Despite what its title suggests, Wim Wenders' The Road Trilogy was not originally intended as such. This collection of three films from his early career (Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road, 1974-76) was first given this title by late American critic Richard Roud, despite the fact that these aren't interconnected stories. All three feature performances by Rudiger Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer, an extremely small crew (including cinematographer Robby Muller and editor Peter Przygodda), with a loose theme of travel at their core. They're presented as one handy Blu-ray set by Criterion, along with terrific A/V restorations and a healthy dose of new and vintage supplements.
Wenders admits in an included 2016 interview that Alice in the Cities (1974) was when he first felt like a filmmaker. Shot in the summer during an eight-week period with less than a dozen total crew members---and an even smaller cast---this black-and-white, 16mm fairytale is easily his best early work and closely resembles his later, equally impressive Paris, Texas. As for the story itself, it's certainly far-fetched but easy to get lost in: Rudiger Vogler portrays Phil Winter, a wandering German journalist on assignment in the United States who's more interested in taking Polaroids than actually writing. He's quickly dismissed by his publisher and sent back his home country, during which time a flight delay leads to conversation with fellow German Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer) and her precocious nine year-old daughter Alice (Yella Rottlander). After the unlikely trio shares a room before the next day's flight, Lisa unexpectedly leaves Alice in Phil's care, instructing him to get a head start on the plane ride until she catches up a day or two later.
Not surprisingly, the aloof but extremely patient Phil is not prepared for temporary fatherhood and treats Alice more like a little sister. They're stuck together for the time being without much money...and when "a day or two" turns out to be a bit longer than expected, they end up killing time in New York City, Amsterdam, and all around their native Germany after deciding to track down Alice's grandmother without her address or last name. Naturally, the two are able to form a fast friendship despite her bristly nature, and the dual lead performances by Vogler and Rottlander make Alice in the Cities a standout drama that still surprises and delights more than 40 years after its original release. Expertly shot and smartly edited, it's the most immediately impressive and accessible of all three films included here.
As approachable as Alice in the Cities was and still is, Wenders' Wrong Move (1975) seems determined from the first scene to keep viewers at a distance. Vogler returns as Wilhelm Meister (again, a struggling writer and obvious stand-in for the director himself), who leaves home for a train ride to clear his head and hopefully get inspired. From there, he encounters a number of unlikely companions along the way: a beautiful actress (Hanna Schygulla), a former Olympian (Hans Christian Blech), a mute street performer (Nastassja Kinski, making her film debut here), and an aspiring poet (Peter Kern). Stuck together with no real destination, the group decides to camp out in a large castle owned by a lonely man (Ivan Desny), where tensions mount as the motley crew learns more about one another.
Wrong Move feels like the odd man out here, if we're making comparisons. It's shot in color, it features the largest cast of characters, the atmosphere is much darker, it's the only one with voice-over narration (added in post-production by writer and longtime Wenders collaborator Peter Handke), and very little time is spent on the road. For that reason, it's the least charming of the three and hardest to appreciate in context, as the film's balance is appropriately off and a number of strong left turns will leave many first-time viewers cold. But with no shortage of memorable performances and locations (the castle, in particular, is home to several great moments), there's still a good amount to like here...and if nothing else, it's the shortest and perhaps most efficient chapter of The Road Trilogy.
An appropriately epic-length closer, Kings of the Road (1976) clocks in at nearly three hours and has no shortage of time spent behind the wheel. Vogler (as Bruno Winter, a travelling film projectionist and repair technician) shares lead duties this time around with Hanns Zischler, who portrays down-and-out divorcee Robert Lander. The latter's reckless driving and pitiful suicide attempt leaves his Volkswagen Beetle submerged in a lake, while the amiable Bruno watches from a distance during a pit stop. The two cross paths and eventually hit the road together; there's no destination except for the small, struggling one-screen cinemas that dot the German landscape, most of which resort to showing soft-core films to dwindling audience members. Their home is Bruno's massive repair truck, easily the size of a small bus and loaded with old equipment, a jukebox, and the technician's prized portable record player.
As the most genuine "road movie" of the bunch and obviously influenced by American films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces (and, to a lesser extent, Two-Lane Blacktop), Kings of the Road has an extremely loose and episodic structure, no doubt due to its largely unscripted scenes and linear story path. Like Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move, the bulk of this drama was shot sequentially by its small but determined crew, and music (largely by German band Improved Sound Limited) plays a larger role this time around. First-time viewers may be shocked by the occasional nudity and a long view of dookie (funny story about that scene in an accompanying Wenders interview), but that's all just part of this loose, unpredictable tale of wandering spirits at a sad, strange period in their separate lives.
Presented in their original director-approved 1.66:1 aspect ratios, all three "chapters" of Wim Wenders' The Road Trilogy look absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray. As detailed in the packaging notes and individual introductions during the opening credits, each one has undergone extensive restoration by The Wim Wenders Foundation; as a result, the once-worn negatives sparkle in 1080p with strong image detail and textures, solid depth, consistent film grain, and terrific contrast levels. These obviously look like products of their time, which is a good thing. A few stray issues are still present if you squint hard enough: slight dirt and debris, the occasional missing frame, and occasional source material flaws (such as the Chuck Berry concert scene during Alice in the Cities, which has considerably deeper grain levels to match the footage licensed from D.A. Pennebaker), but these minor issues are so few and far between that they hardly even register in comparison to the hard work that went into making these films shine like new.
DISCLAIMER: The screens caps and stills on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Fine efforts all around. Alice in the Cities is the odd one out here: it's presented in LPCM 1.0 Mono, with Wrong Move and Kings of the Road getting the full DTS-HD 5.1 treatment. All three feature clear audio with minimal defects, good dynamic range and little in the way of source material issues. Obviously Wrong Move and Kings of the Road sound more robust in comparison, with solid use of the rear channels on several occasions---mostly for music cues, as expected---and a wider soundstage that suits the material very well. Optional English subtitles are included for all three films (and their commentaries), newly translated by the director himself for this Blu-ray collection.
As expected, Criterion's menu interface is smooth, descriptive, and easy to navigate. This three-disc release is housed in a paperboard slipcover with slim digipak cases for each film; a thick Booklet, also tucked inside, features essays by filmmakers Michael Almereyda and Allison Anders, author James Robison, and film critic Nick Roddick. It's very similar to the studio's earlier boxed set of Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, if not slightly more durable.
Plenty of material to dig through here, and with very little overlap. The main draws are three Audio Commentaries (one per film, and originally recorded in 2002 and 2005) with the director, who provides a great amount of insight and isn't afraid to admit "happy accidents" or when things didn't go as planned...assuming there was a plan in the first place, of course. More often than not, Wenders fills the time with stories about the production, themes, and the small crew he worked with, using a warm delivery and rarely lapsing into silence along the way. The first and third are presented in German with optional English subtitles, while Wrong Move's track is recorded in English without subs.
Discussion of each film continues with three new Interviews: Alice in the Cities features Rudiger Vogler, Yella Rottlander and Lisa Kreuzer (27:22); Wrong Move pairs up Vogler and Kreuzer (21:49); and Kings of the Road also adds Hanns Zischler (31:23). Each participant speaks warmly about their involvement with the films, as well as their working relationship with Wenders overall. On a related note, "Three for the Road" (64:03, included on the Wrong Move disc) is a new interview with Wenders hosted by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who discusses the films as a whole.
Several odds and ends are also included, mostly on the Alice in the Cities disc. The best is "Restoring Time" (15:16), which examines the extensive restoration done for all three films by The Wim Wenders Foundation at The ARRI Group's headquarters in Munich. This is less of a "before/after" comparison than a basic breakdown of the processes used for each of the original negatives, which were in various states of disrepair. Also here are two newly-restored Short Films by the director: Same Player Shoots Again (1967, 12:34) and Silver City Revisited (1968, 33:10), which are the earliest surviving works by Wenders as his first (1967's Schauplatze) has been lost. Last but not least are separate Outtakes and/or Super 8 Footage clips (approx. 40 minutes total), presented with music cues from each film.
Like most long and winding trips, the excitement of Wim Wenders' The Road Trilogy peaks early, dips near the halfway mark, and rebuilds momentum as its destination approaches. Alice in the Cities is one of the director's very best films, serving up an charming 16mm fairy tale that's aged well during the last four decades. Wrong Move is a considerably less bulletproof follow-up, but a uniquely entertaining chapter in its own right with several strong performances. Kings of the Road rights the ship somewhat, rebounding with an unpredictable and loose story that, in many respects, uses some of the same tricks as Alice in the Cities and classic American road movies. Either way, there's no denying that Criterion's Blu-ray set is one of their strongest in recent memory: serving up fantastic A/V treatments (sourced from recent restorations by The Wim Wenders Foundation) and plenty of terrific extras, The Road Trilogy is a no-brainer for anyone even halfway interested in the director's early career. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.