Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part V: A Reaper with the Power of Our Lord (1980)

Part 5 seems to mark a transition from one set of concerns (how is Franz Biberkopf going to make a life for himself outside of prison?) to another. Whatever those new concerns turn out to be exactly, they are, at least for now, dominated by the newly introduced Reinhold—a character who will in large part determine our hero’s fate. (I know this because the paperback edition of the novel I am reading was published as a movie tie-in and features movie stills and descriptive captions that include some pretty gross spoilers. Why do they do this? Do publishers just assume that nobody reads books anymore without having first seen the movie, so we won’t mind if the photo on page 273 tells us what happens on page 410?)

As such, Part 5 raises more questions than it answers. Here are a few of them.

1. Who is Eva?
I’m just shy of the halfway-mark reading Berlin Alexanderplatz (p. 290), and Eva (Hanna Schygulla)—ubiquitous in the film—has not even appeared. What does this mean? Did RWF completely invent her? And if so, why? If I haven’t mentioned this conspicuous absence until now it’s because I wanted to give the novel some time to develop—perhaps Eva is a key player who just doesn’t show up in the original story until much later. But I think it’s been long enough. I think the time has come to look more closely at this mysterious character.

At the beginning of Part 5 we learn that Eva has been paying Franz’s rent at least since he went to prison. She was the first and only person to visit Franz on his first day back from Tegel. She seems to know where he is at all times, whether it’s selling tie holders on the Alexanderplatz, going door to door with shoelaces, locked away in a fleabag rooming house or, as in the opening scene of Part 5, back at Frau Bast’s, following his epic bender. Is she a guardian angel, an imaginary temptress, or just a fantasy projection? Whatever she is to Franz, it’s impossible to just ignore her. She matters. (Out of thirteen episodes and an epilogue, Schygulla appears in twelve. Only Günter Lamprecht appears in more than twelve episodes.)

And then there’s the question of her name. Eva, Eve: original sinner, responsible for mankind’s eviction from paradise, mother of all human weakness. No wonder Franz ran screaming with his shoelaces when she answered that unfamiliar door in Part 3. But what exactly is the nature of the temptation she represents to our hero? It can’t be promiscuity—Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Nor is it infidelity as such (no conscience there, either). Is it prostitution? Eva mentions that Franz was formerly her pimp, a relationship he refuses to reinstate. (He tells both Lina and Eva that he will never rely on a woman in that capacity again.) And yet, he accepted money from the widow after he slept with her in Part 3, and he continues to permit Eva to pay his rent. And, although he initially refuses Eva’s request to sleep with her (not like in the past, just for fun), he eventually grants it. Where is the line with him?

2. What is the source of Reinhold’s power?
It’s hard to fathom, but Franz Biberkopf is smitten with Reinhold (Gottfried John) from the very first moment he lays eyes on him—sallow, stooped, stuttering—at Max’s bar, drinking lemonade from a straw. Franz romantically imagines that Reinhold has served time in prison too and that Reinhold, looking at Franz, knows that he has served time and that they are, ergo, brothers. Never mind that he hasn’t and they’re not: Franz is not deterred. Franz has a puppydog infatuation with Reinhold which I fear could be his undoing. When Reinhold shows up with his lady friend at the corner where Franz sells newspapers (no longer the Völkischer Beobachter, thank goodness), Franz is stupidly, childishly thrilled.

Reinhold, it goes without saying, wants something from poor dumb Franz. He explains it to him later that night in the men’s room of the bar. Reinhold, until recently so smitten with his Fränze (Helen Vita), needs to get rid of her post haste. He can’t stand the sight of her, suddenly, and now he’s got his eye on a new girl. Maybe Franz can help him? Take her off his hands, even? Reinhold will send her to Franz’s place the next day with some boots for him, a gift. If one thing should lead to another, Franz being possessed of considerable charms in this area . . . Sure thing, says cheerful Franz. Happy to help a friend out.

Everything goes like clockwork. Next thing you know, Fränze has moved in with Franz and the two are making like rabbits, happy and cuddly both in and out of the sack. But after a few more weeks, Reinhold shows up at Franz’s corner again with his new girlfriend, Cilly (Annemarie Düringer), who, you guessed it, he just can’t stand the sight of anymore. Hasn’t Franz gotten rid of Fränze yet? He’d better act fast, because Reinhold has his eye on a little blonde called Trude. Franz dutifully picks a fight with Fränze in front of the newsagent (Herbert Steinmetz), with whom Franz has engineered the girl’s hand-off. Just in time, too. Cilly’s at the door, delivering a gift for Herr Biberkopf from Reinhold.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Franz was happy with Fränze. He’s happy with Cilly. When Reinhold approaches Franz yet again—he’s fed up with Trude now too—Franz tells Cilly everything. And, although he didn’t see it at first, Franz suddenly realizes that this has got to stop. He’ll make Reinhold see reason. He and Cilly will go and visit this Trude and warn her, tell her to stand her ground. A man has got to learn to settle down after all. Reinhold may be Franz’s friend, but enough is enough.

3. What is Reinhold’s game?
Reinhold, in this episode, will make demands of Franz that force him to identify the line he does not wish to cross and, maybe, cross it anyway. He’s a first-class manipulator, and not just of women. It’s not clear what he’s up to—yet—but it’s already obvious that he is a sinister force. The narrator tells us so up front:

There is a Grim Reaper whose name is Death, with the power of our lord. He whets his knife today, sharp for the foray. Soon he will sheer a path. And we must bear his wrath.

Reinhold clearly has “issues” with women. Does he hate them? Is he psychotic? A repressed homosexual? He tells Franz he suffers from a compulsion, beyond his control, to immediately possess one and then, when he tires of her (usually after 30 days), just as immediately to discard her. I don’t entirely buy it, though: this alleged weakness just doesn’t ring true. On the contrary, Reinhold appears very much in control of himself at all times. Surely a man this powerful and this cunning doesn’t need a guy like Franz Biberkopf to take women off his hands, at any rate. The desperate trip he takes to the Salvation Army with Franz in tow as his witness, looking, he claims, for support in the battle with his own nature, seems like an act to me. So what is Reinhold up to? For what foray does he whet his knife?

And then there’s the fruit game. When the episode opens, Meck points out Herr Pums (Ivan Desny), the big boss in the fruit trade for whom Reinhold “works,” despite the fact that we never actually see him doing so (it’s hard to imagine the always sharply dressed Reinhold ever pushing a barrow out in the elements). Why does Franz implicitly and immediately mistrust Pums? The latter offers him a job right away, but Franz declines. There’s something fishy in the fruit trade: a worm—or a serpent, more likely?—in the apple.

4. What is that huge piece of machinery in Franz’s room?
OK, this might sound silly, and it’s certainly hard to believe I hadn’t noticed it before now, but there is a massive piece of black iron machinery separating Franz’s bed from the table where he eats in his room at Frau Bast’s, which looks like some sort of ancient stripped-down vehicle—a truck chassis, perhaps, or farm machinery, or construction equipment—or maybe even a printing press. (Or could it be some prehistoric boiler? Honestly, I haven’t the faintest clue.) What is it doing in Franz’s room, in any case, and why has RWF been avoiding it until now? You really don’t notice it in Parts 1-4 because of the camera setups, whereas in Part 5 the camera tracks right around it while Franz, seated on his bed on the other side of this huge thing, very sweetly explains to Fränze why she should stay with him and not worry about Reinhold any more. I’ve scrutinized it in slow motion many times now and I simply cannot figure out what the hell it is, let alone what it means. But it’s got to be there for a reason. If anybody out there knows what I’m talking about could you post a comment and let me know? I feel so helplessly ignorant. (I have already vowed not to watch the DVD extras or read the Criterion liner notes until I’ve finished the series.) [Postscript: According to Dieter Minx,  it’s a printing press. For what that’s worth. I’m still scratching my head. —EB ]

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Just a few other observations: Peer Raben’s music continues to delight and astonish. The cycle—and that’s really what it is—beginning with Fränze’s arrival at Franz’s room, suitcase in hand, and ending with the vanquishing of Cilly, is accompanied by a single piece of piano music—dark, modern, vibrating, and serial, having neither beginning, middle, nor end, unspooling in a continuous loop—which is, of course, the perfect accompaniment to these scenes, in which the women come and go like the seasons. As with so much of Raben’s music, it’s a little jarring at first—a little obtrusive, a little too foregrounded—but quite beautiful, and of course used to brilliant effect.

My favorite moment in the movie (aside from the tracking shot described in #4 above, which is much lovelier than I’ve described it) is part of this same musical loop. Reinhold visits Franz at work for the second time (the first was to “introduce” Fränze, the second, Cilly). In the far upper-left corner of the screen, behind Franz and Reinhold (nicely framed in a two-shot), barely discernible, a violent scuffle between Nazis and Communists is taking place up on some sort of terrace—the red armbands of the former can only just be made out, along with the latter’s hammer and sickle–festooned banner—as the two groups try to wrestle control of the communist symbol. The action is easily missed, since the dialog between Franz and Reinhold commands your attention, until the two men part ways, their conversation concluded, and the foreground of the reverse shot is suddenly, briefly, crossed by a group of Nazis, running at full speed as they make off with the banner while Franz slips down into the subway to talk to the newsagent about taking Fränze. It only lasts a moment—the less vigilant among us might not even register it—but it’s a chilling reminder of the ways this epic struggle between the movements and ideologies that defined the age were, at the same time, literally backdrop, commonplace enough for a time at least as to scarcely attract attention.

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