This is it. This is the film I’ve been working toward for the past two years (gasp—has it really been that long?). This is the film I’ve been dreading. Berlin Alexanderplatz: RWF’s magnum opus, the pinnacle and the summation of an entire career in 13 Parts and an Epilogue. Fifteen and a half hours of purest Fassbinder.
A Few Words on Process
I made a calculation when I began this little adventure that I would count each episode as a feature film (each episode is certainly as long as a feature film). As a result, I’m going to write at least a little about each one. Which means, of course, that I’ll be writing about material I haven’t seen all the way through, piecing my thoughts together as I go along. For better or worse, each post will necessarily be more impressionistic than the self-contained little essays I’ve been cranking out lately. (On the other hand, they will be more “blog-like,” right?) God knows why anyone would want to read such a thing—and perhaps no one will. But it’s the thing I set out to do so do it I will.
Döblin and Fassbinder
As I’ve suggested many times already, Alfred Döblin’s novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and its protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, provided threads woven throughout much of RWF’s work from the very beginning. Allusions and references occur throughout many of his films, beginning with Love Is Colder Than Death, with the recurring character of Franz Walsch (the name is said to have been an amalgam of Franz Biberkopf and Raoul Walsh, the Hollywood director) and Gods of the Plague, in which Harry Baer’s character uses the alias Franz Biberkopf. What is it about Berlin Alexanderplatz that so captivated RWF?
Set in working class Berlin in the late 1920s, Berlin Alexanderplatz tells the story of one ex-convict’s efforts to reintegrate into and survive within a society whose forces seem bent on pushing him back into the underworld from which he hopes to escape, at a time when Germany is on the brink of its fateful transition to National Socialism. Looking back over the predominant themes of RWF’s work—the stultifying effects of bourgeois morality and petit bourgeois values, the sheeplike ways people allow themselves to be subjugated and the eagerness with which they will subjugate others when given the chance, the inherently masochistic nature of love as it is experienced in bourgeois society, etc.—it’s easy to see the appeal, even without having read the book. (Sadly out of print in English; I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth paying over $50 for a used paperback edition. I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and read it asap.)
Moreover, Döblin’s narrative style (I’m told)—frequently compared to Joyce’s Ulysses—uses multiple voices and forms of narration, including newspapers, political speeches, music hall and nursery rhymes, folk tales and gossip and god only knows what else, in addition to third- and first-person narration, to create a portrait of a society and a place in time. (Some of this is already apparent in the first episode of the film.) This, of course, is exactly what RWF himself was increasingly occupied with throughout the 1970s: just think of the multiple literary voices in Effi Briest, the multiple media and multiple realities of World on a Wire, the radio soundscapes of The Marriage of Maria Braun, or the barrage of television broadcasts in The Third Generation.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is a sweeping melodrama full of simple characters, love and deception, crushed ambitions, punishment, shattered dreams—or to return to our old friend Merriam-Webster, it’s “characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization”—the preferred vehicle for so many of RWF’s greatest morality tales. Franz Biberkopf, moreover, is the perfect RWF hero: ignorant, simple, easily victimized and easily led, quick to violence, angry, guilty, trapped. But then haven’t I just described nearly every male protagonist from Love Is Colder Than Death to at least The Merchant of Four Seasons?
A Note on the Remastered DVD
Before I get started with Part 1, I’ll just mention that the Criterion Collection DVD boxed set is really gorgeous and, to my mind at least, renders mostly moot the controversy surrounding the remastered print—which corrects what was perceived by many at the time (including the cinematographer, who oversaw the 2006 restoration) to be the unacceptable darkness of the original transfer shown on German TV. Although some purists objected to the meddling and revisionism this restoration seemed to represent, arguing that RWF intended the dark scenes to be lost in shadow, I think in the absence of a verdict from the director himself, we have no choice but to trust the director of photography. The film is still plenty dark now, believe me.
This does, however, raise important (and to my mind unresolvable) questions about artistic intentionality and control of an electronically reproducible, not to mention manipulable, medium, especially in the absence of the work’s creator. Coincidentally, yesterday’s Keyframe independent film and video email newsletter included this timely and amusing tidbit, announcing an upcoming theatrical screening of Berlin Alexanderplatz in its entirety in London:
“It is possible to catch up with Berlin Alexanderplatz in a boxed set, alongside Breaking Bad and Mad Men and the rest,” writes Iain Sinclair. “But never, or very, very rarely, on film, and never ever before in England. It’s the difference between sampling Ulysses on Kindle and getting the heft of it into your own hands, smelling the paper, navigating acres of print. The unique grain of the moment, the lighting, the detail in those extraordinary performances, requires a projector, a big screen, shared darkness.” Sinclair and Chris Petit will introduce a second screening of Fassbinder’s 1980 adaptation of Döblin’s 1929 novel at the ICA this coming weekend.
Given that Berlin Alexanderplatz was made for television (and shot on 16mm film), this seems like a very odd statement—and one which I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment on. I have no doubt it must be thrilling to spend 15+ hours in “shared darkness” watching Berlin Alexanderplatz, but I don’t think it’s in any way a stretch to say that’s just not what RWF had in mind when he made the series. That’s why he had also intended to shoot a feature-length version of the very same story for theatrical distribution with an appropriately revised and condensed script and a cast of international movie stars (Gerard Depardieu as Franz Biberkopf!). Two different vehicles for two different distribution channels.
As for the (to my mind) rather sneering insinuation that watching Mad Men or Breaking Bad on DVD is one thing, but subjecting RWF’s masterpiece to that inferior medium is quite another—I just have to shake my head in wonderment. We’re still flogging that old dead horse? The one that says television is for entertainment, cinema is for art? In 2013? This strikes me as precisely the sort of pretention that RWF would never have supported, no matter how reverent or sincere the intent. Come to think of it, I don’t know that he would have had all that much patience for the reverence, either.
Next Up: Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part 1: The Punishment Begins.