identity and to prove it. At one point, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that he is “Nobody”. This is ostensibly a trick so that when the Cyclops is asked who blinded him, he tells his comrades “Nobody”, allowing Odysseus to escape harm. In another sense we can see this self-naming as an act of emptying the self—to become Odysseus again requires that he first be nobody. Of course, Odysseus immediately countermands this anonymity when, safe from the giant’s grasp, he reveals his actual name—an act of hubris that leads to ever greater difficulty for the hero in his journey home. When he finally arrives, he must again prove that he is who he says he is.

The point here is that while he is Odysseus and the rightful ruler of Ithaca, he is no longer the Odysseus he was when he left for the Trojan War. His journey has transformed him; in a sense, it has made him more himself than he was before. The road movie follows this logic of the transformative journey. To discover what we are, we must transgress the boundaries of our mundane lives, our quotidian habits. To find our place, we must be displaced.

Wim Wenders released three films that were later dubbed “The Road Trilogy” by critic Richard Roud. This informal trilogy comprises Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975), and Kings of the Road (1976). All three films involve journeys through a post-war, post-Nazi, Cold War West Germany. The protagonists are themselves West Germans and in this sense the journey is not “elsewhere” but through other parts of their home.

And yet we are continually reminded that these characters are alienated from their homes. Indeed, Wenders postulates that the post-war West German lives under the condition of a seemingly permanent alienation. Their experience of belonging to their home is suffused with a strangely affectionate disaffection, which leads inexorably to a kind of uncanny existence. “Uncanny” in German is unheimlich, which literally means “unhomely” or better, “unhoused”. The familiar is itself estranged, the recognized becomes a foreign intrusion.

If these films are about self-discovery, then it’s an occluded, partial, fugitive sort of discovery. These characters are not displaced in order to find their place; they come to see that displacement has been their lot all along. Their journeys lead not to enlightenment in the positive, transformative sense, but rather to a sort of acquiescence, a capitulation to the world’s disenchantment and their place within it—but an acquiescence that in spite of all logic seems to hold out some kind of hope for something better, something redemptive.

 

Alice in the Cities

In Alice in the Cities German journalist Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) tries to return home from a trip to the United States only to find that a worker’s strike prevents him from flying there directly. He is forced to take a detour to Amsterdam. He soon finds himself in the company of another German and her daughter, the eponymous Alice (Yella Rottländer). The woman temporarily abandons Alice to the stranger’s care, assuring him that she will meet them in Amsterdam. When the mother fails to appear the following day, the pair set off on a sojourn through the Ruhr region of Germany in search of the child’s grandmother despite the fact that the girl has only a vague and muddled notion of where the grandmother lives and cannot even recall her name.

One might expect, in the grand tradition of the road movie, that the man and girl will thus embark on a journey of discovery. The film leads you to anticipate this trope when another character informs Winter that he was “never taught how to live”/ Winter is disaffected and despite his general affability, finds it insurmountably difficult to connect. He feels cut adrift in a meaningless morass of natural and cultural symbols (trees, the ocean, advertisements, forms of entertainment) that seem to promise contact but only offer further encumbrances. Once Alice, precocious and self-possessed, takes control of the expedition, we are encouraged to believe that she will indeed teach Winter how to connect, how to live. After all, children in Wenders films often represent a more direct, instinctive manner of knowing.

The film, however, ultimately subverts the trope of enlightenment on the road and it does this essentially by throwing into question the whole notion of film (or any medium) as a means of conveying such a message. The film becomes a meditation on the nature of media and their often denaturing effects.

Alice in the Cities is suffused with the presence of media. The film is populated with televisions, jukeboxes, radios, coin-operated binoculars, telephones, photo booths, and portable cameras. Media are the condition of the possibility of existence in the world of this film. Media work to shape the lives of the people within that world. They are not mere appurtenances; they structure experience—or (and this is a subject to which we will return) they reveal the unstructured nature of experience, its abyssal, groundless ontology.  But this is no McLuhanite nightmare of the ravages of technological determinism. Wenders is not opposed to technological media and their pervasiveness per se, but rather he objects to some (but certainly not all) of the uses made of modern media.

Winter has the more openly vexed relationship to modern media. He suffers from writer’s block, hindering him from self-expression through print and thus preventing him from taking an active role vis-à-vis media. He is thrust into a begrudgingly passive role, which he resists with minor acts of rebellion. He destroys a hotel television when a film is interrupted by a local commercial and kicks the car radio when an announcement cuts into a song, claiming he has yet to hear how the tune ends. In one of the pivotal monologues of the film, Winter articulates his frustrations. It is not merely the fact that television and radio cut into the programming with commercials but that in doing so—in, for instance, slicing up a film into tiny, digestible chunks—the content itself becomes a sort of commercial for the status quo. The advertising does not merely intercut the content; it is infused in the content. In essence, content is eviscerated; there is no message aside from “Buy me!”

A central, almost talismanic object within the film is Winter’s prototype Polaroid camera. The machine is a technological marvel to nearly everyone in the film. Winter is repeatedly asked to demonstrate it, to explain how it works, even to sell it (which he, of course, does not). The Polaroid seems to promise immediacy (thus disavowing its mediated nature). It claims to document what you “just saw” and to reproduce it instantly for verification. Winter collects a box full of these Polaroids and examines them periodically. But they remain unsatisfactory. He laments, talking to himself, that “they never really show what you saw.” And yet when explaining his inability to write to his editor, he vouches for the necessity of the camera since the story is meant to encapsulate “the things you see… signs and images.”

The camera comes to represent Winter’s disconnection from the world coupled with his utter need to find some way to embrace it wholly. He cherishes those photographs because they document experiences but they are not entirely his experiences. Despite the instantaneity with which the pictures are produced, these photos mediate, they stand in for direct experience and indeed thwart Winter’s efforts to connect despite the fact that they seem to be his best and only conduit to the world. The photos do not so much verify experience as they signify it; they become another sign and image, another source of separation.

Children in this film have an easier time with media. In one of the eeriest but strangely moving scenes of the film, Winter and Alice sit in a diner while a child sits next to a jukebox humming perfectly along with Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again”. The child, idly licking an ice cream cone, is lost in his connection to the music; he is fully absorbed in the moment. Thus media can also offer transcendence, they can redeem us from a world of crass commercialism. In contradistinction to the McLuhanite nightmare, Wenders suggests that media themselves, while not entirely neutral, can be shaped by the way in which they are used. The jukebox seems to be Wenders’s ideal medium insofar as there is no commercial interruption here; the jukebox offers unadulterated, pure access to popular culture. One experiences the entire song. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Wenders’s cameo in the film features him playing a song on a different jukebox.

But even Alice, so comfortable in general with media, begins to evince some qualms about its prevalence in her life. She relates a dream in which she has tied herself to a chair before a television. A horror film comes on and she cannot turn away, nor can she close her eyes. If this road movie has a discovery in store, then it is this dark one reserved for Alice. The world, she finds, is pre-programmed for her. She cannot choose for herself, nor can she choose not to watch it unfold. She is, as we all are, forced to bear witness to experiences we don’t so much have as suffer.

 

 

Wrong Move

Wenders teamed up with his inspiration and sometimes collaborator, poet and novelist Peter Handke, to produce Wrong Move, a refiguring of Goethe’s celebrated Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The genre of the Bildungsroman, which Goethe’s novel helped to inaugurate, involves the journey of a young man, often an aspiring artist, as he attains deeper spiritual and cultural development. The young hero absorbs experience in an act of self-forming, allowing him to embark on a life of creation. In other words it is the Romantic equivalent to a typical road movie. The fact that Wenders and Handke use it as a model thus resonates with the ideal of the road movie but the manner in which they use it furthers the alienation from the genre already explored in Alice.

The script employs no dialogue from Goethe and the action itself bears only a vague similarity to some of the events that unfold in the novel. Certain names remain: Therese (Hanna Schygulla), Mignon (Nastassja Kinski), Laertes (Hans Christian Blech), and Wilhelm as the writer (Rüdiger Vogler). However, Handke has transformed their characters and their situations radically. To call Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship the model for Wrong Move is misleading; rather it is an inverse model insofar as Handke and Wenders work to subvert the ideology represented by the Bildungsroman.

The Bildungsroman served an important function in German Romantic literature. It evolved as a manifestation of the Enlightenment and the latter’s emphasis on education as a liberating force within human development and society. Through cultural education, through imbibing the cultural riches represented by tradition and integrating them with one’s own experiences, one becomes oneself. That is to say, individualism is attained through an engagement with culture—which moves from being outside the self (and thus Other) to being fully absorbed into one’s being. The German term Bild means “image”. I become what I am by forming myself into an image of the cultured, knowing subject.

In essence this self-forming is itself aesthetic work. I am both the subject doing the forming and the object undergoing formation. I work on myself as so much recalcitrant material, giving shape to my being by following the models of tradition that vouchsafe meaning and structure. In doing so, I not only follow cultural mandates, I further them. Notice the shift here from an Enlightenment concern with knowledge to a Romantic concern with self-knowledge. In coming to know my culture, I come to know what I really am. The Bildungsroman chronicles an archetypal hero’s journey in the Jungian sense. I confront the Other only to discover that such otherness pervades me. In learning to overcome the other, I overcome myself and am thus ready to create, to give rise to new cultural achievements, continuing the tradition I have so studiously assimilated.

Hence the Bildungsroman is not only part of German literary and cultural tradition, it also examines and celebrates the centrality of that tradition, its indispensability, its redeeming and ubiquitous presence. And yet tradition is exactly what fell under grave suspicion in a post-Nazi Germany. The Nazis were not uncultured brutes devoid of the “civilizing effect” of literature and high art. There are plenty of detailed accounts of German officers who by day worked in concentration camps and in the evenings relaxed by reading Rilke and listening to Schubert. While few would claim that German cultural tradition was somehow complicit in the slaughter of innocents, that tradition did not seem to hinder the Nazis from perpetrating outrages, despite their avowed devotion to high German culture.

The question for Wrong Move then becomes: if the traditional image (Bild) of German culture is under indictment owing to its connection to a horrific past that forever haunts the present, then what is the proper image one should look to in forming the self? If a culture of artistic creation led, however indirectly, to the nihilistic extermination of human beings, then is it possible to create anymore without being moored to that condemned past? This bears directly upon the Wilhelm of the film in that he is accompanied by a charming ex-Nazi (Laertes). As Wilhelm learns more about Laertes, his relation to him goes from one of amusement to suspicion and finally to hatred—for Laertes represents a hated past that cannot, morally speaking, be disavowed without shrugging off the culpability of tradition itself. In his Bildungs journey, Wilhelm encounters nothing but failed and impossible models.

The aspiring poet Bernhard (Peter Kern), who attaches himself to Wilhelm’s group, articulates the overarching problem beautifully amidst some wonderfully demented doggerel: “Why must there be between me and the world such a huge difference?” If the Bildungsroman is typically a tale of absorption, of the outer world penetrating into the fibers of one’s being, informing what one at heart is, then Wrong Move is an anti-Bildungsroman, demonstrating that the wages of tradition are tantamount to the wages of sin. And just like original sin taints the following generations for all eternity, so will the sin of German culture taint the writer’s attempts at artistic expression.

 

 

Kings of the Road

The final film of the trilogy is the most in line with the genre of the road movie and by suiting the generic conventions so well it lays bare and critiques the cultural assumptions underwriting those conventions. Its original German title Im Lauf der Zeit (In the Course of Time) perhaps better articulates one of the main themes of the film: that human beings are historical in the strong sense; that is, we not only have and belong to history, we also, and more essentially, are our history. This theme arises early in the film and pervades its running time.

A projection equipment repairman, Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), wanders through small towns in West Germany along the guarded border with East Germany attending to the projectors in several small movie houses. These cinemas are mostly run-down and now show pornography almost exclusively. He watches as a man drives his car into the water, submerging it. Perhaps the man is attempting suicide or perhaps he is simply engaged in some bizarre manner of rebellion against the state of his life. He emerges from the water and Bruno decides to take him along on his journey. The film spends no time on justifying this decision (or the likelihood of it). It is simply asserted as a brute fact of the film.

The man finally introduces himself as Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler). While they travel at night, Bruno asks Robert what he does for a living. Robert replies that he is a sort of pediatrician and then mentions his recent separation from his wife. Bruno shoots back: “There’s no need to tell me your stories.” Bruno often makes it clear that he has no desire to know Robert or anyone else all that well. He is comfortable, perhaps protected, in his isolation. And yet he is also clearly curious about people—something we witness not only through his interactions with Robert but also through his conversations with the various clients at the cinemas.

Robert is clearly confused by Bruno’s brash rejection of his attempt to confide in his new companion. He asks: “So what would you like to hear?” to which Bruno answers, “Who you are.” Robert replies: “I am my story.”

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the film. The question then becomes: If I am my story then what is the nature of that story and since the essence of a story is that it is to be told then to whom am I to tell it and how is it to be related? One would think that a film that posits that the essential being of a person is grounded in some kind of narrative would be rife with dialogue. Kings of the Road, however, has very little in the way of spoken communication. There are conversations between the two main characters and both of them occasionally speak with other, subsidiary characters but the actual dialogue is kept to a minimum. Instead we watch as these two men watch each other and the people they encounter.

The stories they tell are mostly unspoken and perhaps that is part of the meaning behind that phrase, “I am my story.” If I am my story then I am not merely telling my story, I perform it. I am not the narration of my story; I am the enactment of that story and that history. The stories that we are cannot be told but they can be experienced. Bruno and Robert learn about each other not because they talk; they rarely talk. Rather they learn by being with each other. And the film makes it utterly apparent that such being together is not always pleasant and it is not always done willingly. Bruno often openly resents Robert—in part, because in dealing with Robert, Bruno is forced to see himself. The other (the other person, the other presence) in this film is, by turns, comforting and invasive.

Moreover, realizing oneself as one’s story is itself a rather ephemeral achievement. At one point in the film, the pair travels to the Rhine region where Bruno lived as a child. He thanks Robert saying: “For the first time I see myself as someone who’s gone through a certain time, and that time is my story.” Bruno claims that this “feeling is quite comfortable.” Shortly thereafter, however, Bruno and Robert become physically violent both claiming the other is confused about whom he is and miserable because of it. Observing your “story” can be objectifying—placing it outside of the self—and thus comforting but that can only be a temporary experience. More typically the story that we “are” conflicts with the stories we tell about ourselves.

But perhaps the most crucial aspect of Kings of the Road’s vision here is that we are not in exclusive control of our own stories. As the two men journey from town to town over the course of the film they are running alongside the border between East and West Germany. It serves as a constant reminder that their history involves the relatively recent Nazi past with its degradations and the ineluctable shame that followed from it; it involves all of the manifest confrontations and antagonisms represented by the divided nature of Germany itself. These men did not choose to be born into this situation but it becomes an integral part of their stories.

This is where the “road movie” generic assumptions play out most powerfully in this film. If the road movie is about traversing a landscape, often in order to break through to some deeper understanding of the self, to achieve some sort of enlightenment, then Kings of the Road counters that ideal by forcing these men to traverse a landscape with a boundary that cannot be permeated. Bruno and Robert do realize things about themselves, about the stories that they are, but part of that realization involves a confrontation with a darkly inaccessible subconscious, a repressed part of the self. This repression is represented by the brief allusions (always cut short, always tentative but not entirely condemnatory) to the Nazi past. It is also made physically manifest by the barbed wire, fences, guard towers, and barracks that outline that border, that boundary that the pair is doomed to trace but never traverse. I am my story but even I cannot plumb its depths, even I am not its proper reader.

 

* * *

The Criterion Collection presents a lavish edition of this trilogy of films. There are some wonderful essays by filmmakers and scholars, commentaries by and interviews of the director and actors, outtakes, a documentary about the restoration, and two early Wenders short films: Same Player Shoots Again and Silver City Revisited. This is the kind of collector’s edition that invites the viewer to really inhabit these films on various levels and these are films that are worth inhabiting. They are not always the most comfortable places to be, but no home worth having is ever merely comfortable.

Kings of the Road

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