Jul 27, 2013

The American Friend

Compared to a Fassbinder, Schroeter, or Syberberg, Wim Wenders is, at best, only of minor interest to me when it comes to the great filmmakers of German New Cinema. Whether reading one of his books, listening to him doing an audio commentary or interview, or watching a good a percentage of his films, Wenders puts me to sleep with his plodding meanderings, pseudo-existentialist excursions, and seemingly prosaic and passive personality. Like many filmmakers of his generation, including Volker Schlöndorff who attempted to become French and Werner Schroeter who attempted to be totally cosmopolitan (although I believe his heart was in the Mediterranean!), Wenders, who has oftentimes referenced his steady diet of America culture growing up and did not direct a “Road Movie Trilogy” for no reason, attempted to dissolve his German identity (although, to be fair, he is ½ Dutch) and become an ‘American’ filmmaker, with his transitional film being the neo-noir West German-French co-production The American Friend (1977) aka Der Amerikanische Freund. Loosely based on a then-unpublished manuscript entitled Ripley's Game (although the novel was ultimately released before the film in 1974) written by American psychological thriller novelist Patricia Highsmith, The American Friend would be Wenders’ first international breakthrough and provide him with the reputation that would ultimately land him in Hollywood and enable him to work for Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studio. Featuring seven distinguished auteur filmmakers (although if one counts the director’s cameo as a bandaged man, it is really eight) playing the roles of criminals, including Nicholas Ray, Dennis Hopper (whose role was originally meant for John Cassavetes), Sam Fuller, Gérard Blain, Daniel Schmid, Jean Eustache, and Peter Lilienthal, The American Friend is a sort ‘filmmaker’s film’ and a cinephiles’ wet dream, especially for diehard fans of American film noir, old school gangster flicks, and French New Wave, which are not exactly my favorite film genres/movements, but all these cinematic ingredients surprisingly come together in Wenders’ quasi-arthouse take on Highsmith’s charismatic anti-hero Tom Ripley. In fact, with the possible exception of Paris, Texas (1984) and to a lesser extent Wings of Desire (1987), The American Friend is the only Wim Wenders flick that stops me from completely disregarding the self-loathing kraut expatriate auteur altogether. 

 Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is a criminally wealthy and completely cunning and charismatic American psychopath living in the North German city of Hamburg and his current scheme involves driving up the bids of forged paintings created by an artist named Derwitt (Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, whose slow and miserable death via cancer Wenders morbidly chronicled a couple years later with the 1980 documentary Lightning Over Water), who has faked his own death. While attending an auction for one of the Derwitt fakes, Tom meets a picture framer named Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) who absolutely offends the charismatic conman by stating “I've heard of you” in a derogatory fashion and refusing to shake his hand. Tom learns from a friend that Jonathan is apparently dying of a rare and unmentioned blood disease, hence his rude behavior. Offended by Jonathan’s belligerent behavior; Tom begins plotting a scheme so as to heal his wounded pride. After getting an unexpected visit from a French gangster named Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain), who asks him to murder somebody for him because he owes him a big favor, Tom finally finds a way to payback Jonathan’s hospitality. While Tom tells Raoul, “Listen. I know rock musicians. I know lawyers. I know art dealers, pimps, politicians. But murder? I don't want to be involved. Period,” the American comes up with a conspiracy that will solve both of their problems. Using friends and corrupt doctors, Tom spreads rumors everywhere that Jonathan is dying from the blood disease and that by assassinating a couple of rival criminals for Raoul, the picture framer can secure financial security for his family by working as a contract killer before he kicks the bucket. Since Jonathan is not a professional gangster but a mere picture frame shop owner, Minot also agrees with Tom that he makes for the perfect discrete killer. Although Jonathan initially turns Minot down for the offer to kill for cash, after getting a second opinion (which Minot ultimately has the doctor alter) on his illness at a high tech French hospital, he finally gives in after grief and realizing his family might not be taken care of. Jonathan’s mission is to kill an “American Jew from New Jersey” (Highsmith was no fan of the Jews) named Igraham (Swiss high-camp auteur Daniel Schmid playing a rather unfitting but certainly provocative role) by stalking him around in a French subway and shooting with a gun hidden under his trench coat in what is one of the most intense and iconic scenes of The American Friend. When Jonathan comes back to Hamburg after his successful assassination of a Hebrew gangster, Tom pays him a visit at his picture frame shop and the two begin to develop an unlikely friendship. Of course, Jonathan is totally unaware that sick Yank psychopath set him up to become an assassin and spread the false rumors regarding his supposedly fatal condition. Due to his strange attraction to Jonathan, Tom becomes angered when Minot asks the picture framer to kill another gangster on a train using a mere garrote. Due to the complex and dangerous nature of the assignment (the gangster has multiple bodyguards), Jonathan expects to die while executing the second murder and tells Minot to give his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) the money. Jonathan nearly botches the job on the train, but luckily Tom randomly appears out of nowhere and helps him dispose of the gangster and his bodyguard. After the assassination assignment is completed, Tom finally has the decency to admit to Jonathan that he setup him up with Minot because he was offended by his behavior when they initially met at the art auction, stating, “Remember that day we were introduced at the auction? You said, "I've heard of you." You said that in a very nasty way.” Tom even rejects the assassination money and when Jonathan asks what he wants instead, he states, “I don’t know what I could possibly want from you….I would like to be your friend…but friendship isn’t, uh, possible.” 

 Ironically, Jonathan begins confiding in Tom—the maniacal criminal mastermind who got the simple picture framer in the dangerous situation in the first place—regarding his problems with his wife, who rightfully believes that her husband was doing more than just going to doctor appointments while on his assassination missions. Jonathan also lets Tom know that he is scared about random anonymous calls he has been receiving at home, which he believes are from the mafia. After stumbling from what is clearly his declining health, Jonathan receives a visit from Minot, who tells him that his flat has been bombed by rival gangsters. Tom tells Jonathan to come to his house and they wait for the gangsters, who are led by an elderly American gangster (played by American cult auteur Samuel Fuller). Jonathan manages to kill a dorky gunman and not long after they spot the old Yankee gangster and his cronies hiding out in an ambulance. Jonathan and Tom manage to kill the gangsters in a somewhat anti-climatic manner (most of the deaths featured in the film are rather 'softcore'), but a problem arises when Marianne somehow magically finds her husband and his American 'friend' at the scene of the crime. A truly devoted wife, Marianne agrees to help her husband and Tom, who is driving the ambulance full of bodies, to the beach so they can dispose of the criminal corpses. Assumedly, to payback Tom for his pack of lies, Jonathan leaves his criminal compatriot at the beach. Unfortunately and quite ironically, Tom’s lies prove to be true as Jonathan dies suddenly while driving at warped speed, almost killing his wife in the process. Of course, in the end, Tom Ripley comes out the situation rather unscathed, but minus one kraut ‘friend.’ 

 A film about a wealthy and psychopathic American who completely corrupts an artistic and kindly family man who does not like “people who buy paintings as an investment,” The America Friend is a cleverly concocted allegorical work about the deleterious effects of America’s occupation, colonization, and continued cultural hegemony over not just Europe/Germany in general, but also Occidental cinema. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid, one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers of his era as the man behind Tonight or Never (1972), La Paloma (1974), and Shadow of Angels (1976), played the first gangster killed in The American Friend as his excess-ridden high-camp auteur pieces could have never been made in America under any circumstances. Additionally, it is also no coincide that American auteur Sam Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor) is the final gangster killed after a long and brutal fall down some stairs as he was a filmmaker whose work was essentially ignored for most of his life and was totally at odds with Hollywood and it was only until his works were praised by European film critics/filmmakers, especially those involved with the French New Wave, that he developed a cult following and his oeuvre was regarded as having actual artistic merit. 

 Undoubtedly, The American Friend, which was incidentally the director’s first film featuring an onscreen death, is easily Wim Wenders’ most action-packed and ‘thrilling’ work, which I guess does not say much considering the filmmaker's initial association with German New Cinema and being the director behind such seemingly endless works as Until the End of the World (1991) aka Bis ans Ende der Welt. In my humble opinion, Wenders, the son of a doctor and a member of the German bourgeoisie, would have had little, if any, interest in film noir and other Hollywood genres had he not been born during 'Germany Year Zero' (1945) and forcibly spoon-fed American cinema growing up as a member of a conquered nation and colonized continent, hence why the director’s work The American Friend is so aesthetically far removed from the genre it pays rather reluctant tribute to as a European film haphazardly disguised as an American genre flick. Ironically, what makes The American Friend most interesting and enthralling, especially for a born turncoat like myself, is its innate Europeanness, which is all the more underscored by its utilization of American stars/filmmakers and Hollywood genre conventions. Of course, the European character of The American Friend is all the more highlighted when compared to the big budget Highsmith adaptation The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), which instead of feeling like an auteur work like Wenders’ film, seems like a masturbation piece for star Matt Damon to show off his acting talents. In fact, upon first seeing The American Friend about a decade ago, I had not even the slightest idea it was based on the same character as The Talented Mr. Ripley, which might as well have been directed by a robot programmed by Steven Spielberg. 

 Despite Wenders’ insights and negative view of American’s culture-distorting influence on Europe, he decided to go to Hollywood after The American Friend and direct the Francis Ford Coppola produced work Hammett (1982), another homage to American film noir. Despite being a filmmaker himself, Coppola was just as malicious as any Hollywood art-antagonistic producer, only ultimately using 30% of the footage Wenders shot and reshooting the rest of the film himself, thereupon destroying the German auteur's authorship and film in the process. Although he already knew better before he ever arrived in the United States, Wenders stated regarding the artistic disaster of Hammett, “Coppola and I realized it after some time. Two different systems had clashed. I didn’t want to give up my position as an independent director, and Francis wanted to be a producer the way he had pictured it. The American studio system and European auteur film are so different.” Wenders' collaboration with Coppola was so bad that the German filmmaker's celluloid compatriot Rainer Werner Fassbinder even offered to beat the shit out of the director of The Godfather at the 1980 Oscars as payback for destroying Hammett. Of course, it would have made for one of the greatest anecdotes as well as metaphors in film history if Germany's greatest wunderkind auteur gave a beating to one of American’s most overrated industrial filmmakers. That being said, maybe it is about time Wenders directs a loose sequel to The American Friend where a German general arrives in Iraq to train members of the 'multicultural' American army and the GIs ends up killing tons of innocent civilians, as well as their own men in 'friendly fire,' as it would make for a great allegory for how Hollywood aesthetically defiled the kraut auteur’s vision when they remade his work Wings of Desire (1987) as the pile of philistinic and sentimentalist celluloid shit City of Angels (1998) starring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage and directed by the cinematic genius behind Casper (1995).  Indeed, only in America could a filmmaker responsible for directing children's films be given the opportunity to remake a commercially successful European arthouse flick.

-Ty E

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