Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part IV: A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence (1980)

Franz Biberkopf awakens in a dark, dingy, down-market room, a castaway in a sea of empty beer bottles, on a bender to beat all benders. Otto Lüders’ duplicity was just too much to bear; Franz has hidden himself away from the world and is drinking himself into oblivion.

Franz stumbles downstairs with his crate of bottles, which gossipy Frau Greiner across the way replaces with fresh ones. He sits at his window watching the activity in the street and in the apartments across the way. A woman walks across the cobblestones below, all business, then turns to look up at Franz where he sits perched in his window, and winks. Franz winks back. Next thing he knows she’s in his room, taking off her dress. Franz, awkwardly, begins to apologize . . .  out she storms, furious at having been tricked (“you winked, didn’t you?).

He reads the newspaper and drinks. He throws up and drinks some more. He complains of crippling stomach pains, seeks the help of a priest (at least in his mind), spends several days and nights tossing and turning in his room, feverish and sick, attended by his saintly landlord, Baumann (Gerhard Zwerenz).

The fever breaks, the worst appears to be over, although Franz is still not out of the woods. Another feminine apparition visits him (are any of these women who visit Franz in his squalor even real? Impossible to say for sure, but I have my doubts): Eva (Hanna Schygulla) appears at his door one night, as though it were perfectly natural for her to be there, and gingerly steps over the sea of beer bottles to sit with a perspiration-soaked Biberkopf on his disgusting floor. Eva, we at last learn, is a successful prostitute and Franz, whom she still loves, was once her pimp. She offers him help, she offers him money, but Franz vehemently refuses both. (He made a vow, after all.)

Franz looks out the window after Eva has gone only to spot something going on in the dark over at the wholesale warehouse across the street. A robbery is in progress. How dare thieves bring their perfidious activities to the street where he, Franz Biberkopf, lives! Something hitherto dormant in him, a sense of moral outrage, perhaps, is awakened and suddenly Franz snaps out of his torpor. By the time Herr Greiner and his Frau are arrested for collaborating with the thieves—in broad daylight and in front of the entire neighborhood—Franz is back to his old self, ready to return to life on the Alex, as though he had achieved some kind of catharsis, survived a trial by fire. Baumann bids him a sad goodbye. Franz returns first to the newspaper vendor in the subway (he’ll need a source of income again), then to find Meck, who’s selling clothing now. (Don’t ask where he gets his merchandise.)

Part 4 is a tricky one to describe—there isn’t really all that much in the way of action, and the plot is meandering and uncertain. Unlike Parts 1–3, Part 4 almost exclusively depicts Franz’s emotional and spiritual state. Even those plot developments that do involve action seem like feverish projections, hallucinations that unfold as in a dream, random and disconnected. And aside from a couple of forays into the world outside, which anyway feel just as detached and unreal as the interior scenes, this episode takes place almost entirely in Franz’s dreadful room.

After a shaky start, Part 1 saw Franz slowly find his footing back in Berlin, largely thanks to the catharsis or closure or whatever it was he achieved (by force) through Minna. In Part 2, Franz regained confidence, found work (never mind how compromising), and even started a happy, relatively healthy new life with Lina. After a promising start, however, Part 3 punished Franz for failing to recognize (among other things) a situation too good to be true. And Part 4—well, Part 4 is a long, dark night of Franz Biberkopf’s soul. (Never mind that it does, paradoxically, happen to feature more daylight scenes than any of the preceding three). Politics, unemployment, social issues, sexual and emotional relationships, none of these seem to penetrate the penumbra that separates Franz Biberkopf and his spiritual crisis from the outside world. (They do penetrate it, of course, but on an unconscious level. More on this later.)

The religious overtones are inescapable, beginning with the music, which is downright liturgical (J.S. Bach’s cantatas spring to mind, but I’m not sure how accurate that is), and which is woven into nearly every scene from the very first shot. From the moment Franz Biberkopf awakens and fumbles blindly for a bottle that isn’t empty as he lies on his filthy bed, accompanied by the echoing, unearthly soprano and organ, we know we are in a world removed from the everyday.

The pivotal scene in Part 4 takes place in Franz’s smoky, candle-lit room, after the worst of his “sickness” has already passed. He and Baumann play cards and enact a dialog based on the Book of Job, with Baumann as Satan and Franz as Job (late-stage Job, of course, after he has lost his riches and been cast out of his house into a cabbage patch). Here Satan does not appear to want to induce Job to curse God, exactly, but to admit that he does not actually want the help he claims has been denied him, whether from God or man or Satan. It’s a strange scene, but quite moving. And it confirms for us, if we weren’t quite sure, what is going on: like Job, Franz fervently, desperately wants to hew to a right path, to align himself with God—which is to say, with the good—no matter what misfortunes befall him. But he cannot let go of his thoughts, he cannot make himself “wholly beast.” And temptation to return to his old ways anyway beckons from all sides (Otto Lüders, Eva, the Greiners). Franz is only safe when locked in his awful room, drinking.

The card game between Job and Satan is sandwiched between two remarkable sequences in a slaughterhouse, introduced by an intertitle: Man’s fate is like that of the beasts. Just as they die, so does he.  The first of these consists of a montage of hand-colored still photographs taken in a 1920s abbatoir, with step-by step narration describing a steer’s slaughter in graphic and poetic detail. (And no, that’s not an oxymoron. The description is profoundly moving.) Astute readers will note, of course, that this scene harkens back to the slaughterhouse of In a Year with Thirteen Moons. (Did Döblin’s novel inspire RWF to develop that connection with Armin Meier’s career as a butcher in the first place? I would wager that it probably did.)

The second, which comes after the Job scene, is not derived from documentary sources but was shot for the film. An old bearded man in a loincloth, covered in places with what looks like moss (Job, once handsome, found himself covered in sores, another way that God tested him) enters an empty warehouse carrying a lamb. He sits with the animal in his lap and quickly, efficiently, but compassionately, slits the animal’s throat. (And yes, it looks like he really does. Animals, it seems, were harmed in the making of this motion picture.)

This scene does not exist in the novel as such—or rather, it does, but in a different form. In the novel you read a (spine-chilling, heart-breaking, vegetarian-making) description of an old man slaughtering a calf—no reference to Job. The juxtaposition of slaughterhouse and Story of Job (and Franz Biberkopf) are there, sure, but the relationship between them is not very clear. By making the old slaughterer biblical, allegorical, RWF draws these threads together: the suffering of Job, of Franz Biberkopf, of lambs to the slaughter, are all of a piece. And they have all the same breath, and men have no more than beasts.

As I’ve already mentioned, Döblin’s novel is a modernist work, a dense tapestry woven from floating passages of text from a variety of sources, unanchored and unattributed, often impossible to pin down or ascribe to any one source. Very difficult, as such, to adapt to the screen—which requires, as a rule, a vantage point (or at least something like one). RWF’s solution to this problem—a stratagem no doubt born in the theater, where this problem must be commonplace—was to put those floating snippets of text in the mouths of secondary characters, or occasionally to visualize them through other media. (He seems to have reserved intertitles and voice-over narration for the book’s chapter subbheadings and third-person omniscient narration.)

For example, RWF has Frau Greiner, not some third-person quasi-narrator as in the book, describe at length the various characters (and their salient foibles) who inhabit the block of flats Franz finds himself living and drinking in. And a series of legal memoranda written by the attorney across the street (a real skinflint, according to Frau G), which just “appear” in the novel, are here staged, enacted, as the lawyer dictates to his mute secretary (Margit Carstensen), framed by the office window as in a painting as Franz gazes out from his window-sill across the street, Rear Window–style. (Really nice camera-work in this sequence, which culminates in the lady in the street’s wink.) And of course RWF has Franz read the ads in his newspaper—which again, just appear in the novel, unattributed—aloud, while he drinks.

The heaviest narrational lifting in Part 4 is reserved for Herr Baumann—a character, I should mention, wholly invented by Fassbinder. (At least so far. I wouldn’t completely rule out Baumann’s appearance later in the novel, although he wouldn’t be the same character in that case, would he?). Why in an adaptation this faithful did RWF feel the need to invent this particular—minor—character? In the novel, the  landlady is vaguely malevolent but mostly insignificant. And surely there were other vehicles RWF could have used to convey the Job business?

Gerhard Zwerenz, who plays Baumann, was not, as far as I can tell, really an actor at all. A prolific novelist and essayist (his Wikipedia page, only available in German, is impressive, to say the least), he wrote The Earth Is Uninhabitable Like the Moon, a work RWF spent several years trying to make into a film, as well as the novelization of The Marriage of Maria Braun. RWF clearly admired him. He dedicated Veronika Voss to Zwerenz and cast him in a small role in The Stationmaster’s Wife and, more important, as the journalist to whom Elvira turns for help before her suicide in In a Year with Thirteen Moons. (He also opened a marvelous essay on Claude Chabrol with a quote from Zwerenz.) A startling Abraham Lincoln look-alike (same craggy, leathery face, same moustacheless beard, same aura of profund wisdom and courage), Zwerenz exudes an other-worldly calm and sagacity and gentleness. Shot from below in candlelight as he often is in Berlin Alexanderplatz, he looks like some sort of 19th-century Lutheran elder, stern, all-knowing, but kind. As Baumann, he functions as a sort of guardian angel—or perhaps just an angel of Franz Biberkopf’s better nature. (He also plays a mean Satan.)

Zwerenz was—still is, I think—a leftist intellectual and outspoken social critic who served in both the German and Red Armies in WWII (if I’m reading Google’s tortured translation of his Wikipedia page correctly), a member of the East German Communist party after the war who later defected to the West. His very presence links Franz Biberkopf’s saga to political and social realities that were an important part of RWF’s agenda—connections which Döblin in 1929 would not have been in a position to make, living and writing as he was in the midst of this unfolding history.

RWF peppers his Berlin Alexanderplatz with political-historical references. Part 4 includes two important posters seen in the background of dramatic scenes. The first of these, when Franz goes out into the street after his “illness” (intending, he declares, to visit the Jews in Münzstrasse—remember them?), is an announcement of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—anarcho-proletarian lambs to the slaughter, par excellence. The second of these can be seen in the very last scene of the episode, when Franz reunites with Meck. Behind them, a poster announces the incarceration of Carl von Ossietzky, German pacifist, imprisoned in 1929 for exposing the secret German rearmament which violated the Treaty of Versailles and, of course, jump-started Hitler’s war machine. He was convicted of treason in 1931 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935, which he was unable to physically accept, incarcerated as he was in Esterwegen concentration camp, where he died in 1936. (Gerhard Zwerenz, I should mention, won the Carl von Ossietzky prize for contemporary history and politics in 1986.)

So here’s my favorite scene of the film, nicely modified by RWF from the novel to give it a more coherently poetic as well as a political edge. In his delirium, Franz hallucinates turning to a priest for help. In RWF’s version the figure to whom he directs his confused and humble plea is a drayman, a burly laborer in cap and black leather smock loading his truck with heavy sacks outside the church, unmoved by the stooped and crumpled man in a brown wool coat and hat.

Good day, Reverand. I’m Franz Biberkopf, a worker, a casual laborer. I was a furniture mover, unemployed. I wanted to ask you something. How can I stop my stomach pains, heartburn, acid indigestion? Here it comes again! Noxious bile! It comes from drinking a lot. Excuse me for accosting you like this on the street. Am I keeping you from your work? But what can I do about this horrible bile? One Christian has to help another. You’re a good person, but I won’t go to heaven. And why? If criminals exist, I can tell you all about them. Loyal and true, we swore it to Karl Liebknecht. We gave our hand to Rosa Luxemburg. I’ll go to Paradise when I die, and they’ll bow down before me and say: “That’s Franz Biberkopf, loyal and true, a German. Does odd jobs, loyal and true. High flies the banner, black, white and red. But he kept it to himself. He didn’t turn to crime like the others who want to be Germans, and who cheat their fellow citizens.”

As in the slaughterhouse scenes, or the preceding scene in which Baumann, on hands and knees, cleans Franz’s vomit from the floor while talking to him about the occupations of the human heart, or the moment of Ida’s death in Part 1, we are in the realm of the sacred. The ecclesiastical choral music on the soundtrack, the deft, almost surreal camera movement, Franz’s humble, rambling plea, all underscore this. At the same time, we are in the realm of the political: the Marxists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were political leaders whose significance to the working classes was also spiritual, after all, while the laborer and even the landlord here, in words and deeds, are both exemplars of a secular religiosity as well as an implicit political stance. This, I think, is the essence of RWF’s eloquent humanism: he shows us how spiritual, political, historical, and social realities all converge and overlap in a single, precious life.

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