The American Friend and the Search for Meaning
New German cinema, marked from 1962 to 1988, is probably best known for churning out directors Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. But while Herzog’s films have sought the faraway reaches of both the Amazon and African landscape, Wender’s films have always centred on urban settings and the lives of people in these cities and places. Characters are often spent looking for something and exist as tormented figures in their respective worlds.
Wenders’ 1977 feature, The American Friend, showed another example of this in Dennis Hopper’s character, Tom Ripley, who spent his days selling art forgeries in Hamburg. This suspenseful thriller also stars Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Zimmerman, a man who works as a picture framer at the auction house. When word gets out that Zimmerman has a terminal illness, he is approached by an unknown man who offers him a great sum of money if he carries out an assassination in Paris. This brings Ripley closer to Zimmerman and the two begin to form a strange bond as their lives intersect.
Throughout the film Wenders leaves the viewer in a state of mystery as the story is never quite clear in The American Friend. Instead we are like Zimmerman, an ordinary man swept up into a situation that seems to play behind the scenes and which we can only fleetingly understand. On the other hand, Ripley is trapped in this world. As a wealthy American, he seems like an exiled figure in Hamburg, moving without purpose or goal, having long lost his real identity. Ripley’s search for identity draws parallels to both the angel from Wings of Desire (1987) and Travis from Paris, Texas (1984). However, unlike the two, Ripley does not reach a conclusion, his character continues to march through the world without answers, perhaps deservedly so.
With its chilling score and vibrant cinematography, Wenders brings both 70’s European culture and the American identity to the forefront in The American Friend. Tom Ripley, sporting his cowboy hat seems to be Wenders view of the American spirit at the time, undefined and perhaps undefinable, wandering across the landscape in search of answers. Hopper is well suited to play the part. Ganz on the other hand serves as the perfect actor to balance Hopper’s uncertainty, as the quiet Jonathan Zimmerman. Coupled with Wender’s ability to crease suspense, The American Friend is a film that will stay with you long after you watch it.
Anton Rivas Pertile – Film & TV Writer