An Accidental Trilogy: A Great Nose, An Open Road, & A Tricky Film Category

Wim Wenders’ The Road Movie Trilogy Film Review

Two men with matching sunglasses stand in the doorway of a bodega.
Photo credit: Martin Schäfer

I happened across Wenders’ film collection on The Criterion Channel, as one does. Having only seen one of his films, the stunning and close to my heart, “Wings Of Desire”, I audibly gasped (I gasp a lot internally so I feel the need to clarify how exciting this was) upon finding not only an entire collection, including my beloved Bruno Ganz favorite, but a trilogy I had never heard of and strangely ended up relating to.

There’s something incredibly lonely about Wenders’ filmmaking style. I’m basing this off of only having seen 4 out of his 49 films, but I’ll get there. One thing as the reader that you should know about me is that when I like something, I fill everything around me with it. I’m extremely hedonistic in this way. Mark my words, I will move through this entire Wim Wenders collection on Criterion and maybe I’ll even write about it too. Baby steps. Tackling a trilogy for my very first written review (they’ve all been verbal reviews that fall on mostly deaf ears), is a feat I didn’t think I could own.

Back to the review: I found a deeper well of contemplation, loneliness, and curiosity within the trilogy that I haven’t yet come across ever before in film. The most beautiful thing about film is how a moving picture can emote feelings and memories. As a very lonely person who wants and also hates to be alone, I resonated with the climate of this trilogy and also found a strange solace in watching. True to the trilogy title, we follow strange characters across changing landscapes and feelings in The Road. If you find your everyday emotions are on somewhat of a slow and mild rollercoaster (I’ve been called “reserved” before), then like me, you may enjoy these 3 cinematic masterpieces.

It’s important to note that master Cinematographer, Robby Müller, worked on these films and without his eye for a simplistic shot filled with natural light, I don’t think these three films would’ve tied together as beautifully as without him. Think about your favorite film. What makes it your favorite? Is it the plotline? The actors? The soundtrack? The cinematography? For me, cinematography is important in a film. If my life were different, maybe I’d have taken up that profession.

“Alice in the Cities” 1974 shot on one of my favorites, B&W 16mm, “The Wrong Move” 1975 the only color film of the trio, and “Kings of the Road” 1976 shot on standard B&W 35mm, stars my new favorite, Rüdiger Vogler in each film as the character, Philip/Bruno Winter (except for in “The Wrong Move”). Although the characters in each film are different, there’s a quiet chaos that seeps from each of them, respectively. There’s something very comforting in Volger’s performances, he makes you feel like you’re home, but in the same feeling, like there’s more you need to know. Aside from his casual master acting, he’s got a great nose. You laugh, but noses are the balance beam on one’s face. The better the nose, the more pulled into the performance, I say (this is not scientifically proven, noses do not determine talent). *insert photo of Rüdiger Vogler’s nose here*

“Alice in the Cities” (German: Alice in den Städten) 1974

This film is an unlikely series of events that realistically would never have taken place, not in the present time at least. The 1970s were a trusting time to be a human bean. Maybe it’s the fact that the film is German. Europeans seem to be more open minded than Americans. What I promise I’m trying to get at is that although the film begins slowly and unassuming, we the watcher find ourselves immersed in an unlikely, stressful, and endearing journey. “Alice in the Cities” is the very perfect beginning to Wim Wenders’ iconic The Road Movie Trilogy.

Here we meet Philip Winter for the first time, he’s a writer abroad in the states working on an article about American life, but all he’s accomplished is going broke and taking lonely polaroids in an attempt to capture a feeling. A disappointment, Philip decides to travel home. He meets a woman and her young daughter (played by Yella Rottländer) in the airport who’ve, along with himself, just learned their flight back to Germany has been cancelled due to a union strike. They must depart the following afternoon for Amsterdam as it’s as close as they can get to home.

A little girl slumps against her suitcase while sitting in a bus station.
Photo credit: Chris Holenia

A theme I picked up on in the trilogy is Rudiger’s ability to silently connect with his fellow main characters in these films. Few words are exchanged between the woman and Philip, but they’re brought back together after parting and remain as such until the woman flees in the morning, leaving her young daughter in Philip’s care.

The girl is precocious; you can tell she’s a bit wiser than her age. The two form a bond regardless, albeit begins rocky with confused tears and furrowed brows. Seeing their relationship progress is my favorite thing about this film. He becomes like her father/older brother, a protector type who feels it’s his duty to reunite her with her mother although naturally their relationship ebbs and flows as he’s very much thrown into the role and has no real obligation. Their journey together is thoughtful and complicated and well-worth the watch entirely.

“The Wrong Move” 1975 (German: Falsche Bewegung — “False Movement”)

A man and a woman stand talking while an old man sits on the hood of a car and observes.
Photo credit: Martin Schäfer

Rudiger stars again, this time as Wilhelm Meister, a writer who sets off on a journey seeking his idea of inspiration, leaving his mother and girlfriend in the midst. On his journey, Meister meets a series of eccentric supporting characters, each of whom he moves through somewhat complicated, albeit short relationships with. Meister sometimes narrates his own story, we hear his inner thoughts while watching his actions on screen, and they don’t always quite align. Careful not to make “the wrong move”, Meister often second guesses himself and changes his mind on the decisions he makes. As we watch our moody Meister move through the film, his vocation becomes more clear and his feelings for his companions deteriorate until a departure from the journey comes to a head. First glance, after finishing all three of these films, this one would be the odd one out. Not only is our Philip Winter missing, but there’s something cloudier about this film. A very unsympathetic air hangs over it and a few plotlines are a bit heavier than any in the other two films. A curious choice as a 2nd feature in the trilogy, “The Wrong Move” provides a break in nostalgic loneliness and places the watcher on an uncomfortable edge.

“Kings of the Road” 1976 (German: Im Lauf der Zeit, “in the course of time”)

Here we greet our beloved Philip (or Bruno) Winter (played by Rüdiger Vogler) once more. This time working as a traveling movie theatre technician, living a wayward life in a converted bus with a light-up Michelin Man adorned on the windshield. In true vagabond fashion, Volger rocks overalls with nothing on underneath and a sweet ‘stache which pairs nicely with his triumphant nose situation. Nearby Philip’s rest stop from the previous evening, a man sinks his VW Beetle in a half-hearted suicide attempt, very on-brand for the era and the setting. Following our trilogy’s theme, Philip takes him under his wing to join him on his travels. The pair are mostly silent in the beginning; they’ve made no vocal or physical connection but seem to be drawn together regardless.

Two men are in a van talking.
Photo credit: Martin Schäfer

We follow them throughout their journey across the country as they encounter tragic characters around every corner, Philip fixing equipment in dilapidated theatres as Robert Lander (played by Hans Zischler), as we later learn, explores the towns. Although there are heavy plotlines in this film, there’s still something airier and lighter about it compared to “The Wrong Move”. Yes, there’s some tragedy but watching everything unfold didn’t sit heavy on my chest as it did in the former. The film drifts on slowly, feeding the viewer a healthy dose of feelings but with little information and backstory. Until we come to the first of three hours (so grab a snack) where we find the two part ways temporarily, a much needed shift in the film as the two seemed to begin to grow disdain for one another. During this time, Philip meets a girl at the fair who happens to work in a movie theatre (how perfect is that?), and we discover not only does he have a change of clothes but he’s a gentleman as well. Meanwhile, Robert visits his father for the first time in 10 years. Their relationship is obviously strained and pain is exchanged. It’s during this time for both of our main characters that a shift is made in their relationship with one another. It’s as if they separated to take care of business and came back together refreshed and ready to continue on the road together once more. You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder — or whatever. Their comradery and adventure endears the viewer.

Winter’s conclusion comes soon after he and Robert visit his childhood home on the Rhine:

“I’m glad we went to the Rhine. For the first time I see myself as someone who’s gone through a certain time, and that time is my story. That feeling is quite comfortable.”

This tells us that perhaps visiting his childhood home and learning of tragic news is the first time Philip feels human. As if he’s been on autopilot most, if not all of his life. By far my favorite of the trilogy, I’d recommend “Kings of the Road” to those in search of a truly thoughtful, long, good old fashioned road movie.

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Aliya Nicole Al-Balooshi

Aliya Nicole Al-Balooshi

Bahraini/Baloch Audience & Revenue Strategist II, Community a la Camber Creative + independent film fan with a casual writing style & a pocket full of thoughts.