Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part I: The Punishment Begins (1980)

I don’t have to, but I’m going to come clean: about five years ago I rented and watched the first three episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz. And then I gave up. I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t handle the relentless darkness, couldn’t handle the stylization, couldn’t handle the dialog or the delivery, couldn’t even handle the music. It all felt too theatrical, too arch, too intellectually anti-intellectual, if that makes any sense at all. That, at any rate, is how I remember it. What, I have to wonder, was the matter with me?

Now, I hope I’ve already made it clear that I really cannot stand the sort of breathless adulation exemplified in the quote reproduced in my last post (look it up if you must), but here it is: after having watched only one episode with my newly Fassbinderized consciousness, it is already clear to me that Berlin Alexanderplatz is in some important ways qualitatively different from anything RWF had done before. Not orders-of-magnitude different, of course—every film prior to this one, clearly, was a stepping stone leading here, and quite a few of them are great—but different. More cohesive. More coherent. More organic. Is that what I mean? Finding the words to sincerely explain what I think makes Berlin Alexanderplatz different is going to take some time. (Lucky for me I have 13 more episodes.)

So. One of the first things you notice, watching Berlin Alexanderplatz—even before you stop to appreciate the expressionistic lighting or the set design or the pretty much perfectly realized mise-en-scène—are the multiple voices, which begin almost immediately, without introduction or warning. An omniscient third-person narrator, Franz Biberkopf’s inner monologue, the sarcastic intertitles (presumably the director’s or “the film’s” voice which, as in Effi Briest, is not the same voice as the literary narrator’s), other characters’ inner voices, all chime in within the first few minutes. The effect of this, so suddenly, is a little jarring, but effective. It thrusts you straight inside the narrative kaleidoscope even before you’ve had a chance to get your bearings. This is a modernist text, after all, a multilayered collage, pieced together, obviously, from a variety of media and perspectives.

The episode opens outside Tegel prison, from which Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) has just been released. Disoriented and afraid, he nearly refuses to exit through the prison gate. Curiously, the long tracking shot, as he makes his way to the gate, mirrors almost exactly the opening shot in Gods of the Plague, when Franz Walsch (Harry Baer) gets out of prison. Same close-up lateral movement as the newly free man makes his way along the exterior prison wall—I remember this because I liked the shot so much in the earlier film that I mentioned it in this blog. Evidence, if only on a small scale, of just how long RWF had been working this scenario out in his head and in his work.

Franz groans and whimpers and shouts and sings at full volume in the narrow, echoing streets. (Franz does a lot of singing: snippets of patriotic songs, what sound like nursery rhymes, and probably other things I can’t begin to identify are just a few of the many strands that comprise his particular tapestry.) He is followed by an orthodox Jew in long black coat and telltale hat+beard, Nachum (Peter Kollek), who takes pity on him and brings him home. In an effort to calm Franz’s nerves and give him hope for the future, the charmingly eccentric Nachum tells him a story, the Story of Zannowich, which teaches that all you need to get ahead in this world are eyes to see the world and feet to walk toward it, and, unafraid, you can become rich and powerful, like Zannowich and his son—whose successes succeeded even the father’s. Eliser, Nachum’s brother-in-law and landlord, arrives, however, and angrily tells poor Franz the story’s true ending, the moral of which is quite different: Zannowich the younger in fact committed suicide in debtor’s prison, his body thrown on a dung heap. Even with eyes to see the world and feet to walk toward it, it seems, life comes a cropper if you’re not one of the designated, privileged few.

Franz, angry and demoralized, next picks up a prostitute with whom, alas, he cannot perform. She reads him a scientific text describing in detail the mechanics of the male sexual apparatus and the causes of erectile dysfunction before he walks out, humiliated. Next stop, home, in a small dirty square next to a flashing “Kino” sign (it’s an iconic, and of course, appropriately self-reflexive, image), where he is greeted by his kindly landlady, Frau Bast (Brigitte Mira, whom I love more and more with each film).

We soon learn the probable cause of Franz’s impotence (and the reason for his incarceration) via flashback. During an argument, Franz, out of control with rage, had beaten his girlfriend, Ida (Barbara Valentin), to death. The narrator (RWF) drily explains the physics by which this happened as, horrified, we watch it happen, watch a helpless Frau Bast watch it happen too, and watch a stunned Franz realize what he has just done:

What had happened to the woman’s rib cage a second before has to do with the laws of rigidity and elasticity, impact and resistance. Without a knowledge of these laws, the case cannot be understood. The following formula may be applied: Newton’s first law says that a body remains in a state of rest unless acted upon by an external force, open parentheses, which applies to Ida’s ribs, closed parentheses. Newton’s second law says that the change of momentum is proportional to the force and is in the same direction, open parentheses, the effective force being Franz, or his arm and fist and the contents thereof, closed parentheses.

Two intertitles illustrating this principle by means of its mathematical formula follow—sadly, I cannot figure out how to import them into WordPress (I did manage to reproduce them in MathType, which I have to admit I’m proud of, but that’s as far as I can go). The narrator, it would seem, has a scientific bent. (Döblin was a physician by trade.)

Despite this irony—or maybe, I would argue, because of it—the scene is kind of breathtaking: beautifully composed, beautifully lit, beautifully cut, beautifully articulated, at once shocking and poignant. I wish I could reproduce it here: the moment when the narrator describes the way Ida’s voice suddenly changed, the way we see her fear which had recently been anger turn into bewildered acceptance as she realizes in a flash that she is dying. And on the soundtrack that dry, objective description of the physics of her death—a physics which we all know will apply to each and every one of us, one way or another, eventually—contrary to what you might assume, only intensifies the poignancy and the pointless humble tragedy of this death . . . I wish I could re-create it for you because it’s moments like this that make this film so powerful, the self-conscious music and the ironic titles and voice-over as much a part of it as the actors’ performances. How to explain this?

In the scene that immediately precedes this flashback, Franz pays a visit to a woman who, we eventually learn, is Ida’s sister, Minna (Karin Baal), before we know who Ida actually is, with whom Franz finds himself capable of that elusive erection after all. (OK, he rapes her. Before we go any further I have to say it isn’t quite as awful as it sounds, and, yes, it’s complicated.) In this union with Minna, Franz frees himself from the hold Ida and his terrible crime against her has had over him and joyfully pronounces himself free, a human being again. And again, the scene progresses via interior monologues, both Minna’s and Franz’s, and dry, detached third-person voice-over narration over some pretty dramatic imagery—and some really beautiful alternating close-ups (something you don’t ordinarily associate with RWF, I might add).

So, after a visit from a couple we know is probably going to play an important role at some point (the woman, Eva, is played by Hanna Schygulla), and another visit to Minna, who claims she doesn’t want him there but takes off her dress anyway, Franz runs into his old pal, Meck (Franz Buchrieser), who takes him for a drink. There, Franz meets Lina (Elisabeth Trissenaar), a mysterious Polish girl with whom he immediately starts a relationship. Lina moves in with Franz the very next day only to find that Franz has received an official letter from the police informing him that his crime renders him unfit to live in metropolitan Berlin (or suburban Berlin, for that matter, whatever the word for suburban was in those days) and that he is therefore banished immediately. Franz enlists the help of a prisoners’ advocate (Juliane Lorenz, RWF’s editor and girlfriend–whom RWF had also, curiously, cast as a government bureaucrat in The Third Generation). The episode ends with a triumphant Franz having won the right to stay in Berlin.

But that’s enough for now. I realize, strangely, that I have barely even begun to describe the visual elements that comprise this incredibly complex film—elements which you’d probably have expected me to talk about before anything else. But I need to pace myself. You’ll just have to wait for Parts 2 and beyond for that.

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