Monday 19 September 2022

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) (1977)


Den amerikanske ven

The seventies was a fertile period for many young directors and I am enjoying watching the early movies of directors who would grow into famous and influential filmmakers. Wim Wenders is another one of those and though “The American Friend” was by no means his first movie, it was his international breakthrough.

“The American Friend” is a neo-noir, which is already a plus for me. We never learn exactly what is going on, just bits and pieces. Lighting is faded, it is always either sunrise or sunset as if the characters are living in that half-light. Everyone is doomed in some way or another but retain some level of coolness. In the case of “The American Friend” there is the additional element of naturalism that just makes it scarier. This is not a cartoonish world but a very familiar one.

We follow the story through two viewpoints rather than one. Tom Ripley, American, (Dennis Hopper) deals in art forgery from a base in Hamburg and Jonathan Zimmerman, German, (Bruno Ganz) is an art expert who due to a blood disease now just do picture framing. They get in contact at an art auction where Jonathan recognizes Tom as a fraud and refuses to shake his hand. In return, when Tom is contacted by a gangster, Minot (Gerard Blain) looking for a hitman, he recommends Jonathan and exaggerates his poor health.

Minot contacts Jonathan and suggests that he take the contract to secure funds for his wife and son. Jonathan first refuses, but Minot tempts him with an expensive second opinion on his condition in Paris. One Minot of course falsifies. So, Jonathan becomes a hitman and through a very intense pursuit actually succeeds. Minot wants to follow up with a second hit, but Tom has come to like Jonathan and intervenes and eventually they have to fight together against a bunch of gangsters.

I never understood what the gangster war is about. Who are the people they are killing? And why? And why are they suddenly after Tom and Jonathan? But neither do Jonathan. Or Tom for that matter, though at least he understands how dangerous they are. And it is that uncertainty, that unseen, unexplained presence that makes them terrifying. Jonathan is in far deeper than he can even understand and suddenly finds himself living a double life apart from his wife and child. Who are both as adorable and innocent as it is possible to be.

This half-life, half-light and inability to control your own life is at the heart of this movie and it works surprisingly well. It is not quite a suspense movie, and it is not quite a European art movie but it is somewhere in between and succeeds at that.

I love the language element. Characters are using “natural” language, which means an odd mix of German, English and even a bit of French. Accents are sometimes heavy, but natural, and it helps me believe in the story. The Book mentions an American-European conflict, but I do not see that at all. There are no misunderstandings here, just the haziness of reality using people from different places to give it an international and even more mysterious flair.

Noir, or neo-noir for that matter, never have happy endings and it is no spoiler to say that this movie is true to form, but there is a sense of closure that provides some satisfaction and that is another plus in my book. It is an ending I will probably contemplate for a while.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more plusses this movie accumulates, so I guess this ends up with a recommendation from me. And hopefully a lot more from Wim Wenders on the List.



  1. Love Wim Wenders, love Bruno Ganz and loved this movie. I had forgotten how epic the ending is when I saw it last. -- Bea

    1. Yes, the ending is special and one I will have to think about for a while.
      I am hoping for a lot more Wenders moving forward.