STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984), a film widely credited with launching the American independent film movement of the 1980s, was described by director Jim Jarmusch as “a story about America as seen through the eyes of ‘strangers.’ It’s a story about exile (both from one’s country and oneself), and about connections that are just barely missed.” This is also an apt description of Wim Wenders’ ALICE IN THE CITIES (1974), a road movie that brought Wenders to the attention of American arthouse audiences, highlighted his significance in the New German Cinema, and strongly influenced later independent directors, including those working in the road movie genre. Watching ALICE IN THE CITIES raises questions about the history of the New German Cinema’s American reception, foreign films and arthouse theaters in the 1970s, and Wenders’ influence on American independent filmmakers, especially Jim Jarmusch.
Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, whose road movies include THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and ON THE ROAD, called the rarely-screened ALICE IN THE CITIES “one of the films that altered [his] perception of cinema,” which might suggest that the film was immediately hailed as a small masterpiece. However, the trajectory of the New German Cinema, notes film scholar Eric Rentschler, “runs like a road movie full of halting starts and quick stops.” Rather than experiencing overnight fame, this film movement gradually garnered critical accolades by the mid-1970s after years of screenings at film festivals. Similarly, Wenders’ first attempt to get the show on the road with ALICE IN THE CITIES nearly came to a screeching halt when he saw Peter Bogdanovich’s PAPER MOON (1973) and impulsively called off ALICE on the grounds that it was too similar, as both road movies featured a man and a young girl traveling together. However, Samuel Fuller convinced Wenders to resume production, and ALICE premiered in the US at the 1974 New York Film Festival, the main forum for introducing the New German Cinema to US audiences. Although it was praised by the New York Times as an “intelligent and ultimately touching film,” ALICE made little impact at the time, and its inability to get a US distributor until 1977 limited its exposure outside New York. However, the success of THE AMERICAN FRIEND, which premiered at the 1977 New York Film Festival, enhanced Wenders’ fame and generated renewed critical interest in his oeuvre, including ALICE.
While the larger-than-life directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog came to prominence before Wenders, US film critics defined the New German Cinema in terms of the auteurist trio of Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders by the late 1970s, a somewhat distorted view that sidelined other filmmakers, such as Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta. These filmmakers, born in the 1940s and raised in postwar West Germany, sought to recreate German cinema by the late 1960s, following decades of decline since the Nazi era. All brought unique styles and thematic concerns to their films, and Wenders’ early films are noted for their minimalist look and theme of the Americanization of Germany in the postwar period. Americanization is central to ALICE, dramatized through the German characters encountering American TV, movies, and music. While Wenders’ alter ego Philip loathes American TV to the extent of smashing one during a string of incredibly irritating commercials, he is more receptive to classic American rock ‘n roll, even attending a Chuck Berry concert in Germany. Philip’s views on American pop culture are shared by Wenders, who also hates commercial TV but loves some older American films, such as John Ford’s (referenced in ALICE), and especially rock ‘n roll, maintaining that it saved his life. While academic historians since the 1990s have researched and written about the impact of cultural Americanization on Europe, Wenders was ahead of his time in producing unique reports from the field on this phenomenon in the 1970s.
Many older cinephiles nostalgically recall the 1970s as a golden age of foreign films and arthouse cinemas in America, and the prominence of German films in this decade appears to fit in with this framework. However, the New German Cinema arrived in the US at a time when foreign film and arthouses were in decline. The high point of art cinema was in the late 1960s, before changes in American film content following the end of the Production Code, as well as changes in film distribution, signaled the decline of arthouses focusing on foreign film. Even in the 1960s, foreign film and art cinema were relatively limited phenomena. Venues for foreign films were mainly limited to arthouses in major cities and college towns, as well as film festivals, museums (the Museum of Modern Art was particularly important in promoting German films in the early 1970s, along with the New York Film Festival), college campuses, and, in the case of German films, Goethe Institutes in several American cities.
Watching ALICE IN THE CITIES and STRANGER THAN PARADISE in tandem helps illuminate the broader cinematic relationship between European art cinema and American independent film. Wenders and Jarmusch met during the production of a film about the director Nicholas Ray, whom they both admired. STRANGER THAN PARADISE resembles ALICE IN THE CITIES in several respects: both are black and white films that begin with an image of a plane, and feature the changing relationship between a man and his younger female charge, a European character who loves 1950s American rock ‘n roll, road trips, scenes in New York and a southeastern beach town, and a character who comments on the sameness of much of America. At the micro level, the Jarmusch-Wenders cinematic relationship reflects how American independent film borrowed conventions from European art films and began to rise in critical significance. Yet by the late 1980s, another European filmmaker, the “Finnish Fassbinder” Aki Kaurismaki, closely allied with Jarmusch and sharing his deadpan humor and minimalism, re-engaged Wenders’ idea of European rock ‘n roll fans encountering America on a road trip with his understated comic masterpiece, LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA (1989). In some ways, things had come full circle.