Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Friend in Need

Film: Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

I’m a big Dennis Hopper fan, and I have also liked everything I’ve seen from Wim Wenders. I state this up front, because those two facts will likely color anything I have to say about Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend). It’s also true that this film owes a huge debt to film noir, and I love film noir. You should be sensing a pattern here. I went into this film with huge expectations despite myself. When a film has this much going in a direction I like, it’s too easy to be disappointed when it isn’t perfect. I try to tamp my expectations down when I can, but I couldn’t this time.

What I was most curious about is how Wim Wenders would interpret film noir as a style. Noir is all about the crime and the grit and the seediness of human experience. Wenders, on the other hand, seems to be all about human connection. This has at least been true in the films of his aht I have seen and enjoyed. Those two ideas don’t necessarily fit well together, so a blending of them was going to either be spectacular or a hot mess.

It’s actually neither. It is a blend of noir elements and Wenders’s typical love of human connection, but it’s a combination that doesn’t work terribly well. There’s too much noir and crime and killing for this to have that warm, solid, human center of the best of Wenders. But there’s too much of that human connection for it to fit neatly into the noir style. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the film—I simply had expectations that were too high to be matched by anything but cinematic perfection.

This is a strange film, though, one that is difficult to follow in many respects. Part of this is because many of the more prominent stars speak English with a very thick accent. It also has a very strange plot, one that takes some turns that don’t make a lot of sense on their face. Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is an American living in Hamburg. He is a scam artist, working with a painter named Derwatt (Nicholas Ray). Derwatt creates forgeries, which Tom then takes to auction and artificially drives up the prices on. At one such auction he meets Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), a highly-respected picture framer who is dying of an blood disease. Jonathan is cold on their initial meeting.

Shortly after this, Tom is contacted by Raoul Minot (Gerard Blain), someone to whom Tom owes a debt. Minot wants Tom to assassinate a rival. Tom wants no part of this, but suggests Jonathan, who is dying, and thus may want to do something like this to provide funds for his family. Minot arranges for Jonathan to get a second opinion on his condition, and also arranges for the doctor to make the prognosis much more dire than it actually is. Because of this, Jonathan agrees to make the hit and does. But it doesn’t end there. Having performed one assassination, Jonathan is tapped by Minot to perform another, this time on a moving train and of someone who travels with bodyguards. Jonathan agrees, assuming he might be killed, but wanting only for his wife (Lisa Kreuzer) to be cared for.

Unbeknownst to Jonathan, Tom boards the same train and helps him perform this assassination, leading to something like a bond between the two men. When they then find themselves the target of a manhunt from the friends of the man they killed, they are forced to team up for their own protection. And at this point, Jonathan’s wife is starting to become terribly suspicious of her husband’s recent travels and the large balances that have been appearing in their bank account.

It’s a film filled with interesting choices. One of those choices is Wenders’s decision to put film directors into many of the roles. Nicholas Ray and Gerard Blain are two, but the man who comes after our two assassins at the end is Samuel Fuller of shock cinema and noir fame.

My biggest issue here is that I don’t always buy the story. There are parts of it that simply move so fast that it’s difficult to keep track of what is happening. The thick accents don’t help much, either. Specifically in scenes in which Bruno Ganz’s heavy German accent trips over the thick French of Gerard Blain, it almost warrants rewinding and rewatching to follow along. It’s really difficult to make sense of the decisions the characters make when it’s difficult to tell the reasons for those decisions in the first place.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Der Amerikanische Freund, although not as much as I expected to. It’s a good, solid film, but it doesn’t have the warmth of a film like Wings of Desire. Of course, few films do. There is certainly an element of something like Paris, Texas here—that desire for a deeper connection that may well be rendered impossible by events or simply personal distance. However, these elements feel out of place in neo-noir. Noir isn’t about this sort of mundane, humanist spirituality that is so attractive in much of Wenders’s work. Because of this, the film comes off odd and a little flat. It’s good. It’s just not what I had hoped it would be.

Why to watch Der Amerikanische Freund: Wim Wenders’s take on American noir.
Why not to watch: The accents are pretty heavy in places.


  1. I think you've been spoiled by Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, which are my two favorite Wenders films. I saw The American Friend a while back and remember enjoying it. The weird thing is that I can't recall much it beyond Hopper and the ending scenes. That might not be a ringing endorsement. Still, I think it's an interesting take on the genre and the Ripley story.

    1. Oh, I agree. I liked it quite a bit, but I think you're right about getting spoiled.

  2. I just watched this. I liked it.

    I came here, though, because I only just tonight discovered that it is a mix of English and German throughout the film and there was no subtitles file included with the movie. I found one for my viewing of it. I have both German-only and one that subtitles all dialogue, including the English sections. That's the one I used and it helped with the accents.

    If this is one of the films you kept, I can email you the subtitle files so you can find out what people are saying in some of the scenes.

    1. My German is decent--not great, but I can get by. Thanks for the offer, though.

  3. Wim Wenders made a film noir! And he mostly completely misses the point of film noir but makes a great movie anyway! OMG! Do I love that scene on the train or what?

    Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz are great! And I love those cameos with Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray.

  4. Curiously, I loved the natural language element and I had no trouble following the dialogue. Maybe I am just used to listening to English with heavy accents. It is a day in the office for me. The big advantage here is that I do not have to sit and wonder why all the Germans speak English with a British accent or other silly things. It very much helps buying into the story.

    1. Movies often do accents badly. I think there is a perception that people won't "get" it if the accents are believable, but few things pull me out of a movie as quickly as a bad accent.