Along with R.W. Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, director Wim Wenders is one of the “big three” of New German Cinema who took the cinematic world by storm in the 1970s. The timing was important as highbrow filmmakers and critics in the seventies began a tentative embrace of genre to complement individual expression. Thus Friend, while certainly distinctive, is so at least in part because of the way Wenders treats its thriller plot.
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Friend centers on Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), an art restorer and framer manipulated into becoming a hired killer by Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper). At first, the story focuses on whether Jonathan will accept the cash. He is tricked into thinking his blood disease is fatal, and therefore worries about providing for his family after his death. After he accepts, attention shifts to more traditional thriller questions of whether he and Ripley will prevail against the criminals who pay them both.
It may be a thriller, but the film asks a tough question: what would we do if we knew we were going to die? Wenders’s pensive, oblique method treats that question with understated seriousness. While the film’s look and approach may seem a little familiar after forty years (Michael Balhaus’s light-streaked cinematography has been imitated to the point of banality), you need only compare it to a standard Hollywood thriller to recognize Wenders’s audacity. For instead of hurtling breathlessly from climax to climax, Wenders puts the movie in park most of the time to procrastinate along with Jonathan, who masochistically seems to want to believe the fabricated evidence that he is dying.
One of the consequences of this immersive method is that we have plenty of time to recognize the manipulation at work. For example, Jonathan undergoes some tests from his usual doctor, but does not wait for the results before committing himself to the murder. With the pacing so slow, we cannot help remembering those tests, wonder what the results were and why Jonathan does not wait to find out. And when the need for more straightforward action arises, Wenders’s treatment is tersely exciting, but conventional. In other words, for all the languor, sympathetic characterization, modish fragmentation and poetic details, the final result is limited by and to formulaic expectations.
The American Friend does not just dress genre in angst-ridden clothes. It has a core of real feeling, and its influence more than proves the value of Wenders’s approach. The film never gets beyond the limits of popular film making, however. Popularity provides undeniable rewards, not least of them financial, but as The American Friend demonstrates, it also produces expectations that are difficult to ignore once raised. Indeed, the very artfulness employed to overcome those limitations makes us aware of the calculation. In truth, while Wenders may not impose an unwarranted happy ending, doing so would be no more contrived than the rest of the action.