Wim Wenders’ neo-noir thriller, The American Friend, looks like it was cut from the same cloth as other films from the genre. When viewing the film in 2016, it’s hard not to make stylistic connections to such titles as: The French Connection, Chinatown, and Point Blank. However, what makes The American Friend stand out from its counterparts is that it doesn’t concern itself with trying to fulfill a mysterious plotline.
Like many of Wenders’ most notable works, the director often uses the images in the film to tell the story, rather than the plot itself. The American Friend is a convoluted look at a trans-Atlantic crime ring that extrapolates a large profit from art fraud. Tom Ripley, played by the always-cool Dennis Hopper, is a long-time American ex-pat in Germany. He lives in a large beautiful house in a secluded Hamburg suburb and has made himself a fortune contracting painters to forge great works of art to be sold at European auctions. He then appoints an insider to attend the auction and drive up the price of the painting. Once the painting is indirectly back in his control, he does the same thing in America to fetch an even greater sum.
This is a brilliant take on the commodification of art in 1970s America and perhaps even a wink from Wenders himself. When a fake ‘Derwatt’ painting is sold at an auction in one of the film’s opening scenes, one character mentions that the “tone of the blue” looks off from the artist’s authentic work. This comment is met with indifference by another character who then says it doesn’t matter because even a blatant forgery is still a sure thing in America, where it promises to sell for many times over the set price.
It’s clear that Wenders is doing something similar here. He’s adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, but has disposed much of the narrative in favour of a moody and dizzying atmosphere. The American Friend is an intricate American story being used as a commentary against Americans. Wenders used the guise of a then-popular genre of filmmaking to expose the weakness of a culture that placed a monetary value on art before it actually understood what it meant.
Regardless, Wenders still manages to do the genre proud. Jürgen Knieper’s menacing score sets a paranoiac mood from the beginning. Even as the characters are enmeshed in seemingly un-dramatic conversations, the menacing strings manage to tingle the spine. The story toggles through locations at breakneck speed. One moment the characters are in Germany, the next in France, and the next in America. Yet, despite these continental shifts, the fluidity of the editing allows the film to maintain its gripping pace.
Despite The American Friend’s cinematic triumphs, the most memorable element of the film lies in Bruno Ganz’s performance as Jonathan Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a pawn – taken advantage of by the numerous forces of power that exist within the story. He is a father to a young boy, a husband to a concerned wife, and a man dying from leukemia.
The film unfolds as Zimmerman’s life is manipulated at the expense of others. As an expert picture framer, it is fitting that one of Zimmerman’s earliest scenes is a quick shot of him holding together a picture frame around his head. Though blatant, Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller’s choice of framing this shot is the most apt moment in the entire film. It works on several levels and sets the tone for the rest of The American Friend.
Ganz portrays Zimmerman as a man at the mercy of time. He becomes visibly weakened as the film progresses and he struggles to arrive at tough decisions in the face of impossible questions. This is a man systematically broken down from once being the master of a highly sought-after trade, to becoming a prisoner in his own environment.
As logic starts to become less crucial to the progression of the film, the characters become more irrational. The lives of individuals are devalued as commerce takes hold of every action. The sacrifice of Zimmerman’s life to feed this capitalistic machine is symptomatic of a changing global marketplace in which friendship is viewed as a tactic, and art is nothing more than a means to an end.
On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders is currently taking place at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. To purchase tickets for the 6:15 pm screening of The American Friend on Friday, February 5th, visit the link here. To purchase tickets for other films part of the retrospective, visit the program page.
Additionally, be sure to check out the sidebar program, Wim’s Films: American Friends & Foreign Influences, running until March 17th. “This deluxe survey, curated by James Quandt, Senior Programmer, TIFF Cinematheque, spotlights fifteen of “Wim’s Films”—road movies and noirs, venerated classics and films maudits—gathered both from evidence (Wenders’ own list of favourites) and inference (of his obvious influences and affinities).” The full guide can be found here.
Here is TIFF’s trailer for the retrospective, On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders: