Relative to his New German Cinema compatriots – or sparring partners more appropriately – certifiable humanist Wim Wenders was a late bloomer. His ’70s is dotted with highlights, but you won’t find an Aguirre or a Petra von Kant hiding among them, even if his Road Trilogy begs to be rediscovered to this day. This is no knock on Wenders; his years-long quest to discover something at the mountaintop of (usually American) cinema necessarily required nurturing and exploration that the more primal impulses of Rainer Werner Fassbinder rejected as vestigial structures of sane society. Plus, by the end of the ’70s, Wenders still had the finest modern study of American geography-of-the-mind in his near future, while Fassbinder’s cocaine-addled filmmaking was about to overflow into personal disaster. Neither filmmaker was necessarily superior to the other (although crossing their streams would likely prove a recipe for nuclear fallout), but 1977 was still a year of personal journey for Wenders. He hadn’t yet reached his destination.
That year’s The American Friend nonetheless proves an important foothold for his climb: his first partially English-language production, and a deceptive, spurious one at that. A professed exercise in film noir treachery and American-abroad running-for-cover, The American Friend’s path is not so much narratively twisted as thematically and tonally liquid. Taking on Patricia Highsmith’s much-adapted Ripley’s Game novel as an inkling more than a holy text, the film’s opening passages of American expatriate Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) goading German art framer Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) into murder evaporate into a curiously empathetic question of America’s role in the modern world filtered through a buddy comedy.
Taken as a noir, the venal Ripley could be a Harry Lime stand-in if Wenders’ distinctly non-noirish mise-en-scene didn’t insist on the character’s alienated debasement. While the chiaroscuro and felled urban geometry of Vienna seemed to wrap around Welles’ insidious devil charmer expression in The Third Man, Ripley’s command over Germany is less stable and requires more grassroots drudgery. What develops is less a thundering expression of repressed German identity squashed under the omnidirectional cultural imperialism of a globalized American world, but instead a dialectical, tenuous mutual dependence between the two men, and the two nations. A friendship develops, initially disingenuous and facile but eventually giving way to pangs of empathy and mutual loneliness; Ripley eventually seems as dependent on Zimmerman as his German prey is on him.
Hopper’s unnaturally understated, ruminative performance corroborates the evidence: Ripley isn’t the all-seeing eye of Sauron we assume him to be, but a forgotten loner whose insidious game-playing is his only perceived outlet for knowing how to interact with the outside world. The more literal evocation of lonely, post-Monument Valley American spaces in Paris, Texas and the metafictional expression of the passivity of filmmaking and film-watching in Wings of Desire are both prefigured by The American Friend’s darkly comedic, latently homoerotic pas de deux of not only manipulator and prey but observer and participant and person and landscape.
That Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, American masters of the noir form The American Friend perverts, play characters who lie in desperation in the dank corners of Europe further hints at the film’s more contorted relationship with national identity and art. The very directors Wenders admires so, the Americans he sometimes seems to worship, are disheveled expatriates who only find harmony in secluded European identities. In spreading outward, then, America forgoes its innards and curdles them into residual structures, pursuing breadth and domination at the crossroads and destroying, or at least, alienating, some of its natural beauty in the process. Fittingly, Hopper’s Ripley, a facsimile of America as well as a fleeting person-in-the-flesh, ends up a mangled mesh-work of vacant longing, misguided ownership, and above all pitiful, pitiable desire at once empathetic and oppressive. Near the end of the film, we wonder if he really has any power at all.
The stinging sensation of allegory is afoot, naturally, but The American Friend functions because of its hypnotic haze of anti-realist color and construction more than its thematic underpinnings. The people, for one, are often icons, but Wenders ushers them through the deliberately elegiac zooms of his camera like they’re floating through aimless modern society without a hint of awareness or purpose. Fascinatingly, the style and the surfaces are keenly and diametrically opposed to the noir as that genre is traditionally understood; the expressionist shadows and moral incertitude of the genre is traded for piercing, almost violent daylight and moral disinterest. This isn’t a Germany of nocturnal, hidden spaces, but a region where everyone can see you, even under the noxious green and red stew that envelops several scenes like a deluded, pretender noir rather than the real thing.
Arguably, the bait-and-switch is part of the point; The American Friend questions the role of the film noir in modern society after having been lost to decades of degradation. Ripley’s behemoth cowboy hat suggests, instead, the intrusion of the blinding light of the Western into the film as American art forms grapple with Germany and attempt to assert dominance over it. Especially in savagely comic sequences such as the darkly brutal train stalking that centers the film, almost bifurcating the script, the combination of inquisitive form and curious content asks us to admit that we aren’t in a noir anymore (maybe Wenders stumbled into a critique of American neo-noirs, and implicitly an alert interrogation of the value or place of classical American filmmaking in modern German society).
If so, the earnestness of the budding friendship between Ripley and Zimmerman suggests otherwise, a more genuine harmony of international mediums if not interests. The only truth in the film then is the provisional nature of all truths, then. Ripley and Zimmerman fill many roles and functions and the seeming tone of quiet menace fluctuates from scene to scene, leaving the film something of an unknowable entity with floating, diffuse musings on topics far and wide. The film’s attitude toward Ripley, much like Wenders’ attitude toward America and American film, is a mess, and a clearer understanding of it all would necessarily sacrifice some of the film’s fascinatingly indecipherable quality.
Within this meeting of the sardonic and the casually serious emerges a cinematically literate but not quite truly unique film, formally adventurous without necessarily transcending its genre-riff limits into the realm of the formally challenging or intoxicating. Certainly, Wenders had better films in his back-burner (the finale of his Road trilogy, Kings of the Road, is both more humanistic and more formally radical) and in his mind (as mentioned, his two greatest films were not to come until the ’80s, when just about every other major director from the 1970s was operating as an imitation of their former selves). Certainly, it lacks the participatory feel of Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire, films whose sublime imagery and delicate dance of dazzlingly lyrical virtuosity and supple intricacy invite intimacy and debate. In comparison, The American Friend is a somewhat dispassionate, hands-off solution, a work dense with implications for the noir, for human relations, for the modern world, and for international affairs, but not always a film that injects those queries with the life-blood of classic cinema. But, again, that’s the purpose of a stepping stone. Finding your footing, before the true strides of a cinematic master emerge. It’s no destination, but The American Friend is a worthwhile step, mostly because it is aware how precarious its foothold on its topic really is.