The American Friend: an investigation into the nature of individual and collective identity

Wim Wenders, “Der Amerikanische Freund / The American Friend” (1977)

Based on the novel “Ripley’s Game” by Patricia Highsmith, “The American Friend” is at once a psychological thriller imbued with European art-house sensibilities, a character study of two men in a strange and uneasy friendship and a homage to American film noir. Art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is introduced to con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction; Jonathan already knows of Ripley’s reputation as a dealer in forged art and snubs him by refusing to shake his hand. Miffed at such treatment, Ripley avenges himself by using news about Jonathan’s incurable blood disease to draw the unsuspecting victim into a scheme concocted together with French gangster Minot (G√©rard Blain) in which Jonathan has to kill another gangster for money. Jonathan is repelled by the idea but he needs the money to pass on to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and their two sons in the event of his death. He is persuaded by Ripley and Minot to visit a medical specialist in Paris for a second opinion and the results (intercepted and falsified by Ripley) convince Jonathan that he really is dying and must ensure his family is financially secure. In this way Jonathan falls deeper under Ripley’s control and the two men form a close if bizarre friendship.

Meanwhile Marianne is suspicious about Jonathan’s absences and believes he is in over his head in a dangerous project with Ripley. She discovers through her own investigations that the Paris medical test results have been faked. Will she be able though to reach her husband in time to persuade him not to go any further in a life of crime and to get him out of Ripley’s clutches for his sake and that of their family?

As character studies go, the film does a good job following a man whose life spins out of control and whose decisions and actions endanger him and his family, all as a result of not shaking someone’s hand. Duped into thinking his disease is killing him, desperate to provide well for his family, Jonathan ends up spiralling into committing one crime after another. His new life brings its own strains: his physical health starts to suffer under a guilty conscience and he becomes estranged from his wife due to all the lies he tells her. Ripley is not treated simply as a catalyst for Jonathan’s downfall; as Jonathan goes farther on his road to hell, he and Ripley become close friends and collaborators. Through Jonathan, Ripley gains entry into German society that he would never have been able to achieve on his own. However the film’s events end up thwarting Ripley’s further penetration into polite pan-European circles and the American is left stranded and alone once more.

Both Ganz as the rather pathetic Jonathan, driven to distraction between competing needs, and Hopper in his particular lanky cowboy Yankee way play their characters well; Hopper’s laidback and easy-going style belies a ruthless and thuggish aspect in Ripley’s personality. The support cast more or less play stereotypes of their roles – Kreuzer is effective as a German hausfrau but goes no further to stamping her own individuality on her role.

The film features some beautiful cinematography in keeping with its art-house aesthetics but at the same time follows the demands of psychological thriller quite faithfully, if with unexpected results. It can be slow for a thriller and most of the action is bunched up in the film’s second half. The music is an important actor in the film in setting a mood and priming it audiences to anticipate an unexpected and violent move on Jonathan’s part. Just what is it really in Jonathan’s nature that drives him to distrust his family doctor, reject his wife and follow a man who initially struck him as insincere and possibly dangerous? Being terminally ill and needing better life insurance cannot wholly explain Jonathan’s motivations. Could Jonathan have secretly envied Ripley’s apparent freedom in defining himself and being his own man?¬†Through Jonathan, viewers are challenged as to the nature of one’s identity, how a person’s public identity can be at variance with his or her real character and desires, and how one’s circumstances and history can conspire to throw him/her into a trajectory that changes the public identity but might fulfill secret desires. Jonathan’s ultimate fate though should give us pause as to how far we might be able to go in breaking out of our public personas and achieving an illusory freedom. Ripley himself appears to escape the consequences of what he has done to the Zimmermanns and to others, but he cannot escape his own internal prison.

Aside from its existential questioning, the film could also be read as an inquiry into the nature of how Germany is becoming more Americanised and the intent behind American makeover of German society, thinking and behaviour. Is there an agenda behind the gradual change in German culture towards thinking and acting like Americans? Will the outcome benefit Germans or, as the film suggests, will it result in suffering and death for those seduced by American culture?