Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part III: A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul (1980)

Style and form—everything rested on this. No style without morals, no morals without style.
—Ingrid Caven, Interview with Katia Nicodemus, signandsight.com, 5/31/2007

Part 3 picks up where Part 2 left off: outside Max’s bar where Franz, still shaken by the dust-up with Dreske, proclaims his love to Lina. Franz came close—so close!—to breaking his vow to stay on the straight and narrow back there. But one wrong move and they throw the book at a guy like him, so he knows he has to be careful.

Meanwhile, there’s still the question of finding—and holding—a job. But wait, Lina has an idea. She suddenly remembers her Uncle Otto. OK, he’s not her actual uncle, but an old family friend. (Is it just me, or does that sound a little creepy?) He’ll be able to help Franz, for sure! So off they go to Uncle Otto’s place, a basement apartment more basement than apartment. Lina introduces Franz as her fiancée.

Turns out Uncle Otto Lüders (Hark Bohm), recently widowed, is unemployed too, and has been for two years. How does he get by? Oh, this and that. Right now he has a sideline selling shoelaces. Perhaps Franz can get in on the shoelaces gig too. Uncle Otto kindly agrees to take him under his wing. There are enough shoes in Berlin for the two of them.

The next day sees Franz and Otto outside an elegant apartment building, cases strapped over their shoulders. Franz will take the apartments on the left-hand side of the building this time and Lüders the right. Up the stairs Franz goes. He hesitates for a moment outside the first door, then rings the bell. A sad thin woman (Angela Schmid) answers and Franz launches into his spiel. Surely her husband needs shoelaces? Everybody does, and he’s got them in three sizes! No, the woman says, staring intently at Franz, her husband is dead. Franz apologizes. The woman invites him in for coffee. (Don’t do it, Franz! Don’t go in there!) On the dining room wall a picture of a big man who looks a bit like Franz Biberkopf with a big black moustache. Suddenly Franz understands. He puts his hand on the woman’s neck . . .

By the time Franz gets back to Max’s bar, Lüders is already waiting. Franz buys lunch but needs to get change because he has . . . 20 marks! That’s got to be more than their entire inventory is worth! Franz tells Otto about the widow, and how he left his case there so he’ll have to go back. Where was this? Lüders asks. First door on the first floor on the left. Can you believe the luck? Franz gives Lüders  a tenner; they are a team, after all.

Next thing you know, there’s Uncle Otto Lüders standing outside the widow’s door. Expecting Franz, her excitement turns to confusion, then fear. Lüders pushes his way in, demands coffee—like you made for my friend. The innuendo is menacing and nasty. As he is about to leave, Lüders’ tone becomes threatening. He demands money. The camera tracks back to the next room as the widow, frightened, looks on while Lüders ransacks the place, looking for valuables, and the narrator describes the story of the serpent in Paradise.

Lüders does not show up at Franz and Lina’s in the morning, so Franz goes out alone. Franz, spooked by the ubiquitous Eva (Hanna Schygulla) who answers one of the first doors he tries (and whose relationship to Franz, maddeningly, we still don’t know) runs away. Franz practically runs to the florist across the street, where he buys flowers for the widow. Of course she won’t let him in when he rings and slams the door in his face. Franz scribbles her a note, stomps on the flowers, and leaves.

When Franz does not come home that night Lina is certain he has run away and left her. She finds Meck at Max’s, where Max tells them how Franz came for lunch and received first a package from Lüders (his inventory of shoelaces returned) and then a letter marked confidential, which turned Franz’s face green and caused him to run out. Oh, and another thing: Lüders had come for lunch, spotted Franz, and turned tail and run. What could have caused him to flee Franz like that? Smelling something fishy, Meck and Lina pay a visit to Uncle Otto. When it becomes clear that Lüders is lying about what happened, Meck shows him the knife he carries with him at all times, which he won’t hesitate to use if Lüders doesn’t find Franz by the next day.

Lüders locates Franz in a nearby flophouse, where bunks are rented by the night. Franz refuses to return home and rejects the money Lüders offers him. Once more Franz sees red, brandishes a chair, threatening horrible violence, and once more the cloud passes just as quickly. What is the matter with Franz, Lüders asks. He doesn’t understand him at all. “I haven’t learned,” Franz slowly replies, “to say in simple words what’s going on in my head, and what you did to cause what’s going on in my head. I haven’t learned that, because if I’d have learned that, I would have learned a lot more as well, and what has happened would not have happened.” Franz knows he is culpable and complicit in some fundamental way but he’s still not sure how. Is this a chink in his sense of righteous victimhood? Could be.

Meck and Lina go to the flophouse, only to find that Franz has already moved on, leaving instructions with the blowsy proprietress (Christiane Maybach) that nobody is to come looking for him. Maybe they should stop looking, suggests Meck. Maybe Lina can come stay with him now, so she won’t be alone and he won’t be alone, either. (He’s always been fond of her.) Lina silently nods okay, yes, and the episode ends.

Is it my imagination or is the pace picking up? Part 3 moves forward at a nice tight  melodramatic clip. With very little voice-over, no interior monologues and no intertitles to provide commentary on or distract from the inexorable forward (downward?) movement of the story, Part 3 is more melodrama than modernist collage. What little narration there is contributes to the film’s fairy tale–like quality rather than fragmenting it, as was the case in Parts 1 and 2. (Not that that sort of fragmentation is a bad thing; in fact, it seems more faithful to the spirit of the novel.)

This is a good time to point out that the complete title of Döblin’s novel is actually Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf. This is no ordinary novel: it is a sweeping saga, an epic tale, a larger-than-life story. Everything in the production contributes to this epic fairy tale quality: the camerawork, the compositions, the blocking, the music, and especially the lighting, which is almost always artificial (i.e., manipulable, controlled), since most of the scenes take place indoors and at night.

As we’ve come to expect, Berlin Alexanderplatz features a full array of framing devices and those trademark reflective surfaces (mirrors, windows, etc.) which duplicate and reverse the characters’ images. But there’s a new element at work here too: everywhere surfaces sparkle and gleam, from the shiny silver taps and fixtures in Max’s bar, to the glasses and bottles and silverware, to the light fixtures and even Max’s eyeglasses. The effect is magical and strange, exactly what you would expect in a fairy tale.

For me the most perfect example of this kind of heightened unreality is the scene in the florist’s shop. Shot from inside through the front window, we see Franz leaving Eva’s building across the street, partially screened by red and white gladiolus (gladioli?) and elaborate greenery. Pan 180 degrees, as Franz enters the shop, to an oval mirror on the wall opposite the door, where Franz is now framed with roses beneath his face, like an old-fashioned portrait hanging on the wall of your great-grandmother’s house.

FRANZ: I have to buy some flowers. But I’m not sure . . . not quite sure what kind they should be. The thing is, they have to mean “the past keeps following you, driving you on and on, driving you someplace where there’s no future.” Do you understand?

Cut to a close-up of the florist, warmly lit, the image diffuse and slightly gauzy, against a vivid backdrop of bright zinnias, flattened by a long-ish lens, flowers and florist comprising what looks like a single plane, almost like strangely lit wallpaper.

FLORIST: Yes sir. I understand you. What you need are carnations. White carnations, sir.

FRANZ: White carnations? But they’re flowers for death, aren’t they?

FLORIST: Yes, sir. But you asked for flowers for a death, didn’t you?

More than any moment in Fear Eats the Soul, or Martha, or Fear of Fear, or in any Fassbinder film I’ve seen, this tiny little scene, lasting less than two minutes total, made me realize something profoundly important about the way RWF used melodrama, which I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on until now. By manipulating those cinematic codes we associate with a certain Golden Age of Hollywood—codes of lighting, music, color, set decoration—RWF both induces an emotional response and at the same time makes the audience aware of the mechanism by which that response is elicited. OK, we know that. But here’s my point: contrary to the way I have always thought about, say, Brechtian distancing, or what Godard was doing in the 1960s, this awareness does not intellectualize or circumvent the audience’s emotional response, it actually makes it more emotionally powerful, because it is honest, achieved without guile. Does that make any sense at all?

RWF honestly shows you what he is doing: look at the beautiful yellow light that focuses your attention on the kind florist whose stock in trade is quotidian human tragedy and joy, look at the way flowers convey desire and loss, look at the image of Franz Biberkopf trapped in a frame, listen to Peer Raben’s melancholy strings on the soundtrack . . . these are not tricks to make you lose yourself in imaginary identification, nor does RWF bracket them in ironic quotation marks. You are free to contemplate the mechanism by which these beautifully styled elements heighten your awareness of Franz Biberkopf’s plight, which only serves to heighten your awareness of . . . Franz Biberkopf’s plight. This is the opposite of manipulation; it is an emphasis on form that I now see is fundamentally moral.

Curiously, the image I keep coming back to as I try to articulate this idea, if only to myself, is a series of endlessly repeating reflections in facing mirrors, the kind you find in barber shops or in elegant old-fashioned Ladies’ powder rooms. Reflections of reflections, which give you a perspective impossible to attain when you’re “inside” the image, as we normally are, even when we’re watching movies (at least we think we are—that’s the seductive power of identification, right? The proscenium arch, the frame, just disappears). Reflections of reflections of reflections: how perfectly Fassbinder is that?

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