Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s winter film series On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Stitched loosely together from the pages of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game and a few borrowed conventions from film noir, Wim Wenders’ The American Friend is a stylish and enigmatic thriller that acts as a superb demonstration of how atmospheric elements can be more vital than story. Character motivations are often murky, but the obliqueness of their actions serves the sense of mystery and style, pushing the foreground elements downward to allow the substance to rise to the surface. Cinema works best when its essence cannot be captured by a few lines of expository dialogue and when the real substance can be found in something as basic as the image of a train or the dull reflections cast on the cold, stainless steel surfaces of an art deco subway station. A new restoration of the film lends new urgency to its stylish frames, bringing the grit of the city streets to life in explosions of wet cobblestone and grimy alley walls.
The American Friend is a stylish and enigmatic thriller that acts as a superb demonstration of how atmospheric elements can be more vital than story.
The characters of The American Friend are larger than life in typical film noir fashion; Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley having the audacity to wear a cowboy hat in Berlin as he swaggers about with a persona that only Hopper could pull off in an earnest fashion. He acts as a stand-in for America itself in the dusk of its cultural coolness; the last holdout as America’s sense of self and its place in the global arena was slowly evaporating and its influence on the world becoming less singular. Bruno Ganz and Hopper become avatars of their respective cultures like Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour as Wenders manipulates the traditions of American noir and places them seamlessly into a European setting. The inky blacks and shadows of classic noir are replaced by dull reflections on stainless steel and its one dimensional archetypical characters are become more fully formed and elusive.
The American Friend is a brilliant piece of multifaceted art that folds its influences with Wenders’ fresh ideas about the nature of art to create something unique and original.
Wenders plays with the absurd notion of art as a commodity with art patrons furiously bidding on a painting that they believe to be scarce, unaware of the fact that the artist is pretending to be dead to increase the value of his work. The paintings will exchange hands and be exhibited in fancy galleries with exquisite frames, but the real value of the art will have been removed as those capable of affording it will never truly understand it. The emotional connection and timeless communication that happens when observing a work of art is not something that can be commoditized. It is an ethereal reaction that transcends context and time as the observer is emotionally affected, their own life experiences contributing to the emotional connection in a serendipitous relationship that can only happen at a single moment in time. The scarcity of the art has nothing to do with that magical moment, but artist Derwatt (played by Nicholas Ray in a bit of sad metacontextual commentary on the world’s appreciation of his own films at the time) must pretend to be dead so he can actually enjoy the fruits of his efforts. This locks him in a specific period of his creative output and any deviations cast suspicion on the work’s authenticity. Derwatt may be alive, but his art must remain effectively dead in order to stay profitable.
The American Friend is a brilliant piece of multifaceted art that folds its influences with Wenders’ fresh ideas about the nature of art to create something unique and original. Hopper and Ganz create a fascinating alchemy and their complicated onscreen relationship combines with their sagacious performances to make the pair irresistibly watchable. The film has the ability to work as both a representative of the film noir genre and as a deconstruction of its central ideas, and it remains a fascinating and essential entry in the oeuvre of one of cinema’s greatest and most versatile filmmakers.
Wim Wenders' The American Friend is a unique, multifaceted film that works as both a representative of the film noir genre and as a deconstruction of its central ideas.