“The American Friend” - Wim Wenders (1977)

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund, 1977), one of the greatest of all films noir, came not from the US and French film-noir traditions with which we usually associate the genre, but from an upstart young German writer-director, Wim Wenders. Of course when you think about it, the film-noir tradition provides a cinematic vehicle for expressionistic representations of doomed, hopeless existence.  And who better to push the boundaries of this artistic mode than someone from the German culture, with its great heritage of German Expressionism [1]?

Wenders was only 31 at the time of this production, but he had already established himself with a string of films including The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, 1972),  and his celebrated Road Movie trilogy – Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten, 1974 ), The Wrong Move (Falsche Bewegung, 1975), and Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976).  In contrast to those earlier films,  all of which had loosely constructed plots depicting the aimless wanderings of their youthful protagonists, The American Friend moved squarely into the dark, dramatic intensity of the film noir.

The story is based on the work of American crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, primarily Ripley’s Game (1974), but also elements of Ripley Underground (1970).  Highsmith’s provocative thrillers were adopted many times over the years by top filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960), Claude Chabrol’s  Le Cri du Hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987), and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); and many of these stories feature Highsmith’s unconscionable psychopath Tom Ripley as a central character. It was Wenders’s genius, however, to shift more of the focus in The American Friend over to the other principal character in the story, and that is part of what elevates his version of the tale to another level.

In this story there are several dramatic elements that heighten the tension and fascinate the viewer.  First of all there is the psychological contrast between the two principal characters [2].
  • Tom Ripley is a wealthy American “cowboy” (in fact he usually dons a cowboy hat) businessman living in  Hamburg, Germany.  He comes across initially as cordial, but he is utterly ruthless when he feels the need.  Although he is emotionally volatile and reckless, he is also sensitive to others around him and is often insecure on the personal level.  In general he seems to be desperately searching for something that he doesn’t understand.
  • Jonathan Zimmerman is a skilled artisan picture framer who operates his own modest shop in Hamburg.  He is a pensive and sensitive perceiver who listens to those around him and doesn’t push himself on others.  He, too, is desperate, but the source of his ultimate anxiety is clearly and constantly in focus: his imminent death from a fatally progressive health condition.
Ripley is the unscrupulous provocateur, and it his “game” to draw the essentially decent and caring Zimmerman into his dark underworld.

Secondly, remember that film noir has three essential narrative obsessions: fatalism, truth, and loyalty [3,4].  In The American Friend each of these aspects is pushed to the extreme end of the scale:

  • Fatalism
    Usually the main film-noir characters have pasts they would like to forget and have no higher hopes than to escape their currently desperate circumstances.  But here the protagonist Zimmerman is faced with what seems to be utterly certain annihilation – there is no escape.
  • Truth
    The truth is always elusive in a film noir, with many double-crossers ready to trick you along the way.  Here in this film, untruths are incessant and almost the norm.  Even the basically honest and well-meaning Zimmerman finds himself lying to those around him.
  • Loyalty  
    Because almost noone in a film noir can be trusted, including the cops, there is an emphasis on profound loyalty to a trusted individual.  In The American Friend, a mysterious sense of loyalty drives individuals to what can only be considered to be bizarre actions of support.
Thirdly, there is the dramatic element of situating pivotal narrative elements on a train.  There is something mysteriously compelling about such train films.  The cramped feeling of confinement, the limited escape paths, and the strange awareness of a rapidly approaching destiny are all part of this. They all heighten the existential tension of the story.  For a stunning example see Europa (1991). Hitchcock, in particular, exploited these effects in a number of his films, for example The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).

All of this dramatic tension is further amplified by Wenders’s expressionistic mise-en-scene, involving the camera work of Robby Müller and editing of Peter Przygodda, both regulars on Wenders films. They employed a considerable number of emotive closeup shots that are smoothly woven into the visual flow of images. These closeups are crucial to the presentation of the byplay of Ripley and Zimmerman and their respective emotional journeys. Equally, if not more, important is the dramatic musical score by Jürgen Knieper, which overlays the film with a feeling of existential alarm.

One further interesting element in the production was Wenders’s filling the cast of dramatic roles with a number of film directors who were variously associated with the film noir tradition.  This included Dennis Hopper, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, Jean Eustache, and Rudolf Schündler. This will probably fascinate the inveterate cineaste, particularly seeing Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, but will not needlessly distract the average viewer.

The story of The American Friend plays out in three international cities – Hamburg, Paris, and New York City – but most of the action takes place in Hamburg.  Although the core narrative constructs are clear, some of the details behind what goes on are a little obscure, and seeing how everything fits together can heighten the enjoyment of a second viewing.  The narrative has four main segments.

1.  Ripley’s Fraudulent Art Game
The film starts in New York with American Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) talking to  an eccentric artist Derwatt (Nicholas Ray), who apparently fraudulently produces new “originals” of a famous deceased painter [5].  We also see Ripley lounging around his garishly decorated mansion in Hamburg. 

Later at a posh Hamburg art action, Ripley’s confederates bid  up the price of a Derwatt painting on sale before it is purchased by a Canadian friend (David Blue) of a local picture framer, Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), whose wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) works at the auction ceremony.  After the sale, the auction proprietor introduces Jonathan to Ripley, who extends his hand for a shake.  Jonathan somewhat rudely refuses Ripley’s extended hand, saying “I’ve heard of you”, and Ripley quietly fumes.  After Jonathan departs, though, the auction proprietor tries to excuse him by whispering to Ripley that Jonathan is depressed because he is terminally ill from some sort of blood disease.

Later at Ripley’s mansion, he is approached by a French gangster acquaintance,  Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain), who wants to contract Ripley to murder some of his enemies.  Ripley has his limits, though, and tells his friend Minot that he doesn’t like to murder people.

Ripley then visits Zimmerman’s shop to get one of his pictures framed, and the picture framer grudgingly apologizes for rudely refusing the handshake.   He tells Ripley, not knowing that he is in fact a criminal, that he doesn’t usually like people who treat art merely as a business investment.

Zimmerman then gets a telegram from his Canadian friend expressing sorrow over having heard that Zimmerman’s death is imminent.  Jonathan is alarmed, because although he has a life-threatening illness, he had thought that it had not progressed lately.  He rushes to his doctor, who assures him that his illness has not progressed, as was implied by his friend’s telegram. 

We will later learn that the telegram was faked by Ripley as part of an elaborate revenge for the insult of the spurned handshake.  He also apparently told Minot about Zimmerman’s condition. Minot then approaches Zimmerman and offers him a large sum of money to carry out his gangster killing, which he wants performed by an unknown so that he can avoid gangland retaliation.  Minot tells Zimmerman to fly to Paris, where he will pay for a second medical opinion as long as Zimmerman carries out the murder.

By this time the narrative focus has shifted from Ripley to Zimmerman.  Jonathan feels that he will die very soon and leave his wife and five-year-old son destitute.  He, himself, has no future, but he wants to leave something for them; and getting money to kill a known gangster criminal, as Minot assures him his murder target is, may be the only thing he can do for them. 

2.  A Visit to Paris
We are now closely following Jonathan’s angst, as he visits a medical clinic in Paris and gets results (fraudulently faked by Minot, we will later learn) that his condition is indeed hopeless. In a brilliantly filmed 12-minute sequence with no dialogue, Jonathan then stalks his target in the metro with a gun that Minot has given him.  Jonathan is in a daze of fear and confusion but eventually blunderingly carries out the execution and escapes undetected.

Back in New York, an American mafia chief (Sam Fuller) learns about the killing of one of his  top men in Paris.  Jonathan has momentarily escaped and is relieved, but now he has to lie to his wife about why he went to Paris.

3.  A Train Ride from Munich
Minot now offers Jonathan even more money to carry out a second killing.  This time his target is Minot’s ultimate enemy, the American mafia chief.  Jonathan is instructed to go to Munich and carry out the murder on the return train from there back to Hamburg.  It is at this point that we enter into the deliriously riveting 12-minute train ride sequence.

On the claustrophobic and fast-moving train back to Hamburg, the still-dazed Jonathan blunders again and is about to be killed by the mafia chief’s two bodyguards, when Ripley miraculously appears and dispatches them instead.  In fact Ripley does it without even taking the cigarette out of his mouth. Jonathan is shocked and cannot understand why Ripley was on the train to save him. They make it to Hamburg safely, although the targeted mafia chief has not been killed.

4.  Closure in Hamburg
Back in Hamburg Jonathan thanks Ripley and offers him half of his loot for getting rid of the two gangsters.  But Ripley declines and tells Jonathan to keep the money.  Asked what he really wants, Ripley simply says,
“I would like to be your friend.”  
By this point in the story, Jonathan knows that Ripley fabricated the story about Jonathan’s imminent death, so he asks him,
“Why did you spread this rumor. . . that I am with one foot in the grave?”
Ripley responds that he did it to take revenge on Jonathan for not shaking his hand at the auction.
Jonathan: “Is that all?”

Ripley: “Isn’t that enough?
This is what it is all about for the two men.  For Jonathan it is about existential survival.  For Ripley it is about losing face – which for him was also about existential survival.  But Ripley intervened on Jonathan’s behalf when it came to the second murder, because that was not part of his revenge plan against Jonathan – the second murder operation was Minot’s addition.   Such is the strange sense of loyalty and honor in the film-noir netherworld.

There is still more action to come, however.  Minot comes to Jonathan in Hamburg, reporting that his flat in Paris has been bombed by the mafia and wanting to know what got fouled up on the train operation.  Jonathan confesses to him that Ripley helped him. 

After Minot leaves, Jonathan calls up Ripley and reports that his confession has probably implicated Ripley.  Now things are coming to a head.  The mafia are out to get Minot, who may be in turn out to get Ripley.  And the mafia may be out to get Ripley, too.  They all converge on Ripley’s mansion – the American mafia boss with guards, Minot, even Marianne shows up – where Ripley and Jonathan are waiting for the dramatic denouement. You need to view this great film, yourself, to see how it all comes out.

What makes The American Friend compelling is the moody tone it gives to our vicarious experience of Jonathan’s angst-filled passage.  We are empathic fellow travelers on his bizarre journey that has been concocted by Ripley.  The music, the cinematography, and the editing all contribute to this experience.  Wenders even uses certain colors, not as symbols, but as mood-affecting expressionistic artifacts.  For example, the color red stands out in connection with Marianne and also with Ripley’s bedroom. The combination of all these elements provides a rich demonstration of why film can capture existential feelings that cannot be conjured up just from reading text. 

Jonathan Zimmerman’s struggling being-towards-death is contrasted with Ripley’s needy narcissism.  We follow Jonathan into the maelstrom initiated by Ripley, empathizing with his plight and even understanding (though not approving) how he can stagger into a murder plot.  At the same time we are fascinated by the odd “love” that Ripley feels for Jonathan.  Ripley doesn’t just want to be Jonathan’s friend.  He seems to want something more that is not explained.  (In fact a hint of sexual ambiguity is frequently in the background of Highsmith’s stories.)  All of this adds to the intrigue of the tale. 

In order to convey these psychological states, subtle acting is needed, and Wenders got excellent performances from Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, and Lisa Kreuzer.  In fact even though our main empathic focus is on Jonathan, the focalization of the film is not exclusively on him.  The film sometimes focalizes on Ripley and sometimes on Marianne, too.  But in all cases, the viewer is following the action from the perspective of Jonathan.

At the end of the film, noone has gotten what he or she wanted.  Ripley is abandoned and alone on a desolate beach. He reflectively says to himself, 
“Oh well, we made it, anyway, Jonathon.  Be careful.”
This is the film’s closing irony.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).
  2. Francine Prose, “Little Lies and Big Disasters”, Film Essays, The Criterion Collection, (12 January 2016).
  3. The Film Sufi, “Film Noir”, The Film Sufi, (8 November 2008).
  4. The Film Sufi, “Le Cercle Rouge”, The Film Sufi, (26 April 2016).
  5. The thought occurred to me that Derwatt may have faked his own death in order to promote the value of new posthumously discovered works, as in the fashion of The Art of Love (1965).

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