Discussion of the New Waves of European national cinemas that emerged after World War II has often focused on those movements’ stances towards American cinema. While Italian neo-realism and British social realism tended to be defined as filmmaking practices opposed to those of American cinema, the French nouvelle vague and the New German Cinema of the 1960s and ’70s looked at American popular culture, and Hollywood in particular, in more ambivalent terms, and often paid tribute to them. Amongst the German filmmakers who engaged in a dialogue with America, two stand out: Rainer Werner Fassbinder through his reworkings of American melodramas, and Wim Wenders with his love of American pop music, movies and spaces. “Angst, alienation and America” was the type of catchphrase used to summarise his early films. Wenders has been especially interested in the power and the hold of American imagery on our minds. He has widely referenced American cinema in his films, set several in the US, cast American actors and even directors. But Wenders has also directed some quintessentially European art house films.
It would be difficult to say whether Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, 1977) is a European or an American film – it is actually an early example of what is now called transnational cinema. As in several of Wenders’ other films, The American Friend explores the way images and stories are created, re-created, how they travel, surround us and even deceive us. The film is Wenders’ adaptation of the then still unpublished Patricia Highsmith novel Ripley’s Game. The rights to all Highsmith’s novels written up to that point had been bought for filmic adaptation, but she sent him the third book in her “Ripliad” still in its manuscript stage. In his adaptation, Wenders kept the main elements of the novel’s storyline. In the novel, Ripley, a rich man, married and living in France, is offended by a British restorer called Trevanny who has been diagnosed with an incurable blood disease. Ripley schemes in order to convince Trevanny to carry out two murders for an associate. The restorer eventually accepts this offer so that he can leave his wife some money. Because of a guilty conscience about his manipulation of Trevanny, Ripley ends up helping him to carry out the second crime. The men subsequently develop an uneasy friendship. Wenders’ adaptation changes Trevanny’s name (and British nationality) into Jonathan Zimmermann, played by Bruno Ganz, and makes him a picture framer and restorer living in Hamburg. Several other of the novel’s locations are changed, and events displaced. The bleak harbour locations sit in contrast to other cityscapes in the film.
But Wenders’ main alteration to the spirit of the original rests in the representation of Ripley. He is played by a cowboy hat wearing, anguished, dislocated Dennis Hopper who had by then long garnered a reputation as a Hollywood enfant terrible. Other Ripley impersonations have been much more faithful to the literary character. Alain Delon, John Malkovich, Matt Damon and Barry Pepper have brought Ripley to the screen, but Hopper’s performance has an edginess which results not only from the character’s criminal past, shady dealings and fraudulent identity. It has the additional echoes of the ’60s American counter-culture, its rebellious search for freedom from social convention and occasional self-destructiveness. The presence of then “rogue” directors Nicholas Ray, who plays painter Derwatt, and Samuel Fuller, who plays a crime boss, also evokes filmmaking on the margins of Hollywood. Hopper’s own personal crisis at the time also feeds into his performance. As Ripley he records his existential anguish on a tape recorder, shouts “I am confused” into the wind, and, in an unscripted scene which he improvised, takes Polaroid pictures of himself while he cries. The spaces he inhabits are full of American icons: a yellow New York taxi, a Thunderbird car, his jeans trousers and jacket, his cowboy hat, his jukebox and Coca-Cola machine, the pool table and Marlboro cigarettes. These numerous extra-filmic echoes add an additional dimension to Wenders’ portrayal of the impact of America on European culture.
Bruno Ganz, on the other hand, was an established star of the German stage, with a reputation for seriousness and introspection and all the high culture associations that came from his performing the theatrical classics. Up until this film, he had only acted in a handful of not very successful film roles. While Hopper’s persona and private and professional life suffuses his role, Ganz performs. His approach to acting was diametrically opposed to Hopper’s. While Hopper was raw, manic, impressionistic, Ganz was methodical, controlled, intellectual. His intensity is of a different kind. As Zimmermann, he is initially a dejected man and then under siege. He is often filmed in a static fashion, falling asleep, getting hurt. Equally, he suddenly bursts into action, and runs through tunnels, airports and train stations. While Ripley’s malaise is existential, Zimmermann’s is, at least to start with, physical. Ganz plays him as an ordinary man trying to make sense of the world around him, to distinguish what is true and what can be trusted. The certainty with which he initially identifies the Derwatt painting as a fake disappears through his dealings with the extraordinary Ripley.
Wenders downplays the thriller elements and the plot’s suspense and slows down a gear to pay attention to the dynamics of the two men’s relationship, which is also an interplay between two approaches to screen characterisation and acting, to meaning and authenticity. After their initial rift, they exchange gifts as a peace offering – these gifts are both optical toys. Together with the recurring motif of the frame and the weakening of the tropes of the thriller, they encourage us to question what we see. Their pairing can also be read as a dialogue between America and Europe.
Der Amerikanische Freund/The American Friend (1977 West Germany/France 125 mins)
Prod Co: Road Movies Filmproduktion GMBH/Wim Wenders Productions/Les Films du Losange SARL/Westdeutscher Rundfunk Prod, Dir: Wim Wenders Scr: Wim Wenders, adapted from the novel Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith Phot: Robby Müller Ed: Peter Przygodda Art Dir: Heidi Lüdi, Toni Lüdi Mus: Jürgen Knieper
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Daniel Schmid, Jean Eustache, Lou Castel, David Blue