DER AMERIKANISCHE FREUND
(The American Friend)
West Germany-France, 1977
Director: Wim Wenders
Production: Road Movies Filmproduktion GmbH (Berlin), Les Films du Losange (Paris), Wim Wenders Produktion (Munich), and Westdeutschen Rundfunk (Cologne); Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 123 minutes (some sources list 127 minutes). Released 1977. Filmed in Paris.
Producer: Wim Wenders; screenplay: Wim Wenders, from the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith; photography: Robby Müller; editor: Peter Przygodda; art director: Sickerts; music: Jürgen Knieper.
Bruno Ganz (
); Dennis Hopper (
); Lisa Kreuzer (
); Gérard Blain (
); Nicholas Ray (
); Samuel Fuller (
); Peter Lilienthal (
); Daniel Schmid (
); Jean Eustache (
Man in restaurant
); Sandy Whitelaw (
Man in Paris
); Wim Wenders (
); Lou Castel (
); Andreas Dedecke (
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* * *
While marketing forged paintings in Hamburg, American expatriate Tom Ripley is introduced to picture-framer Jonathan Zimmermann. Suspecting something of Ripley's shady background, Jonathan snubs him. Ripley is hurt, and when he discovers that Jonathan is suffering from leukaemia, he gives his name to Raoul Minot, a gangster who is looking to pay someone with a clean record to wipe out his rivals. Anxious that his wife Marianne and small son Daniel will have enough to live on after his death, Jonathan accepts Monot's offer. But by this time Ripley, who really wants to be friends with Jonathan, regrets what he has done. However, it is too late, and both become caught up in an increasingly nightmarish scenario involving gangsters, murder, and pornography.
The American Friend continues the twin themes of Kings of the Road: male friendship and the relationship between Germany and America, especially in the area of cinema. This is a film absolutely drenched in cinematic resonances: the animosity-turned-friendship between Ripley and Jonathan is reminiscent of a whole host of romantic Hollywood comedies; the film is based (very loosely) on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote Strangers on a Train , the plot of which is echoed in the Jonathan/Minot deal; not only is Ripley played by Dennis Hopper, but there are also cameo roles from Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray, thus evoking the kind of Hollywood cinema loved by European cineastes and cinephiles (Godard's Made in USA was dedicated to Ray and Fuller, and the latter also appeared in it). The Nouvelle Vague connection is further strengthened by Minot being played by Gerard Blain from Truffaut's Les Mistons and Chabrol's Les Cousins , and by a curious similarity with Pierrot le Fou in that both films end with explosions on deserted beaches and a surviving character named Marianne. Jonathan's home contains a model of a Maltese cross (one of the inventions that made cinema possible), a zoetrope, and a lampshade which animates a picture of the locomotive made famous by Buster Keaton's The General. Modern cinema, meanwhile, is represented by the pornographic films (co-productions, naturally) in which the gangsters are involved. And so on.
The American Friend is perhaps best described as a contemporary Franco-German film noir in colour. Like most of its earlier American counterparts it's firmly set in the city, but here the cityscape is European (Hamburg, Paris, Munich) and only briefly American (New York), though one can't but help being reminded of the States when the Sam Fuller character is pushed downstairs in an echo of the famous murder by Richard Widmark in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death. And then again, all the cities look alike—that is, American— anyway, inhabited, or rather, passed through, by dislocated, rootless characters with an increasingly shaky sense of personal identity. Wenders himself has explained that he chose a combination of film stock and lenses to "obtain a certain strange, artificial atmosphere" and "an image close to hyperrealism," and in this he and his cameraman Robby Müller were quite strikingly successful. One is reminded both of Edward Hopper and Hitchcock, and again Wenders has said that he used Hitchcockian framing in order to achieve "archetypes of images that are at the same time realist and artificial." Indeed, part of the undoubted fascination of The American Friend lies in its extraordinary combination of elements that one associates with the Hollywood cinema and the European art cinema. Wenders has described it as "really dialectical in its attitude to the American cinema: it's full of love and hatred," and Timothy Corrigan has elaborated on this point, noting that, on the one hand, there is a "rigorous decomposition of shots throughout the film, a kind of dissecting and emptying . . . whereby the visual excess of so many deep-focus, Hollywood films becomes a flat Wendersian exactitude" whilst, on the other, many shots "recreate the textual brilliance that intentionally echoes and reproduces the texture of so many American films." Similarly, although the film is superficially a thriller and part of the crime genre, it is visually devoid of conventional psychological explanations, the characters are for the most part extremely ambiguous and hard to read, and the gangster plot lines convoluted to the point of absurdity.
Clearly, then, The American Friend is not just about the uneasy relationship between a particular German and a particular American. It also concerns the relationship between Germany and America. Fears of Americanisation in Germany go back into the nineteenth century (as indeed they do in Britain), and of course the American colonization of the German subconscious has always been a consistent Wenders theme. But this, like his other films, is no simple anti-American parable like Herzog's Stroszek. Jonathan, like many a Wenders hero, and indeed like the director himself, clearly likes a good deal about American culture and, as Kathe Geist has observed, "far from being a man with no culture, Ripley possesses a rich and vibrant culture which Wenders enthusiastically shows us in Ripley's dress (blue jeans, cowboy boots, and cowboy hat) and furnishings (a jukebox, Coca-Cola machine, pool table, and neon Canada Dry sign)." If there is American exploitation here it is, to a large extent, accepted and even welcomed. As Corrigan has put it, the relationship between Ripley and Jonathan in the film, like the relationship between the American and German film industries, is less a matter of exploitation and "more accurately described as a series of shared twists, contradictions, and compromises in which one's responses encourage the other's actions." In both the film and the industry, the friendship develops around mutual need, admiration and resentment; in both the film and the industry, the friendship is inherently, to borrow Jean Varboni's phrase, "a malady of love." This analogy works extremely well, especially when one considers the problems Wenders faced with Hammett , where he played Jonathan to Coppola's Ripley.