The American Friend

The American Friend ★★★★★

Wim Wenders’ The American Friend both celebrates and subverts its genre and its source, and in the process becomes its own wondrous thing. It strikes a nerve with its peculiar hybrid of hardboiled tension, pathos and absurdity and carries it aloft with a remarkable consistency of tone and finely tuned energy that I found genuinely thrilling.

The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. Wenders’ version of Tom Ripley is played by Dennis Hopper, a casting choice Highsmith was not impressed by. You can understand her point of view. Hopper is nothing if not odd and a far cry from the more mercurial versions played by Alain Delon in Purple Noon, and even Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. But what Hopper brings to bear that those actors can’t is a patented laid back air of menace. He plays Ripley as a benevolent, sentimental psychopath, with an air of ambivalence, as if he is suffering a bout of depression or some existential doubt about his life as a fraud. It is this heavy heart, lightly played, that Hopper pulls off brilliantly, and it sets the stage for a most unlikely and delightful of friendships, one that really seals the film’s success.

Early in the film, Tom Ripley is slighted at an auction by a framer, Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), who having spotted his forgery, refuses to shake Ripley’s hand. This simple action combined with loose lips about Jonathan’s incurable Leukaemia results in Jonathan being approached to kill a man in return for cash that will help provide a nest egg for his wife and child. Ripley having learned of Jonathan’s illness, and in an almost casual act of revenge for his slight, acts as the catalyst in setting the events in motion, a course Jonathan feels compelled to follow through with because of his worsening prognosis.

What follows is a twisting tale full of surprises and idiosyncratic delights, as we follow Jonathan to Paris to perform his amateurish hit before returning back to Germany where he and Ripley become unlikely friends. This is where the wonderful tension arises – it becomes a story about a man who may be dying, tempted into crime by the actions of a man who out of remorse and sentimentality decides to then become his friend. It amounts to a rich tale of fate, fraudulence and friendship, and against all the odds, it’s the friendship that becomes the true mark of the film. Hopper and Ganz make a wonderful pair – chalk and cheese, but with great chemistry and balance.

Reading up about the production, it’s remarkable that the two of them even managed to make a film together. Wenders explains that they hated each other at the start. Hopper had just arrived straight off the plane from his infamous shoot on Apocalypse Now, still addled with drugs, and with no intention of playing nice with this meticulous German stage actor. Meanwhile, Ganz was not about to respect Hopper’s loose methods and destructive approach to everything. And so by the first day of the shoot they hated each other so much that they got into a fist fight, resulting in bloody noses and leading both of them to walk off the set. But rather than licking their wounds they ended up spending the night on the town together, getting hopelessly drunk, and by the time they hobbled back to the set, they had become firm friends.

One thing that I found especially fascinating about this story is the extent to which both actors learned from the other over the course of the shoot. Hopper stopped winging it, got his drinking and drugs under control and paid close attention to the script and to his character. Ganz on the other hand, became more improvisatory and spontaneous in his approach to his character. Wenders reckons the experience made Ganz a better actor and possibly saved Hopper’s life. The effects also shone through the story, with a tangible sense of their friendship caught on film, and this was ultimately recognised by Wenders’ late decision on the title of the film. He had originally intended to call it “Framed”, however, its double meaning didn’t translate well into German, and he correctly identified that the essence of the film had, after all, become about a friendship.

Jonathan, the framer is of course framed. The film captures a real sense of his predicament represented through his deteriorating mental state. He is presented with bad news about his illness, but as he comes to accept his fate, it slowly frees him from the fear of consequence, and it’s in this disturbed state of mind that he’s able to commit his crime. His coming to terms with his fate echoes Ripley’s musings from earlier in the film “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. I know less and less about who I am or who anybody else is.” Jonathan seems to enjoy his transformation from a humble craftsman and family man to a hired killer, with a psycho friend, but you are never in doubt that he is going off the rails, and even after he is told that the negative prognosis was fabricated to get him to do the job, you sense he is still deteriorating fast.

The American Friend plays a lot with the notion of authenticity. There is the sub-plot concerning art forgery of course, but it is also played out through the men’s friendship. In Ripley’s case, you sense he has found in Jonathan, something authentic that he’s previously been denied. And in Jonathan’s, you sense that this is a man who is questioning his fundamental choices about what is good and bad and how best to live a life. Does he hold on to a happy family life, or does he take on the restless urge of last chances.

Wenders flips easily between locations and characters. There’s a deceptive ease to everything, and the resulting mood reaches inward getting under your skin. I found the pacing to be beautifully judged, a slowly flowing thriller, with all the time in the world, not afraid to hold the shot in order to watch and listen, but not slow exactly - andante rather than adagio.

The film looks great, with Robby Müller’s impeccable photography capturing the light of the low sun in the winter sky and finding saturated colour and texture in everything. The music is terrific throughout with Jürgen Kniepper’s chugging strings at times sounding like a laid-back 70’s version of parts of Psycho. And I loved the actors, many of whom are film directors in real life. As well as Hopper of course, there are small parts played by Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller and a host of others. The conversations between Hopper and Ray are wonderful, capturing their first reunion since Rebel Without a Cause, with dialogue built of aphorisms: “a little older, a little more confused.” Hopper is great, but Ganz is the heart of the film, bringing his kind-eyed, gentle-voiced magic to every scene.

I understand why this is not going to be everyone’s type of film - it is often quite odd -but for me it is near perfect and a real sentimental favourite.   

Favourite Films | Wim Wenders Ranked.

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