The American Friend (1977)

Directed by Wim Wenders

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The American Friend is an arthouse take on the fish out of water criminal story, if that’s a thing.  It seems like it is.  You take a nice, easy to root for guy and put him in a tough, tense situation in which he does something awful, but he knows it’s awful.  In some ways this story is very Hitchcockian, with the plot working in a way to put our sympathetic hero in an absurd spot, forced to make tough, violent decisions.  Wim Wenders’ film looks for the soul that’s often ignored within a Hitchcock film.  If that legendary director’s work is about inspiring an almost instinctive feeling (fear, suspense), The American Friend is about examining what a recurrence of those feelings will do to a person.

This story construction makes it all the more easy to root for our hero because we can’t help but put ourselves in his shoes.  Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) has to kill a stranger, and it’s much more engaging to watch him stumble around while working against his conscience than it would be to watch a professionally trained killer.

This moment is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train as the nice guy hero finds himself forced into a situation in which he must sneak into a house and kill an older man he’s never met.  The entire movie, in that case, seems to have been built around that single moment, meaning the lead up and occasionally the fallout will be less exciting than that heightened, focus scene.

The American Friend, though, takes its time getting to that particular moment.  There will be two such moments, actually, in which Jonathan must kill a man he’s never met but is told is a criminal.

Jonathan is a picture framer living in Hamburg, Germany.  He’s a family man, he’s an art expert and he’s sick with an unknown blood disease.  One day he’s introduced to Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), a man who deals in art forgery, and refuses to shake his hand.

This small moment will lead Ripley to recommend Jonathan as a potential hitman to his boss Raoul Minot.  Minot needs someone killed and appeals to Jonathan to do it for a large sum of money.  Why would he do it?  Well Minot goes to great lengths to falsify Jonathan’s health records, making him believe he is soon to die.  Wanting to leave something behind for his wife and kids, Jonathan eventually agrees to the hit.

Though ostensibly a heavily plotted movie, the real story doesn’t kick in for about 30 minutes.  This means that by the time Jonathan agrees to perform the hit, you expect it to be pushed back much later in the film.  In other versions of this story, the hit would be the climax of the film, Jonathan’s ultimate decision which determines his fate.  Either that or the hit would take place at around the 30 minute mark, acting as the first of several forays into the criminal world.

As it is, the hit (the first of two) takes place at around the 50 minute mark, almost halfway into the movie.  The placement is odd because so much has gone into convincing Jonathan to perform the job, and once he says ‘yes,’ the hit goes down almost immediately.

Jonathan is told to board a subway train with a gun and to shoot the target before walking away calmly.  In the confusion he should be able to get away undetected.

That sequence is incredibly, effectively drawn out, shown almost in real time.  It’s a long, silent sequence in which we wonder if Jonathan will go through with the job or even if it will work out as planned.  Ganz has a strangely expressive face even as he seems to only have one expression.  He always seems calm on the surface, and yet you can see the stress bubbling up.  His change in demeanor is aided by the increased perspiration and a cut he suffers when he nearly loses track of the man he’s meant to kill.

Jonathan eventually kills the man, and the swiftness with which he runs away (as well as a shot of several security cameras) implies that he will soon be caught by law enforcement.  As the story goes on, though, the police never become a presence in the film.  Directed Wim Wenders goes out of his way to show that security footage has spotted Jonathan, but I think this acts more as the perspective of something like God or karma.

After the hit, we see that Jonathan is being watched.  Whether it’s the police or some other force, the point is made that there is no going back.  Jonathan has sold part of his soul to do this job, and from here on out he will slowly begin to unravel, despite the initial wave of ecstasy he feels after having gotten away.

That’s because despite returning home, Jonathan is under Minot’s thumb.  He’s asked to perform another hit, one he can’t really reject since he’s in too deep.  The second hit goes down successfully, but only because of the Tom Ripley’s help.

Now, Tom is a fascinating character, mostly because Hopper is a fascinating performer.  Most of his performances (particularly Easy RiderApocalypse Now and Blue Velvet) depict a man who is almost out of his mind but not quite.  He’s living on the edge of something, and there’s a certain unpredictability that comes across in all of his roles.

In this case Ripley is involved in the murder but expresses remorse before the hit goes down.  He helps falsify Jonathan’s health records in an attempt to get him to perform the hit, all because he felt slighted when Jonathan refused to shake his hand.

Ripley at once demonstrates a conscience and a strange sense of revenge.  He doesn’t want to kill a man, but he doesn’t mind convincing another that he’s dying.  Tom Ripley is the man alluded to in the movie’s title, and the book on which this is based is “Ripley’s Game.”

He’s a strange force, almost more symbolic and theoretical than real.  Ripley is mostly outside of the main plot even as his actions drive it all forward.  After the first hit goes down, Ripley becomes concerned for Jonathan because of their growing friendship.  When the second hit is to take place, Ripley intervenes, helping save Jonathan’s life.

The men are in this together, and they’re only drawn in closer when they begin to fear that a rival gang of assassins has caught onto them.  Minot’s apartment is bombed, and Ripley and Jonathan hide out in Ripley’s unusual house which resembles a southern plantation.

They await the arrival of the assassins, then kill them and drive to the beach to dispose of the bodies.  By this time Jonathan’s wife, Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer), has arrived as well, having tracked him down and expressed sympathy for him following the discovery that he was hiding something from her.

Jonathan and Marianne follow Ripley to a beautiful spot where Ripley blows up the car carrying the assassins.  Perhaps with a change of heart, Jonathan speeds away in his own car, leaving Ripley behind.  He shrieks with a psychotic delight and drives off the road, frightening his wife, before he explains that everything is going dark and dies.

The American Friend follows many of the beats of a crime movie, but it also abandons much of that formula.  The police never close in on Jonathan, his wife returns to him even after uncovering the truth of what he’s up to, Minot doesn’t prove to be the big villain and Ripley is nothing more than well-intentioned, at least following his initial action to push Jonathan into this new world.

Still, Jonathan gets his comeuppance for what he’s done.  He murders or helps murder somewhere between four and six men, and in that time he changes from a paranoid everyman to haunted to psychotic to dead.  He expresses so many different emotions, but after the initial killing, it’s as if his soul is being slowly drained from his body.  Though no earthy force is there to bring him down, it’s Jonathan’s own sanity that’s corrupted by his actions.

By the end of the movie, Jonathan and Ripley are almost the same person.  They’re equally unfazed and still affected by what they’re doing.  They act almost on autopilot, killing out of survival but experiencing less of a thrill or even disgust with what they do.  It’s not really until Ripley blows up the car that Jonathan is shaken from his daze and decides to get as far away as possible.  When he shrieks in the car, it’s as if he’s so far removed from himself that he’s like a child trying out any means of expression at his disposal.  His wife looks on in fear, wondering what’s become of her husband, and then he dies by the disease he was eventually told wasn’t really as bad as he believed.

Is it that blood disease which killed him or something more symbolic?  The feeling you get is that his soul couldn’t handle what he had done and who he had become.

Jonathan is done in by his “American friend,” a man who, though tormented, was more constructed for a certain way of life.  Really, it’s as if Ripley is a character from any of those American crime movies, like, let’s say, The Godfather.  His first name is Tom, kind of like the Robert Duvall character, so let’s run with it.

Ripley was a character out of this world who ventured to Hamburg and pulled Jonathan in.  Jonathan, in this case, would be that average moviegoer.  He’s made to act like Ripley, but he could never handle that kind of weight.  He plays the proper part, going along with the violence of this way of life, but in the end he dies as if he’s a flower dried out by the heat.  He’s not shot or stabbed or strangled.  He just dies.

Wenders himself seemed to have an affinity for American cinema, from the little that I’ve read about him, and perhaps he saw himself in Jonathan, as if wondering how he’d hold up if inserted into an American crime movie.

The only other movies by Wenders I have seen are two movies he’d make later in his career, 1984’s Paris, Texas and 1987’s Wings of Desire, also starring Bruno Ganz.  Both of those movies follow a character who’s trying to come back to life.  One is a man who cast himself out of society and has spent years wandering the desert while the other is an angel who observes the people of Berlin, and despite witnessing all of their many problems, all he wants is to be like them.

With Jonathan’s belief that he is soon to die, this film similarly plays with that blurred line between life and death.  In these movies death is more symbolic than literal, meaning that the separation between that and life is mysteriously abstract.  The characters in those other two movies want only to live, at least as the story goes on, but Jonathan goes the other direction.  They’re like ships passing in the night, but Jonathan’s going his own way.  He’s slowly dying throughout the movie, even if he doesn’t realize it, and by the end he seems to accept his death because he’s forgotten how to live.  The American Friend is much more haunting if you see it this way, with Jonathan forgetting what life was like before he took another’s life.  That earlier life, which gave him his wife and children, becomes as untouchable as death.  His new life is something like purgatory.  With his soul singed at the edges, he begins to lose track of what he’s fighting for because it’s certainly not to stay alive.

Up Next: The Longest Day (1962), Isle of Dogs (2018), Reality Bites (1994)

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