A fine and perhaps unique example of that trickiest of genres, the road movie, and the sort of film that really does deserve the cliched response: they don’t make them like that any more, because they really don’t. This is Wim Wenders’ black-and-white 1974 film, whose cerebral, confident strangeness looks even more distinctive than ever.
Rüdiger Vogler plays Philip, a writer and journalist driving across the United States, having evidently been commissioned to write a long piece of reportage, summoning up the soul of America from the standpoint of a sharp-eyed, sceptical European. But as Philip drifts around from motel to motel - and Wenders’ movie really does look as if it has been composed on the spot - he is blocked. Something in America has defeated him as a writer and all he can do is take numb, alienated photos with a prototype Polaroid camera. It is only on deciding to return to Europe that he finds he can write again, and he intends to return in the company of a young woman and her small daughter Alice who he’s simply picked up at the airport. But enigmatically, the woman disappears just before departure and leaves Philip in charge of Alice on the plane, with a plea that the pair should meet up with her in Amsterdam.
In 2007, when the danger to children is so paramount in culture, all this seems utterly astonishing, and yet Wenders’ film and his jaded protagonist simply go with the flow - and the flow is in a historically regressive direction, from America back to Old Europe. Philip and Alice drift through Germany on an unlikely quest to find Alice’s grandmother. Philip doesn’t obviously get into trouble; neither one learns life lessons in the modern Hollywood style; they don’t appear to learn much about each other or themselves, and they don’t go on much of a “journey” in the reality-TV-contestant style.
All that happens is that the psychological weather progressively lightens; Philips finds himself writing again and the film concludes with a thrilling scene of elation: a feeling of exhilaration and freedom on board a train. It is an intriguing movie that lives in the mind for hours after the lights have come up.