Alice in the Cities (PG)

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The Independent Culture

This is the first showing in this country of one of Wim Wenders's finest films, and forms part of a season on the German director at the British Film Institute. It begins with a German writer, Philip Winter, who has been commissioned to write a piece on America but suffers from writer's block. When trying to book a flight back to Germany, he meets a nine-year-old girl, Alice, and her mother, who also want to return to Germany. When the mother asks Winter to look after Alice until she arrives in Europe a day later, but then does not turn up, Alice remembers that she has a grandmother who lives in Wuppertal, but cannot remember her name or address.

What follows is a futile odyssey through the Ruhrgebiet, the old industrial heart of Germany. Angry, and a little desperate, Winter takes Alice to a police station and leaves her there. But she escapes police custody and climbs back into Winter's car. The search takes them on to Munich. The final shot shows the two of them sitting in a train carriage. The camera retreats to give us a view of their train travelling south along the Rhine and of the mountains flanking the river valley far below.

The film begins in an almost desultory way. Winter's journey through America seems aimless and his attitude to American culture ambivalent. However, as soon as Alice appears, the film begins to exert a gravitational pull on its viewers. Alice, who is played by the remarkable Yella Rottländer, is by turns cheeky, witty and exasperating. She tries to conceal the pain she feels at being abandoned by her mother by locking herself in a toilet cubicle and crying. She is terrified of being rejected again, this time by Winter. The relationship between the two is not sentimentalised. Frustrated by their hopeless quest, Winter loses his temper and tells Alice that he has better things to do than drive a little girl around to find her grandmother. She retorts by asking him what these better things might be: all he ever seems to do is scribble in his notebook.

Before last Thursday's screening of the film at London's NFT, Wim Wenders appeared in person to introduce it. He said that when he was making this, his fourth film, he was unsure of his vocation as a film director, and was wondering whether he should return to writing or painting. Then Alice saved him. He came to realise that Alice and Winter could carry the film by themselves, and that he could start to call himself a director. Even now, more than 30 years later, he thought the movie had turned out well. The audience agreed, as the applause at the end of the film demonstrated.

Paul Crichton, psychiatrist, London

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