The road movie is really a pretty loosely defined genre that takes in everything from It Happened One Night and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels to Fellini’s La Strada and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. But no one has used the road movie more in his body of work than Wim Wenders. Almost all of his films have the road as their metaphor for life. From The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971) and Paris, Texas (1984) to Until the End of the World (1991), Wenders’ characters perpetually travel along life’s highways, in search of themselves and their place in the world. And Kings of the Road (I prefer In the Course of Time, a translation of the German title, Im Lauf der Zeit) is the road movie stripped to its purest form.
Rudiger Volger plays Bruno Winter, a traveling handyman who repairs movie theater projectors in all the tiny mom and pop movie theaters left in the sparsely populated German countryside. During a siesta one day, he meets Robert (Hanns Zischler), a despondent pediatrician who drives his VW Bug into a lake. Bruno offers him a ride in his huge diesel van, and the two are soon off on the endless two lane roads that connect the small towns. Very little happens. They stop to entertain a group of restless school children as they repair a movie theater loudspeaker, they meet a man whose wife has just killed herself by driving her car into a tree, they tell each other their dreams, they listen to old 45’s on a portable record player, they eat, and they drive.
Robert takes off on his own for a while to visit his father, an aging newspaper editor and publisher. Printing up his speech to his sleeping father as a “special edition” of the paper, Robert takes his father to task for his treatment of his late wife, Robert’s mother (the headline reads “How to Respect a Woman”). Bruno, meanwhile, meets a pretty girl at a roadside carnival (played by Lisa Kreuzer), and spends a night at the movie theater her grandparents own (that shows porn). Robert rejoins Bruno, and borrowing a BMW motorcycle with a sidecar, visit the creepy, deserted house where Bruno grew up. The two never really bond. Bruno doesn’t want to hear personal stories, and as the two begin sharing their thoughts, they soon realize they need to go their separate ways.
Three hours long, this film offers a poetic and deliberately paced reflection of the sheer lowliness of the characters. The German countryside, photographed in gorgeous black and white by Robby Muller and Martin Schafer, only underscores the pervading atmosphere of isolation. In some ways, the film often feels like a male version of Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece, Celine and Julie Go Boating (perhaps Bruno and Robert go Driving), and like Rivette’s film, it examines friendship as a necessary conduit for growth. For Wenders the road is liberating, a temporary oasis away from the increasing Americanization of the cities where the truly lonely and dispossessed find second chances, a place to cleanse and recharge the soul.