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German journalist Philip Winter has a case of writer's block when trying to write an article about the United States. He decides to return to Germany, and while trying to book a flight, encounters a German woman and her nine year old daughter Alice doing the same. The three become friends (almost out of necessity) and while the mother asks Winter to mind Alice temporarily, it quickly becomes apparent that Alice will be his responsibility for longer than he expected. After returning to Europe, the innocent friendship between Winter and Alice grows as they travel together through various European cities on a quest for Alice's grandmother.Written by
Karl Engel <email@example.com>
Tender, restrained, elegiac road film about unexpected meaning...
Alice in the Cities (1974)
If there are movies, like comedies and horror films, that are better seen in a crowd, there are some movies that might be best seen alone. This is one of them, and I didn't realize until I was almost done because it had become so absorbing I was really enjoying my isolation within the movie.
The plot is simple, and I won't say how it happens, but a nine year old Dutch-German girl is left with a German man in the United States, and he takes care of her as they search for a way to find her mother or grandmother. Their first step is to fly back to Amsterdam, and then in Germany in a little car they poke around looking for her home.
It's a road movie, though unlike any other. The two main characters are about as perfect and as natural as it gets. The man is a thoughtful, drifting writer and photographer, an artist in the counter-culture way of the times. He has no real ambition, but observes the world with poetic appreciation. So when this girl is made part of his life, he takes it in stride. That's key to the mood of the film, that this very unlikely situation can continue for so long because he just goes with the flow. There is no running to the police, no panic. But there is no sense either that this is an accepted new relationship. It's for the moment, but the end of the moment is continually deferred.
The girl goes with the flow as well, and is as brilliant as the man at being natural in front of the camera, often doing nothing. She's made to be lovable, of course, but not in any coy or sentimental way. (If this were a Hollywood film we'd all be barfing by now.) All of this matters because it isn't what's happening that really matters, but it's just being together, the two of them, and then (you realize) the three of you. You wish it was you who was doing this utterly humane, deeply felt act of traveling and being supportive and seeing modern (1973) Germany.
The filming is simple black and white but brilliantly effective, down to the heart wrenching last shot (which was probably the most expensive). The setting is actually a surprise in that you never think of the ordinary middle class and industrial parts of middle Europe being so interesting. The music comes and goes, and refers to the earthy music of the time, mostly American blues based stuff.
In a little way this reminded me of "Stranger than Paradise" and when I connected the two I saw how much Jarmusch (in that film) owed to these art film experiments just a few years earlier. And now that I think of it, this one is more touching and important even if "Stranger than Paradise" is more inventive. "Alice in the Cities" makes a case for a kind of film we don't see being made now, and which might have another vogue one of these years in reaction to the general highly refined, highly artificial worlds of most movies today. I hope so.
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