The American Friend (1977) Analysis

A poster featuring Dennis Hopper as "Tom Ripley" and Bruno Ganz as "Jonathan Zimmermann" for Wim Wenders’ 1977 movie, "The American Friend".

The American Friend (1977)
Film Analysis

Written by DJ Hadoken Exlamparaaghis
Edited by The Funk Mistress

Wim Wenders’ film, “The American Friend”, may overtly be interpreted as a social commentary on American imperialism pervading the culture of postwar Germany; however, when examined more carefully, the negative social commentary in the film becomes a positive depiction of international influence on German film.

The film is a 1977 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1974 novel, “Ripley’s Game”. It stars Dennis Hopper as an amoral American named Tom Ripley and Bruno Ganz as a Swiss man named Jonathan Zimmermann, who is living in Hamburg and dying from leukemia.

The first scene of the movie opens in New York, where Tom Ripley has arrived to meet a scraggly, old, one-eyed painter who is producing fraudulent work for him to sell in Europe. Ripley kisses the painter on the neck and immediately the mood changes to that of uncertainty and corruption, which is further perpetuated by the anxiety of the accompanying soundtrack.

If Ripley, with his cowboy hat, represents American corruption, then the next natural step for this corruption is to seek to expand its interests overseas. To the viewer, Ripley becomes symbolic of the imperialist America that is threatening “a fragile Old World” (Rentschler 605).

Shortly thereafter, Ripley is at an auction in Hamburg where one of his forgeries is to be sold. The forgery is bought by an American dealer who does not care whether it is a fake or not. He intends only to take it back to Texas to auction it again for a higher price. The Americans who have attended this auction are able to freely exploit this kind of business, using Europe as their “playground”.

In the auction scene, where nearly everyone is equally corrupt, we are introduced to Jonathan Zimmermann, the only man of morals at this auction (Kinder 47). Though born Swiss, he represents the epitome of German culture. He hates what men like Ripley stand for and summarizes that hatred into one cold statement upon meeting Ripley, “Yeah, I’ve heard of you”.

These early scenes are important to the film because they establish that there will soon be a conflict between a corrupt man and a pure man, and on a deeper level, between an open American culture and a German culture that is still recovering from the Nazi era.

Quick action cuts during these two scenes maintain a sense of anxiety and restlessness. And the viewer can interpret Zimmermann’s single offense towards Ripley after the auction as the catalyst that will set off a chain of events that will ultimately lead to his destruction.

With few exceptions, every foreigner in this film is tied in some way or another to crime and corruption. In the following scenes, a French gangster is introduced, who, together with Ripley, will ensnare Jonathan in a plot for murder. Ripley collaborates with the gangster only because of his annoyance at Jonathan’s moral superiority and his desire to see him corrupted (Kinder 47).

As he becomes entangled in this plot, a close-up shot of Jonathan depicts him sweating and muttering to himself as he has a nightmare. Shortly after, a shot from Jonathan’s point of view implies double-vision as he looks at an illustrated harbor through a small device in his study.

The viewer is painted a picture of a disorientated man who is suffering both physically and mentally. And as the murder plots are carried out and his purity is tarnished, he becomes the German imagination, suffering from the persistence of foreign influence (Rentschler 604).

But before these inferences can be made, the viewer must take into account who exactly played the roles of the criminals. They were each played by prominent directors of the time whom Wim Wenders was familiar with. And being a rising European filmmaker himself, it was only natural that these contacts were international.

In the commentary of the 2002 DVD release of the film, Wenders states that one of his weaknesses as a director is portraying villains in his films. After having success working with Dennis Hopper in the early stages of production, he looked toward casting other directors for the roles of the criminals. He believed that directors understood the emotional metaphors necessary to convey certain messages, making them the best candidates for playing criminals.

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Nicholas Ray, an American director known for “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), played the crooked painter. Gérard Blain, known for his presence in French new wave cinema (Weber 15), played the French gangster. And Dennis Hopper had just completed his role in “Apocalypse Now” (1979) when he began to work with Wenders.

Along with the nationalities of the other directors in the film and Wenders himself being German, “The American Friend” had the necessary elements in place to become a successful example of international influence on German film.

The film’s title itself is an example of this. At first glance, the title can be interpreted as being a reference to Ripley’s relationship to Jonathan, but Wenders goes on to reveal in the DVD commentary that the title actually pays homage to Dennis Hopper’s role during production. His dynamic relationship with co-star Bruno Ganz and his powerful influence over Wenders’ decisions contributed to this. Wenders notes that the working title of the film was “Framed”, and that it was changed to “The American Friend” only after its completion.

With this insight, the viewer must look again at the early scenes in the film and examine how they relate to the international film industry, and not one culture’s corruption of another. Ripley, with his cowboy hat, now represents American popular culture and Hollywood. He and the other Americans in the auction scene demonstrate that the American film industry’s success is such that it can freely move within and dominate foreign countries.

Eric Rentschler, in his 1984 article “How American Is It: The U. S. as Image and Imaginary in German Film” explores this idea and notes that “American film also means a mighty industry, a hegemony over production, distribution, and exhibition...” (Rentschler 605).

Jonathan’s initial exchange with Ripley is not one that foretells destruction, but one that denotes his own liberation. Jonathan now represents German film, and not German culture. In a society still haunted by postwar reconstruction, incorporating themes and popular culture from foreign countries, particularly the U.S., allows for German viewers’ attention to be turned as far away from their own history as possible.

“American film has played the role of captivator and liberator...” (Rentschler 605). In her 1978 review of “The American Friend”, Marsha Kinder provides an example of this, as she notes that in the case of Jonathan, he has a number of toys that trace parts of the history of animation and film: a zoetrope that his son plays with, illuminated three-dimensional signs that are both in his son’s bedroom and in his workshop, and the novelty gifts that he exchanges with Ripley (Kinder 46-47).

The film’s internationalization is also apparent through its execution. In nearly every scene, if there is no presence of a sickening green, there is the often bright use of the colors red, white, and blue. Immediately they evoke images of the American flag, but these colors are also the same that appear on the flags of Great Britain and France. Though not a location in the film, England is highlighted by references to The Beatles made first by Ripley in the first half of the movie and then by Jonathan towards the end, when he mutters lyrics from their 1965 song “Drive My Car”.

The film’s continued use of quick action cuts, coupled with establishing shots of urban areas in different countries that are similar in appearance, can leave the viewer feeling disorientated and confused. In the 1977 article “Wim Wenders: A Worldwide Homesickness”, Michael Covino analyzes the significance of these shots, noting that “...the establishing shots of New York, Hamburg, and Paris follow each other so rapidly that they fail to establish anything” (Covino 16).

Furthermore, the characters echo this, as Ripley, struggling to find his identity, speaks into a tape recorder, “I know less and less about who I am, or who anybody else is.” And Jonathan gradually loses his own identity through his involvement in numerous murders and becomes just as desensitized as Ripley (Covino 17).

Being a tri-lingual movie that takes place in three different countries, it is only suitable that the interaction between international characters and the collaboration of directors in real life produces a film that evokes no single identity, but combines everything into one seamless world. The successful execution of this sends a positive message of unification and not one of fear and resistance to the foreign.

Thus, upon the closest examination, the viewer can see significant levels of international influence in “The American Friend”. Though it may seem at first that Wenders’ motivation was to convey negative images of the influence of American culture from shot to shot, the film is actually symbolic of something quite different.

The climax of the film sees Jonathan abandoning Ripley on a beach after a night of murder. Jonathan smiles at last as Ripley, confused, chases after him. Having finally allowed himself to be changed by Ripley’s influence, he has found freedom and life in the face of his inevitable death. Jonathan’s American friend has forced him into an adventure that had he not had embarked on would have left him to spend the remaining days of his life in dull uncertainty.

In a sense, Wenders, by allowing himself to be influenced by his own American friends, finds his own freedom in filmmaking, moving to the United States and not creating another film in his homeland until “Wings of Desire” in 1987 (Paneth 2).

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Works Cited

Covino, Michael. "Wim Wenders: A Worldwide Homesickness."
Film Quarterly 31.2 (1977): 9-19.
JSTOR. San Francisco Public Library. 7 Dec. 2006
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Kinder, Marsha. "The American Friend." Film Quarterly 32.2 (1978): 45-49.
JSTOR. San Francisco Public Library. 7 Dec. 2006
< >.

Paneth, Ira. "Wim and His Wings." Film Quarterly 42.1 (1988): 2-8.
JSTOR. San Francisco Public Library. 7 Dec. 2006
< >.

Rentschler, Eric. "How American Is It: The U. S. as Image and Imaginary in German Film."
The German Quarterly 57.4 (1984): 603-20.
JSTOR. San Francisco Public Library. 7 Dec. 2006
< >.

The American Friend. Dir. Wim Wenders. 1977. DVD. Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2002.

Weber, Eugen. "An Escapist Realism." Film Quarterly 13.2 (1959): 9-16.
JSTOR. San Francisco Public Library. 7 Dec. 2006
< >.


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