Only Things That Really Exist: On Dreams and Disillusionment in The Road Trilogy

“No, you aren’t dreaming.”

So says a train conductor early in Wim Wenders’ languid, existential meditation Wrong Move—the middle chapter of his Road Trilogy—an offhand comment meant to quell the confusion apparent on the face of Wilhelm Meister, an aspiring writer in the throes of creative and emotional despair. The irony of the statement is readily apparent, coming off the heels of a small stretch of pure oneiric beauty, where Wilhelm, as portrayed by Wenders’ regular Rüdiger Vogler, ostensibly sees the woman of his dreams drift by in a parallel running train. They lock eyes for a brief moment, the train station and verdant German landscape dividing them, still glossy with the morning’s rain. Wilhelm stares longingly, enraptured by her beauty, and selfishly, by a fleeting sense of inspiration. Who is this woman, he wonders, and what is her story? What is his story? He must know.

Therese Farner (Hanna Schygulla), Wrong Move

Turns out the answer isn’t very far: she is Therese Farner, an actress, says Laertes, an older man with a bloody nose and a harmonica. He is flanked by Mignon, a young, mute acrobat—Nastassja Kinski in her first role—and together they form a sort of street act: Laertes feigning blindness, Mignon juggling and cartwheeling about. They have boarded the train without tickets and stowed away in Wilhelm’s cabin, leaving him to pay their fare, more bemused than angered. Thus begins a voyage across a country that feels like home in name alone, as he starts to fashion a sort of temporary, makeshift family out of people entirely unknown to him. This includes Therese, whose number is conveniently given to Wilhelm by the train conductor, and Bernhard Landau, an earnest, if talentless aspiring poet who is impressed by Wilhelm’s writing.

So distinct are the individuals that make up this ragtag group, so aimless are their travels, one can’t help but feel Wrong Move’s novelistic origins in both structure (the film is a loose adaptation of a Goethe novel) and spirit. The characters whom Wilhelm interacts with are just that—characters. They are, whether he realizes it or not, manifestations of his latent creativity, subjects suitable for the novel or short story that eludes him so. And while the film never suggests that these people are apparitions or figments of Wilhelm’s imagination (such a conceit would be banal and uninteresting), Wrong Move nonetheless unfolds in that special in-between realm where reality and fiction converge: the open road. It is in this manner that the train conductor’s words ring hollow—the hypnotic lull of a passing landscape blurred beyond recognition, the confluence of disparate personalities venturing deeper and deeper into the unknown; what are these if not echoes of that somnial shimmer we know and love? So no, Wilhelm isn’t in a literal dream ala Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (or Snake Eater), but as a prisoner of thought and prosaicism he effectively exists within a spiritual one—as do many of the lost and lonely souls who inhabit the contours of Wenders’ dreamscape Road Trilogy.

But first, let’s take a step back and strip away the metaphor. It’s too convenient (read: unoriginal) to simply equate the transient nature of the road with the transient nature of dreams. We’ve all been there before, drooling, chin against seatbelt, engulfed in some form of sleep or another—as have we all absentmindedly observed a seemingly infinite stretch of lapsing emptiness, eyes glazed, daydreaming of a world beyond. This resonance is part of our species’ cultural fabric; Wenders knows as much and utilizes it to great success. It is not, however, the sole foundation on which the trilogy’s dreamlike qualities rest. All three films—Alice in the Cities being the first and Kings of the Road being the last—introduce the concept of dreams through basic conversation.

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A game of hangman, Alice in the Cities

The word “dream” is first used in Alice in the Cities during a game of hangman (pictured above) between two unlikely participants: Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), a disillusioned photojournalist struggling with writer’s block, and Alice, a precocious young girl with a keen taste for hotdogs. Like the train conductor’s statement in Wrong Move, the use of the word here is somewhat humorous; on his way home after a lengthy American road trip, Philip is entrusted with Alice’s care by her mother, Lisa, who must stay back in New York to hash some things out with her boyfriend. She promises to join the two in Amsterdam the following day (a worker’s strike has prevented all flights to Germany), an odd situation no doubt, but one that’s made even stranger by a crucial detail: Philip barely knows these people. Sure, he helps them book their plane tickets—and because he has nothing better to do, ends up spending the day with them—but that’s hardly a relationship. Imagine meeting someone at a coffee shop or in line at the DMV and then the next thing you know, you’re taking care of their kid. It’s bizarre! Not unlike dreams themselves.

Though Alice rebuffs Philip’s word choice—declaring “only things that really exist” are allowed in hangman—it clearly leaves a mark on her, as the next morning she recounts to Philip what she deems a “strange dream,” in which, after turning on a TV, she ties herself to a chair, rendering her unable to look away as a horror movie plays out on screen. The description brings a smile to Philip’s face, mirroring an experience of his own earlier in the film where, holed up in a cheap motel, he watches TV in disgust, the barrage of commercials as ghastly to him as any act of horror. Then, near the end of the film, after waking Wilhelm up early in the morning (to his great displeasure), she asks him what he dreamed about. “I’ll tell you later,” he responds. If he does, we never see it.

Still, given that in the final moments of the film he tells her that he’ll “finish writing [his] story” when he gets back to Munich, it’s easy to surmise that in some fashion his road trip across America and subsequent experience with Alice represents a sort of elongated dream from which he’s finally awakened. He spends most of the movie in a cloud, unable to put the hollow nature of his travel into words, capturing polaroids to help him understand his foreign surroundings. As strange as the circumstances are, it’s not until he meets Alice that a sense of clarity begins to form. This is best represented by a striking sequence about three-fourths of the way through involving a Chuck Berry concert. Exasperated and out of options, Philip finally turns Alice over to the police after her mother doesn’t show up and they’ve failed to locate her grandmother. Chuck Berry just so happens to be playing nearby, so he decides to check him out. It’s a surreal interlude, almost otherworldly in how removed it is from the rest of the film, which makes sense considering the footage is taken from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1969 music documentary Sweet Toronto. Then, when Philip returns to his hotel, lo and behold who is there but Alice? All he can do is laugh, the joy of spontaneity crystallizing at last.

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Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler), Kings of the Road

As you might surmise from its title, out of all three films, Kings of the Road is the one most emblematic of Wenders’ fascination with the highway, and as such, it’s no stranger to the dreamlike components found in its predecessors, nor to the disillusionment of their protagonists. Vogler returns to complete a hat-trick of loneliness, this time as Bruno Winter, a traveling film projector repairman. Starring opposite of him is Hanns Zischler as Robert Lander, a child-psychologist who is perhaps even more damaged. They meet after Bruno witnesses Robert drive his car into a river in a halfhearted suicide attempt, and from there they commence roving from one rural German town to another, grappling with all manner of depression along the way.

The first of two instances directly mentioning dreams comes just seven minutes in, when Bruno says to himself, “How can you dream such crap?” after waking up alone in his van, right before Robert’s high speed entrance. It’s a small moment, but one that sets the tone for the rest of the film, and also highlights a recurring motif in the Road Trilogy: people waking up. I’ve already detailed instances from Alice in the Cities, and rest assured Wrong Move features a pivotal scene as well, but coming in at just a tad under three hours, Kings of the Road utilizes the theme to its greatest extent. Actions frequently happen while characters are sleeping, and often lead to that character then waking up, essentially plunging them from one state of dreaming into another.

The biggest example of this phenomenon occurs a little over an hour in, when Bruno, sleeping in the front seat, is awakened by the sound of Robert and another man talking in the back of the van. He overhears the man explain how his wife committed suicide by driving into a nearby tree earlier in the day, her car still outside, smashed against its trunk. At this point, the film’s classic rock-inspired score begins to swell, and unbeknownst to them, Bruno slips out and wanders over to the car, a full moon shining down on him, all of which, not so subtly, happens to coincide with the grieving man finally embracing sleep.

That scene segues directly into the second instance where the word is used; in the morning Robert recaps a dream to Bruno, which I will quote in full because any attempt at describing it would surely confound more than help:

“There was some ink that you could erase old writing with and write something new at the same time. I kept thinking and writing down the same thing, even when I kept waking up from this dream. Abstract repetitions, processes, paths that I experienced and wrote down simultaneously. That means dreaming was a form of writing in circles. Until I dreamt up the idea of using another ink. With this new ink, there were suddenly new things I could think and see and write. Everything was fixed.”

Robert’s passage is important for a number of factors—not only does it reinforce the notion of a constant dream state for the characters of the film, it brings actual reality into the fold by giving genuine insight into Wenders’ mind and his creative process. Remember, he was on the road as well, traveling just as much as anyone, and by all accounts, the script was made up relatively on the fly. Any creative will tell you that once the seed of an idea germinates, it’s impossible to get out of your head. When you’re not writing your ideas down, you’re thinking about them, and when you’re not thinking about them, you’re dreaming about them. When Robert says “dreaming was a form of writing”, it’s an indirect reference to his origin as a character born from words and dreams.

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Bernhard Landau (Peter Kern), Wrong Move

Which brings us back to our original topic of conversation, Wrong Move. As with the other two films, there is a scene involving someone’s account of a dream, though in this case several people get in on the action. Midway through the movie, while on their travels, Wilhelm and his odd troupe of companions end up spending the night at a suicidal man’s house; their arrival, spurred by Bernhard mistakenly believing the house is his uncle’s, briefly prolongs his life. Then, in the morning, they all gather and discuss their dreams. Therese talks about ice skating on a frozen sea, so far from the shore that she has trouble getting back, while Wilhelm describes one in which his imaginary child has to keep Laertes company in a dark mausoleum after the old man is sentenced to death. Their host goes on to detail a self-reflexive dream—like Robert’s in Kings of the Road—where he merely lies in bed, staring at his wall and bedroom door, only to wake periodically throughout the night to the same image in real life. Next in line is Bernhard, but to his dismay he has trouble remembering and can’t contribute. As for Mignon, Laertes answers for her: “She thinks dreams are ridiculous.”

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Bruno Winter (Vogler), Kings of the Road

So what does this grand confluence really mean? And not just in Wrong Move, but for the trilogy as a whole? Perhaps only Wenders truly knows, but for my money it all comes back to a nationwide existential crisis experienced by Germany in the 70s. The economy was floundering—a newspaper headline featured in Kings of the Road reads “One Million Unemployed”—and American culture was beginning to pervade certain aspects of German culture; the aforementioned Chuck Berry concert in Alice in the Cities is just one of many instances of this. The most eloquent way of putting it comes courtesy of Robert near the end of Kings: “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious!” he laughs, while he and Bruno sip Jack Daniels in an abandoned American bunker by the border of East and West Germany, the specter of World War II still looming large. And with reality that tough, who can blame Wenders for turning to the open road and the sweet embrace of a fleeting dream?

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