The American Friend

The American Friend ★★★★

Whenever I try to make sense of a film I’ve just watched—especially one such as this that left me so utterly mystified at points, and which ended with so many things left unanswered—I'll often refer to the words of the great Roger Ebert. His review for this film, a bold noir reimagining from German auteur, Wim Wenders, is summed up so brilliantly in his opening paragraph:

“There’s something cheerfully perverse about filming a thriller and then tossing out the parts that would help it make sense, but Wim Wenders has a certain success with the method in “The American Friend.” He challenges us to admit that we watch (and read) thrillers as much for atmosphere as for plot. And then he gives us so much atmosphere we’re almost swimming in it…”

This, in a nutshell, is exactly the reaction that this film instilled in me. It's a bizarre, surreal, expressionistic exercise in the futility of existence, centred around a terminally ill picture framer, Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) who after being given his prognosis ends up entangling himself in the murderous enterprises of Dennis Hopper’s American art forger, Tom Ripley. Motivated by the offer of a big payout that he can leave behind for his wife and child after he dies, Zimmermann agrees to carry out a string of assassinations for one of Ripley’s gangster contacts, all the while completely unaware that Ripley has thrown him into this dangerous criminal underworld as a way of getting back at him for a petty personal slight. Somehow, Zimmermann manages to fumble his way through these bloody tasks, and in the process a bond develops between him and Ripley that completely alters the latter’s outlook.

It is, as Ebert so efficiently summarised, a film that concerns itself far more with mood and atmosphere at the expense of narrative coherency. It looks amazing—the photography is striking, especially in the fluorescent-lit interiors where you can smell the cigarette smoke, the musty damp wallpaper, and the wood dust of Zimmerman’s workshop. The stark, austere city architecture of Hamberg and the cold, imposing walls of the Paris Metro also really adds to the distinctly solemn tone of the film. Wenders doesn’t divulge a whole lot of details about his characters, but he does spend time with them, to the extent that we feel like we have come to know them, and learn what drives them, by the time the film ends. Hopper, admittedly, seems to exist in pretty much the same headspace as he did in Easy Rider some eight years earlier (1977 was apparently slap bang in the middle of the drug-fuelled “wild man” phase of his career) but Ganz’s performance is extremely well balanced, his gaze often appearing to drift off into the middle distance, in a way that seems to echo how his character has surrendered himself to his dismal fate.

It’s in many ways an odd experience—one that is difficult to pin down or make articulate sense of—but it is certainly a unique one, and it is bound to linger with me for quite some time to come.

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