Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part II: How Is One to Live If One Doesn’t Want to Die? (1980)

After the roller coaster ride of Part 1, reality. We knew Franz’s euphoria couldn’t last. Struggling under the impossible reparations imposed at Versailles, in the midst of a global economic depression, it turns out Weimar Germany is just not a good environment for an ex-con to try to regain his place in society. With 673,582 men unemployed in Berlin alone (Lina looks it up), what’s a man to do?

What Franz needs, Meck suggests, is a trade. Franz tries hawking tie holders in the street, but his sales pitch, which quickly veers into hardscrabble philosophy tinged with traces of anti-Semitism, attracts no interest—his only customer, Eva (Hanna Schygulla), buys one out of charity, only to spark Lina’s jealousy. Franz decides that consumer gadgets just isn’t his line; newspapers seem more the thing.

The newsagent in the U-Bahn station (Herbert Steinmetz) sets Franz up with some publications specializing in “sexual education” (illustrated, of course)—the latest thing, he assures Franz, and perfectly legal, too. Franz, skeptical at first—he knows where looking at too many pictures leads (funny how predominant the impotence theme is proving to be already)—agrees to give it a try and takes some volumes on the topic of homosexuality back home with him. When he describes one of the stories he read to Lina—unerotic and heartbreaking as Franz tells it—she freaks out and tries to run away, assuming Franz must be “like that.” (A brisk grope sets her straight.) Lina marches back to the newsagent and gives him a piece of her mind, along with the unsold magazines. Franz watches, entranced, from the sidelines.

Despite Franz’s diminished prospects, Lina convinces him to take her to a night club, Die Neue Welt (The New World—a dance hall with mercifully few traces of Liza Minelli or Joel Grey). Franz meets a man at the bar who immediately identifies Franz as a “true German.” (Franz fails to mention during the man’s rant against Jews, Poles and the French, that his own girlfriend happens to be Polish, but whatever; that’s not the way Franz thinks). The man offers to give Franz “a chance.” Things are looking up!

The next day sees a slightly discomfited Franz in the U-Bahn station once more, this time in sandwich board and Nazi armband, hawking the Volkischer Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper. Franz, imprisoned by his sandwich board, labelled with the swastika he’s been told to wear, stands helpless, proud, defiant as characters wander in and out of his range, the station itself a dimly lit stage on which the action unfolds.

The subway station, of course, is the perfect platform for this drama (pun not entirely intended)—which, I think, is why RWF set it there. The whole world seems to pass through: sales vendors energetically vie for attention—hawking sausages, pickled herring, and, yes, Nazi propaganda—while private dramas play out unnoticed in the dim light. Daylight just barely penetrates from the subway entrances visible in the distance. I want to say the light down there is crepuscular, but I’m not sure if that quite describes it? You could certainly call the lighting expressionist—or you could just say it is highly dramatic, highly theatrical.

Which, of course, you could say about this entire scene (or this entire series, really): it’s highly theatrical. More so than with many of RWF’s films, you really notice the extent to which his background in theater prepared him for this: the lighting, the staging—the way he uses space, the way he blocks each scene for the camera and for the audience, the choreography of camera and actors within the space—I really do think these owe as much to a theatrical vision as they do to cinematic one. (You particularly notice this in the long shots; the close-ups are pure cinema.) Which is not to say that Berlin Alexanderplatz is “stagey” or “uncinematic”—quite the contrary! What I think RWF has achieved here is really extraordinary: a synthesis (not to mention a mastery) of these two art forms that enables him to achieve both critical distance and a sort of fairy tale unreality, while at the same time commanding a profound empathy for his characters. Maybe this is the quality I’ve been trying to put my finger on that sets Berlin Alexanderplatz apart? (In a Year with Thirteen Moons achieves this, too—whatever “it” is exactly.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, anyway. Here’s Franz, a sandwich board around his neck and a swastika on his arm, trying to muster enthusiasm for another product to sell. A sausage vendor (Jürgen Draeger) greets him and expresses curiosity about the Volkischer Beobachter. They’re supposed to be alright, the man says, but. . . he senses something else. They’re against the Jews, aren’t they? Personally, Franz says, he has nothing against the Jews, but (gaining confidence) one must have law and order. That’s the thing! The sausage vendor shrugs, wishes Franz good luck—everyone has to make a living according to his own lights—and adds almost as an afterthought that he is Jewish—no hard feelings, though. Franz looks as though he has accidentally swallowed a fly.

Ah, but here comes Dreske, whom Franz seems to know from the last war, and a couple of his comrades, who are communists. They openly mock Biberkopf, who doesn’t actually seem to know much about Nazi philosophy, but, his back now up, defends his untenable position as though he actually had one. (Referring proudly now to the swastika on his armband: “There’s nothing on it a man can’t answer for.”) After the war, the republic promised a better way of life, but there’s no work, no butter, no order (he’s on a roll now.) When a man has seen the things Franz Biberkopf has seen . . .

After work, Franz goes to Max’s bar to wait for Lina. (Max, by the way, is played by the lovely Klaus Holm, grandfather Gast in the The Third Generation.) Franz has the place to himself, contentedly eating a cheese sandwich he no doubt purchased with his day’s wages, when who should enter but Dreske and his comrades—more of them this time than in the station—looking for a drink and a song and, it would appear, a fight. They immediately launch into the Internationale and demand that Franz join them. He refuses and says he will sing something himself, then recites a poem written by a fellow prisoner in Tegel—who, if I read the flashback correctly, committed suicide in the cell next to Franz’s. But the communists are not satisfied, so Franz sings a song of wartime camaraderie (here’s where a knowledge of German culture and history would really come in handy) and then The Watch on the Rhine. This infuriates the communists, one of whom menacingly approaches Franz and demands the Nazi armband he is sure is in Franz’s pocket. (I don’t know the character’s name so could not look up the actor.) Dreske refuses to intervene, suggesting that Franz has earned whatever punishment he gets.

Franz Biberkopf, as they say, loses his shit. He kicks the table over, grabs a chair and brandishes it like a crazed lion-tamer. He shouts. He sings. He flashes back to his jarring re-entry into the world just a few short days previously, when the sky and the buildings seemed about to crash in on his head. For a moment it looks like he is going to run completely, violently, amok and beat these men to a pulp and then . . . the moment passes and he is calm again. The communists, meanwhile, have all slunk silently back to their table across the room. Franz leaves, while Dreske comforts his comrades with Leninist platitudes.

These are very difficult scenes to describe, of course, because they require you to work through your natural revulsion at the sight of our protagonist wearing a swastika, on the one hand, and at the same time (in my case, anyway) disregard your natural sympathy for the communists. RWF (and presumably, Döblin) makes you abandon your  presumptions and look at the conditions that would drive a man like Biberkopf to the Nazis in the first place. In any case, Franz doesn’t seem to know what the party really stands for, doesn’t even appear to have read the paper he’s selling—just as he doesn’t use a tie holder or read magazines devoted to sexual education. It’s a job, and a job is what Franz desperately needs.

At the same time, Franz knows intimately that the society he has re-entered is broken, that a guy like him cannot live and work and expect to make ends meet under the current circumstances, although he desperately needs to. So maybe . . . The communists, he reminds Dreske, haven’t delivered on any of their promises, so maybe those other guys will. That’s as far as it goes with him, and it is probably as far as it went with a good many people in those fateful early days, right? All too happy to overlook the ideology for the promise of better times. (We hear this from our own low-information middle every election cycle: “You guys haven’t fixed anything so I’m voting for the other guys.” If they bother to vote at all, that is.)

This is probably a good time to mention Gunther Lamprecht’s performance as Biberkopf. I have had to remind myself several times now that this same actor played Maria’s mother’s good-natured boyfriend in The Marriage of Maria Braun—another under-employed working class character, but with none of the simple, sweet, pugnacious and paradoxical menace of Franz Biberkopf. Gunther Lamprecht is that good: I have to  remind myself that this persona is not the only one he’s equipped to play. (In some ways Lamprecht’s performance reminds me of James Gandolfini’s career-defining turn as Tony Soprano, but only superficially; what Lamprecht really captures is Biberkopf’s well-intentioned but dangerous ignorance, his sweet, sometimes child-like innocence which can turn to violence at the drop of a hat, not because he is steeped in a culture and tradition of violence à la the Sopranos, but because he just doesn’t know what else to do when the time comes, because he is a great big bear of a man who can beat a person to death with his bare hands. When push comes to shove, you use the gifts you’ve been given—especially when those gifts are pushing and shoving. It isn’t his fault. This is the beauty of Lamprecht’s performance: he makes you feel that Franz Biberkopf genuinely believes this.


Note: I found a used copy of the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz for $15 at Powell’s Books in Portland. (They have a great website. Next time you have to turn to Amazon, especially for anything out of print, try Powell’s first!) I’ll start reading tomorrow.

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