The opening scene of Wim Wenders’s Wrong Move is one of the most Wim Wenders things Wim Wenders ever shot. Rüdiger Vogler stands at a window looking out at a mostly empty square in his small German town. Then, quietly, he punches the glass. That might seem a gesture of anger, but his face is mostly expressionless, his movements tired, almost deliberate. Is he doing this out of frustration, or because he just wants to know how it feels to punch a window? We never get a real answer. But the moment is both angst-ridden and kind of funny: Vogler’s detached expression speaks to his alienation, but it’s also a Buster Keatonesque Great Stone Face.
Wenders never intended for the films he made between 1974 and 1976 — Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road, all playing at BAM this weekend — to be grouped together; it was the critic Richard Roud who called them “The Road Trilogy.” But the director built his initial reputation on these pictures, before becoming a full-on international superstar with the Palme d’Or–winning Paris, Texas and the unforgettable arthouse hit Wings of Desire. I still remember seeing these early movies on VHS as a teenage film geek, their uniformly black boxes emblazoned with the name “Wenders” running down the side in large block letters; this was one director who got in on the branding game early. At the time, the works were regarded as fashionably bleak and nihilistic. (Mike Myers’s pretentious German artiste Dieter on Saturday Night Live, one imagined, was probably a big Wenders fan.) But this stereotype did little justice to the films’ marvelous complexity and irreverent humor — a humor that truly comes to life when you see them on a big screen, with an audience.
We think of the road movie as a particularly American genre. And no doubt, Wenders has always worn his American influences on his sleeve, as evidenced in the jukeboxes and rock ‘n’ roll records and Fotomats and soda vending machines that clutter these films. But the focus here is very much on Germany, and on a generation of Germans who came of age after the war and never quite reconciled with the past. Alice in the Cities does open in the U.S., with German journalist Philip Winter (Vogler) on a boardwalk, dejectedly taking Polaroids and complaining that they never look like the real thing. Winter was supposed to be filing articles, but in his alienation has opted instead to take pictures, leading his boss to fire him. In New York, he runs into a single mom with a young daughter, Alice (Yella Rottländer), and gets saddled with the girl when the woman disappears on the eve of their return to Germany. So Winter heads back to Europe with Alice and, relying on her dodgy memories, attempts to find her grandparents’ house.
In Wrong Move, Vogler’s Wilhelm is an aspiring writer who connects with a small group of eccentrics — including an actress (played by the luminous Hanna Schygulla), a failed poet (Peter Kern), and an aging con man and former Nazi soldier (Hans Christian Blech) whose traveling companion is a mute teenage acrobat (Nastassja Kinski). The film, very loosely based on Goethe’s 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, has an ambling structure in which plot and character motivation take a backseat to long digressions about the state of Germany and the desire to create art when one doesn’t like people very much. Over and over in these films, Wenders returns to questions of creation and estrangement; you sense a director working out his own frustrations. “Not writing itself, but wanting to write is the need,” we’re told. So where does that impulse go if one cannot write, direct, paint, perform?
Vogler returns in Kings of the Road, this time playing Bruno Winter, a movie projector repairman (symbolism alert!) making his way through the towns on the border between East and West Germany in a big converted truck. Then he meets Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler), a recently divorced pediatric linguist who attempts to kill himself by driving his Volkswagen into the Elbe then exits carrying a suitcase — another moment of angsty, deadpan Wendersian slapstick. As they travel the border, we again get almost no character psychology or narrative momentum. Instead, we’re given beautiful images of desolation, courtesy of Robby Müller’s cinematography. The landscape might be postindustrial, or it might be primeval. The uncertainty seems intentional: Is this a wasteland where nothing grows, or a blank slate filled with potential? That depends, probably, on your attitude.
Running nearly three hours, Kings of the Road is the director’s most languorous, episodic film (which is saying a lot); it was largely improvised over a few weeks as the cast and crew themselves traveled these areas. As Bruno and Robert bond and attempt to interact with the people and places they come across, we sense their need to come to terms with a broken society — not just the broken projectors and decaying theaters that Bruno works with. These men refuse to speak of the past, but the past occasionally intrudes. At one point, Robert visits his aging father, the owner of a small local newspaper. There is clearly dark history between them, but it’s kept vague enough that the betrayal feels generational, not personal.
The failure of the last generation, meanwhile, contrasts with the potential of the next one. In several scenes, including one hilarious episode involving a curtain rod and a roomful of boisterous schoolkids, the characters are reminded of the innocence of childhood — an innocence they may never return to — when images still held an elemental power and everything felt alive and new, when going from one place to another conveyed possibility instead of confirming the prison-like nature of existence.
But there I go, making it sound like these are despondent, miserabilist movies. They’re not, really. Their otherworldly atmosphere has its own allure; you could easily lose yourself in a picture like Kings of the Road. And in all three films, Vogler’s charmingly quiet presence conveys more bewilderment than torment. Even as he explores our inability to engage with the world around us, Wenders finds moments of warmth and humor, of beauty and wonder. He doesn’t want to wallow in the gloom. He wants to find ways to pull us all out.
Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy
April 21–23, BAM