Popularised in the filmmaking of the United States, road movies are made with a distinct passion for the country at the heart of the story. Featuring lonely, wandering characters trying to find purpose in the wilderness of the countryside, German director Wim Wenders attempted to represent the changing ideals of Germany throughout his wide and sprawling road movie trilogy that started with Alice in the Cities in 1974 and ended with Kings of the Road in 1976, with Wrong Move sandwiched between.
Much like the classic American western, the road movie relies on an exploratory narrative where characters explore their own frontiers whilst pushing the physical borders of discovery. Such journeys take characters across the length and breadth of the country, encountering hitchhikers, strange, desolate locations and surprising challenges, each weaving together to create one all-encompassing story of personal revelation.
Embracing the dynamism of cinema to tell a unique story about the changing face of his country, Wim Wenders weaves a complicated image of Germany throughout his trilogy, using time and place as key features of each of his three stories.
Exploring Germany with Wim Wenders’ road movie trilogy:
Wuppertal – Alice in the Cities (1974)
Lumbered with a young girl named Alice, Philip travels back to Europe from America in the first film of Wender’s trilogy which doesn’t stick to the borders of Germany, visiting the cities of New York, Amsterdam and Wuppertal.
After exploring the American locations of Rockaway Beach and Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, as well as the views of the iconic Empire State Building, the two protagonists take to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport for an enjoyable, if brief, stroll around the canals. Taking frequent polaroid images throughout his travels, much like any road movie, as the story progresses each snapshot begins to reveal a wider truth about the situations of the two lead characters.
Spending almost an equal amount of time in each city, Wenders’ tale ends up reaching a climax in Wuppertal, a city about thirty miles north of Cologne. It is here that the director frames Germany as a haven of some sort, even bringing close attention to the futuristic suspension railway which the pair take to find Alice’s Grandma’s house. The inspiring railway was built in 1900 and goes on for eight miles, flying 39 feet above the Wuppertal city streets from Vohwinkel to Oberbarmen.
West Germany – Wrong Move (1975)
The second of Wenders’ sprawling trilogy is one of the director’s finest movies, telling the story of an ambitious young bourgeois writer, Wilhelm, who escapes his family home for a trip across Germany. Travelling to Bonn, the capital of West Germany at the time, Wilhelm meets a group of performers, including an acrobat and an actor, with the man finding their allure too intriguing to ignore, he chooses to travel alongside the pack.
Following in the exploratory footsteps of the main characters, Wenders begins the film with a helicopter shot that glides over Elbe River in northern Germany, fluttering above the small city of Glückstadt. As a cross-section of German life, Wenders explores the country with great detail, ending atop the snowy Zugspitze, the highest peak of the Wetterstein Mountains, located in the country’s south.
A narrative tale as well as a documentary of the mood of West Germany, Wenders perfectly captures the stunted prosperity of the country with a soul-searching examination of the country, putting deep thought into each and every cityscape shot that he captures. Young creatives are seen as enlightened individuals attempting to face and digest the tragedy of the country’s past whilst finding a new direction forward.
More concerned with an ethnographic examination of the country rather than a physical breakdown, Wender’s second film in his road movie may be his most intriguing and most challenging.
Lüneburg Heath to the Bavarian Forest – Kings of the Road (1976)
The final of Wim Wenders’ films to examine the social and geographical changes of post-war Germany is Kings of the Road. Looking into the American influence of a modernising country, the 1976 film tells the story of a projection equipment repairman named Bruno, who fixes the kit of cinemas in several small movie houses along the border with East Germany. After one such straightforward job, Bruno witnesses a man attempt to commit suicide, driving his car into the water of the Elbe River.
Fished out by the protagonist, the pair share a road trip through the desolate heart of West Germany, going from the Lüneburg Heath to the Bavarian Forest. During this time, the history of the country’s Nazi past is kept firmly at the forefront, with the film following the Iron Curtain border separating both sides of Germany. Haunted by the war, the land remains somewhat unchanged since the 1940s, housing the ghosts of the past as well as the physical scars of barbed wire, fences and guard towers that make you question whether the country has indeed gotten over its own self-made tragedy.
Tracing the border of the wall, Wenders works to illustrate just how much the country has been changed by the influence of the wider western world, as a new set of ideals has been forced to be accepted by the country. Looking into themes of loneliness and sexuality in a country that continues to struggle with its own identification, the film can be summarised by one line exchanged between the two characters; “The Yankees have colonised our subconscious”.
Wenders’ impression of his country is not straightforward, forcing the viewer to consider how the structural and social changes of the country have come about, even hinting at where they might lead them in the future. Stylish, optimistic and revolutionary, to watch the director’s road movie trilogy is to binge on the method of an elegant filmmaker trying to define his country by utterly new standards. It’s a wild ride.
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