The American Friend

The American Friend ★★★★½

Angst-dark primary colors—reds and blues so intense they’re near­ psychedelic, yet grimy, rotting in the thick, muggy atmosphere. Cities that blur into each other. Characters as figures in cityscapes or as exiles in rooms that are insistently not home. And, under it all, morbid, premon­itory music. The American Friend moves with a slow burn and has a dark, tense atmosphere where the characters wander through a no-man's land of deceit. It is a serious film with a suspenseful plot and the coming together of a German art film with American Film Noir. It intrigue us viewers to sit back and let the atmosphere of the film inundate us, however dark it may be. What makes this film special is that it feels focused not on the actual storyline, but more on the inner worlds of the two main characters: Ripley and Zimmermann—their relationship, motives behind their actions and choices, and the atmosphere surrounding them. Jürgen Knieper’s score plays a big role in creating that atmosphere of darkness, suspense, and hopelessness. It may be a thriller, but the film asks a tough question: what would we do if we knew we were going to die? Wenders’s pensive, oblique method treats that question with understated seriousness. The American Friend does not just dress genre in angst-ridden clothes. It has a core of real feeling, and its influence more than proves the value of Wenders’s approach.

The plot is a slow-burn like I mentioned, focusing more on atmosphere and a deep undercurrent of anxiety, over set pieces. A feeling of existential dread permeates throughout the film, things are often revealed more by feeling than by dialogue or action. Characters’ living spaces, their emotional states, especially when they are alone, often speak more than they actually say out loud. Wenders creates a paranoid and tense atmosphere to frame the story. With its focus on the insides of its characters heads, the film serves as a kind of updated version of noir. There is a dark, moody soundtrack and the cinematography by Robby Müller is beautiful and ominous with its high contrast and saturated colors. This is a movie that practically glows, it’s so bold and pretty. That’s a stark contrast between visual style and content, and it does a great deal to shift the film’s energy away from anything that a plain recitation of its plot would suggest. Keeping in line with the reality that this is Zimmermann’s film above all, the very particular look of The American Friend, with its pop-up colors, works in a way to evoke the very keen awareness of what things look and feel like that might occur to a man convinced he’s in the last stages of his life, and being thrust into experiences far beyond anything within his sphere. It’s an intense-looking film to suit the intensified perception of its protagonist, I’d argue, and a tremendously lovely one at that. It’s crafty and beguiling and unexpectedly smart about people, and absolutely worth treasuring: a gorgeous, taut movie with vivid characters on impressively complex journeys, one of the most humane and cinematically articulate thrillers I’ve seen in a while.

All in all, The American Friend is a rich cinematic experience about spiritual isolation and moral ambiguity in a world where we must make difficult choices to deal with the problems that confront us in life. Highly Recommended!

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