Der amerikanische Freund (1977)

28 07 2009

I suppose this is Wim Wenders’ own entry into the film noir revival that sparked American cinema in the mid to late 70s, and produced some of the country’s best films from that period. Beside the superficial “crime thriller” tag that could be applied to the story (which is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith) there’s a few other things shared between this film and stuff like Mikey and Nicky and/or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The visuals are the most noticeable thing, as they are a huge improvement over Wenders’ previous color feature, Wrong Move. Overall, I probably rank that film a little bit above this one, but this is definitely another worthy entry into Wenders’ 70s catalogue.

Not so surprisingly, the film executes (literally in some cases) itself in a cold, detached, and very matter of fact manner. This, of course, is completely in line with everything else I’ve seen from Wenders. It’s very Antonioni-esque to say the least, but I think there’s a sense of compassion more reminiscent of Ozu. It’s present even in a film like this, one filled with criminals committing crimes. Perhaps its because of the deadpan manner in which everything is presented, but even under the most emotionally overwhelming of situations, a Kaurismaki-like level of humor is evident. That’s not to say that Wenders ever shows signs of being a cynical comic but instead, that he lets the drama take a backseat to sequences of human simplicity. A perfect example would be the scene in which Bruno Ganz sweeps the floor of his frame shop while humming or mumbling, perhaps even singing along with The Kinks’ “Too Much on My Mind.”

There’s a bit of irony in said sequence as Ganz’s character does indeed have too much on his mind, and like Ray Davies, he probably can’t sleep at night thinking about it. This connection isn’t some pointed epic statement, but just a very accurate representation of how one would deal with their feelings. When people are sad, they listen to sad music, not upbeat stuff. Ganz’s character has wisely chosen an album (in this case “Face to Face”) to underscore his feelings. Perhaps I’m making too big of a deal out of a simple little sequence that takes up all of thirty seconds, but I feel it is something of a microcosm of Wenders’ work as a whole.

He doesn’t make grandiose statements about life, love, or death (though I have a feeling he will in Wings of Desire, which I haven’t seen yet) but observes situations in which such themes play a part. Obviously, death would work with the sequence in which Ganz must carry out a killing (the target is legendary Swiss director, Daniel Schmid) but this extended scene never occupies a sense of self-importance. There is nothing done to make it dramatically or philosophically more fascinating, which is why it is all the more frightening. Like countless cold modern filmmakers (most (in)famously Michael Haneke) Wenders presents the violence without the support of any music, or fast cutting. He builds the suspense by, ironically enough, choosing to not try.

As I mentioned earlier on, the cinematography here is truly wonderful. The bright, vibrant, neon colors of the nightlife seem to be a hundred years away from the dull-ish brown color scheme of Wenders’ Wrong Move. Robby Muller probably outdoes the visuals of my other neo-noir favorites, Mikey and Nicky and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The visual tone seem to anticipate, about twenty years early, the visual style of countless Hong Kong “art” filmmakers. Even though it lacks the kinetic camera of a Christopher Doyle film, it manages to accomplish a similar type of visual beauty within its equally impressive rigid aesthetic. An impressive work of “genre” film making, though it is even less conventional than some of its counterparts.

House By The River (1950)

28 07 2009

Well, let’s just say Lang has done a hell of a lot better. There isn’t anything about this film that doesn’t fit into Lang’s universe of shadowy cinematography occupied by equally shadowy character. The problem, instead, is that things feel a bit too Lang-ian, almost to the point that this feels like something of a parody, or at least the imitation of a less confident and less competent director. On the other hand, the simplicity of the characters and the melodrama of their interactions does lend the film something of a “campy” charm.

I would never argue in favor of Lang being a humanist, but I do find that, in his very best films, he does have something resembling sympathy for his characters. This is not the case here, though. Pretty much every person that shows up is a pawn for manipulating and advancing the already shrill and over-the-top narrative. It only takes a few minutes of the film to realize that very little character development or even character depiction will be going on. To call these people thinly characterized implies a oblique tone, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The drama here comes almost entirely from the advancement of the narrative.

As he often does with B-level material, Lang lifts the film from the depths of MST3K fodder to a genuine art film. The cinematography, courtesy of Edward Cronjager – who also shot Lubitsch’s colorful Heaven Can Wait, is as excellent as I anticipated. The opening “pillow shots” are actually quite brilliant, but fortunately bring the film down by building up the tension for something more complicated, and/or not so silly. Overall, this is probably a bit more entertaining than The Woman in the Window but I think that’s a result of the previously mentioned “camp” appeal. It might be a bit better visually as well, but overall, not nearly as rewarding as a whole.