Wednesday 1 April 2015

Graffiti in The American Friend

Before the the opening credits of The American Friend are complete, the scene shifts from New York to Hamburg. “Ein film von Wim Wenders” appears on screen, superimposed on a shot of a building that is later revealed to be Jonathan Zimmerman’s apartment. This is surrounded by waste ground, with remnants of snow, and, too small to be clearly read in this scene, there is graffiti on the wall of an adjacent building. This graffiti is revealed in a shot much later in the film when Jonathan returns from committing a murder in Paris. It reads: “BRD=Polizeistaat!”.

In 'Impossible Stories' (1982), Wim Wenders describes his work of the 1970s into the early 80s as consisting of 'A-films' and 'B-films':
"In the first group (A) all the films are in black and white [...] In the other group (B) all the films are in colour, and they are based on published novels. The films in group A, on the other hand, are based without exception on ideas of mine - the word 'idea' is used very loosely to refer to dreams, daydreams and experiences of all kinds."
Wim Wenders, 'Impossible Stories', in The Logic of Images
Wenders states that, during this period, each film was a reaction against the previous film he had made: The American Friend is one such B-film, made after Im Lauf Den Zeit (a literal translation is "In the Course of Time"; it was released under the English title, Kings of the Road), the last film in the 'road movies trilogy' which began with Alice In The Cities, itself a reaction against Wenders' unhappy experiences with The Scarlet Letter. The American Friend was in fact based on an unpublished novel, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game: Wenders had wanted to use source material from Highsmith, but the rights of all her published work had been already sold at the time. In adapting the material, Wenders shifted much the important action from France to Hamburg in Germany.

The locations in Hamburg around Jonathan's home and framing workshop show a city of empty spaces and isolated apartment blocks facing the Elbe and the docks opposite. A reasonable assumption to make is that this townscape is the result of bombing in the Second World War, not yet rebuilt, thirty years after the destruction. In another scene, as the Zimmermans drive away from the apartment building in their orange Volkswagen, we can see another slogan, on a building behind the first: “Mord an Holger Meins/Nieder mit der Klassenjustiz/Rote Hilfe”. A rough translation would be: “Holger Meins was murdered/Down with [bourgeois] class justice!/Red Aid”. Filmed at the end of 1976, The American Friend is contemporary with the long Stammheim trial of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrik Meinhof and Jan Carl Raspe, original members of the Rote Armee Fraktion, otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang; Holger Meins had died on hunger strike two years earlier. The 'Rote Hilfe' referred to is a left-wing support group that worked for the RAF prisoners, inspired by a Communist organisation of the same name from Weimar-era Germany. The presence of the graffiti adds to the film’s sense of moral decay as Jonathan acquiesces to the manipulations of Raoul and, unknowingly, Ripley. That Jonathan is seen walking past the first slogan “BRD=Polizeistaat!” (which translates as “BRD" - the Bundesrepublik or West Germany "=Police state”) when he returns from the murder in Paris feels like commentary: state murder and individual murder are equated in a sense of the cheapness of life, heightened by Jonathan's existential crisis. Raoul attempts to assuage Jonathan's conscience by calling the people to be murdered 'bad' men in simplistic terms. Such simplicity does bring to mind an abitrariness: Raoul and his associates have designated them 'bad men', and for that they need to die.

These slogans on the walls of Hamburg are presumably genuine: I have already written about Wenders' fidelity to his locations; but they are also deliberately included. Perhaps they are shown to be indicative of the area in which Jonathan and his family live, in the St Pauli district, just a short distance from the infamous Reeperbahn (in one early exchange, one of the first things that Jonathan says to Ripley, in English, is, "The Reeperbahn is not what it used to be", and one can hear the quotation marks as Jonathan says this). Hamburg in the film, despite being shown as a working port, appears in material terms to be depressed economically. Capital flows through the docks, barely adhering to the town itself. The post-war West German economic miracle has left it alone, or incomplete; meanwhile, this economic miracle appears to have been bought, in part, with a willing amnesia by large sections of German society in order to build a new state. This was one motivating factor for the Baader-Meinhof Gang's violent puncturing of this complacent West German prosperity, a prosperity that had to deal with the oil shocks of the 1970s by the time of The American Friend. Growing unease with the state's closeness to America at the time of the Vietnam war, and the presence of US army bases in Germany helped create the conditions for extreme left-wing reaction. Wim Wenders would not have been unaware of this:
"As part of the '68 generation, Wenders was drawn into politics at this time, at one time being arrested and charged for resisting arrest at a demonstration. However, although he was active in protesting against the Vietnam War, he was not able to shake his ambivalence towards America. He continued to attend screenings of his beloved Westerns every evening and thus never quite fitted into the anti-imperialistic milieu of his student sharehouse."
David Tacon, Great Directors: Wim Wenders
In many of his films, America and American culture feature far more prominently than those films of his contemporaries (notably Herzog and Fassbinder). This American culture fills a void left by the necessary idea, if not the actuality, of starting a new state from scratch after the war. It also fills a role similar to the absent fathers that recur in Wim Wenders' films. In Kings Of The Road, this is famously summed up as, "The Americans have colonised our subconscious". Wenders has always felt this as both a pull and a push, ambivalence and criticality side by side with a love for the surfaces of such a culture. In The American Friend this relationship is symbolically mirrored in the friendship - cautious, amoral, yet genuine and galvanising - that develops between the two men.

The graffiti in The American Friend is doubly echoed in Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979). The slogan “Free Astrid Proll” is prominently seen on a wall in London which the camera from inside the moving car tracks as it passes, while David Bowie's 'Always Crashing In The Same Car' plays as the protagonist drives out of London. Astrid Proll had been a RAF member hiding out in London at the time, discovered and arrested pending extradition. Undoubtably a knowing nod from Chris Petit, funding from Wim Wenders' production company, black and white cinematography from Martin Schäfer (Kings of the Road, The State of Things), and the presence of Lisa Kreuzer as a woman searching for her missing daughter - Alice - all conspire to make this the most German of British road movies. As in The American Friend, the use of graffiti here functions in very similar terms of presenting a background of moral decay, emphasised in the dead brother's involvement in smuggling pornography. In references throughout Radio On, Britain's post-war relationship with Germany is seen as an exchange in both directions: the former occupiers (the UK still had thousands of troops in Germany at the time) do not remain untouched by the experience. This is highlighted by the soundtrack: Kraftwerk (and Lene Lovich) sit with Berlin-era Bowie, opening with the English-German hybrid version of "Heroes"/"Helden".

As Bowie, so the Beatles: both recorded German versions of their songs for the continental market. In a seemingly throwaway line, Ripley says he's "bringing the Beatles back to Hamburg" - still technically possible at the time of the film. Referring to the group having cut their teeth playing there little more than a decade before, this boast sums up Ripley's charismatic arrogance and sense of possibility; "The Reeperbahn is not what it was", suggests a wry rueful acknowledgment of the diminution of the liberties tourists, often American and English (and male), used to enjoy. The area around St Pauli, the docks and the Fischmarkt today displays much more graffiti than in the film, while the landscape has been filled in with many new buildings and apartment blocks, yet today's graffiti is essentially individualistic, apolitical in the main, and in its spraycan style, it represents another aspect of culture imported from America.

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