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On The Road Again: “Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy” Comes to Criterion Blu-Ray

One of the most significant cultural events of 2015 was “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road,” a touring retrospective put together by Janus Films. It featured 12 of the most significant titles from the acclaimed director’s extensive filmography, ranging from the early works that made him one of the leading voices of the German new wave in the early 1970s to such international hits as “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire” to a rare presentation of the extended director’s cut of his epic “Until the End of the World.” Now, having already put out stellar editions of “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire,” the Criterion Collection has begun giving the rest of the films in the retrospective their long-awaited Blu-ray due. Earlier this year, they put out a highly regarded edition of “The American Friend,” his adaptation of “Ripley’s Game,” the Patricia Highsmith novel featuring her beloved anti-hero Tom Ripley. Now, they have produced “Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy,” a three-disc collection bringing together “Alice in the Cities” (1974), “Wrong Move” (1975) and “Kings of the Road” (1976), films that essentially launched his career on the international film scene and which also earned him recognition as a master of one of the most beloved of cinematic sub-genres, the road movie.

“Alice in the Cities” stars Rüdiger Vogler as Philip Winter, a German journalist who has come to America with the hopes of writing something of significance about the country that fascinates him so. Alas, he has been unable to conjure up anything more than a series of undistinguished and virtually unpublishable Polaroid photos, and he is about to return home. The day before his departure, he meets a woman and her young daughter, Alice (Yella Rottländer), who are also leaving on the same flight. When the mother is delayed at the last second on business, Winter agrees to take Alice with him on the flight and then wait for her mother to catch up with them in Amsterdam. When the mother fails to show up, Philip is stuck with Alice and finds himself taking the girl through a number of German cities in the hope of finding a grandmother whose name and address she cannot remember and with nothing to go on but a photograph of a front door.  At first, the two do not get along but as their journey progresses, they begin to grow on one another and Winter begins to shed some of the disillusionment that he felt on his journey in America and begins to see his surroundings in a new light.

Although technically his fourth feature film (following “Summer in the City,” “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” and a fairly disastrous adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter”), it is tempting to look at “Alice in the Cities” as Wenders’ true debut work. It was the first film to feature the character of Philip Winter, who would go on to appear in a number of Wenders’ films over the years; it was also the first of his movies to be shot in the United States, a country whose culture and behaviors Wenders would explore in many of his subsequent works; and it was his first full-fledged road movie. On the surface, it sounds like the plot of an exceptionally corny family film along the lines of the kid-oriented titles from the John Hughes oeuvre. The mismatched pair do eventually bond but it is in a more metaphysical manner that stresses Winter’s reconnection with a world with which he has lost touch. Similarly, Wenders avoids the easy choice of portraying America as some kind of empty social and cultural void when compared to Europe—Wenders is clearly in love with American culture (especially the films and rock music) and it is only when Winter has returned to Europe and to his own inner self that he is finally able to appreciate the qualities that he wasn’t able to fully connect with when he was there. Although arguably the most dated of the three films in the set—beyond the obvious technological advances, it seems highly unlikely that anyone could get away with a movie in these times in which a young girl is arbitrarily placed in the hands of a grown man she hardly knows—there is a timelessness to its explorations that makes it as rich and resonant today as when it was first released.

Working from a screenplay by Peter Handke, whom he worked with on “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” and who he would later collaborate with on “Wings of Desire,” that was itself loosely inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” Wenders followed up “Alice in the Cities” with “Wrong Move.” In this one, aspiring author Wilhelm (Vogler again) departs from his hometown in the far north of Germany, leaving his mother and girlfriend behind, to travel to Bonn. After changing trains in Hamburg, he finds himself sharing a compartment with the aging Laetes (Hans Christian Blech) and his young companion Mignon (Nastassja Kinski, making her screen debut at the age of 13), a seemingly mute acrobat, and befriends them to the point where he pays for their train fare and to stay with him at a hotel. There, they are joined by Therese (Hanna Schygulla), an actress whom he flirted with during the Hamburg stopover, and Berhard (Peter Kern), a would-be poet who offers to let them all stay with him at a castle belonging to his rich uncle. When they arrive, however, it is the wrong castle, but the owner, who was just about to commit suicide when they arrived, welcomes them in. Everything is fine for a while, but before long, certain tensions begin to develop amongst them (Wilhelm refuses to romantically pursue Therese while becoming the target of Mignon’s affections and Laertes shocks Wilhelm by revealing some details about his participation in the Holocaust) and Wilhelm eventually leaves them all to complete his journey, literally and figuratively, by arriving at Germany’s southernmost point.

Of the three films in the trilogy, “Wrong Move” is probably the hardest one for contemporary audiences to warm up to. It is, at its heart, a story of a would-be writer grappling with trying to figure out how to process his thoughts, feelings and experiences in ways that can be both edifying and entertaining and the various characters who glom on to him can be read as the different potential narrative viewpoints that he could apply as part of his process. From an intellectual standpoint, that is an intriguing concept but the end result is sometimes a little too dry and airless for its own good, especially in comparison with the effortless charms of “Alice in the Cities.” In addition, the political situation of Germany in the mid-1970s plays a significant part in the proceedings and that aspect inevitably winds up dating the film. And yet, there are still a number of glories to be had here. The journey taken by Wilhelm and his companions is beautifully captured by cinematographer Robby Müller in ways that are oftentimes more expressive than the screenplay. Of course, “Wrong Move” is most famous today for marking the screen debut of Kinski and indeed, she is the most memorable thing about it despite the occasionally troubling nature of her character’s storyline. Even at her young age, it was clear that she had the kind of rare combination of talent, beauty and raw screen charisma that forced viewers to sit up and take notice that a new star was born. (Kinski would, of course, go on to reunite twice with Wenders, first in her heartbreaking turn as the missing wife in the masterpiece “Paris, Texas” and as an angel in the underrated “Wings of Desire” sequel “Faraway, So Close!”)

Clocking in at nearly three hours, “Kings of the Road” would prove to be Wenders’ first epic-length film as well as his first unquestioned masterpiece, though one of a decidedly unusual variety. Once again starring Rüdiger Vogler, this film finds him playing Bruno Winter, a traveling film projector repairman who travels from one remote theater along the West/East German border to the next plying his trade. While going about his way, he stumbles upon Robert (Hanns Zischler), a depressed psychologist who has just tried to kill himself following a breakup by driving his car into a river—alas, he was driving a Volkswagen at the time. Robert decides to get a ride with Bruno and over the course of the next week, they drive around, largely in silence, listen to rock music and visit a series of dilapidated theaters clearly designed to represent the waning of the local film industry in the wake of the increasing influence of American entertainment. Along the way, they begin to learn about life and love and the importance of communication and of getting beyond ones past in order to face the future.

This might not sound like the most gripping narrative for a film, especially one clocking in at just under three hours, but every time I have seen “Kings of the Road” over the years, I have never been anything less than completely captivated with it. By far the least structured of the films in this trilogy—it is said that the initial meeting between Bruno and Robert was the only scene that was fully scripted and that everything else was largely improvised—there is an undeniably fascinating freedom to what Wenders captures. As the two characters bomb around from town to town, they are ostensibly looking for themselves while grappling with their mutual estrangement from both women and the world they once knew. It is only through their fumbling attempts to come to terms with the latter are they able to begin achieving the former. The story goes from moments of true poignancy to rude humor (including one surprisingly scatological sequence) to quiet tension (including a scene in which the two spend the night in an abandoned bunker that is a little too close to an East German guard tower for conflict) to moments where Wenders indulges in his passions for rock music and the cinema and while there are inevitably a few dead spots here and there, “Kings of the Road” proves to be such a compelling cinematic experience that it could have gone on for another hour or two and I daresay that few viewers would have noticed or minded.

For various reasons, mostly involving inferior elements and rights issues involving the jam-packed soundtracks, the three films featured in “The Road Trilogy” have been difficult to see on video in America in recent years but this extras-packed package more than makes up for that. All three films received 4k digital transfers under the supervision of Wenders himself and they all look spectacular—even though these were amongst his first films as cinematographer, it was obvious that Robby Müller was going to be one of the greats in his profession. Each film contains an audio commentary with Wenders—joined on “Alice in the Cities” by co-stars Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottlander—that are conducted in German with English subtitles. “Alice in the Cities” also includes “Same Player Shoots Again” and “Silver City Revisited,” two short films by Wenders predating his feature work, new interviews with Vogler, Rottlander and Lisa Kreuzer, a selection of outtakes and “Restoring Time,” a 2015 short chronicling the restoration process conducted on the films by the Wim Wenders Foundation. “Wrong Move” includes a new interview with Wenders conducted by Michael Almereyda, additional new interviews with Vogler and Kreuzer and behind-the-scenes Super 8 footage. “Kings of the Road” includes new interviews with Vogler, Kreuzer and Hanns Zischler and a series of outtakes. The set also includes a booklet containing essays on the films and Wenders by Almereyda, filmmaker Allison Anders, author James Robison and critic Nick Roddick. As vast, ambitious and compelling as the films that it collects, “Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy” is pretty much a must for cinephiles of all stripes and should prove to be one of the most valuable home video releases of the year.

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