Cursed be the man, saith Jeremiah, that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree by the waters, that spreadeth his roots and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green and shall not be careful in the year of drought neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
—Voice-Over Narration, Part 6, Berlin Alexanderplatz
By now, I’m sure everyone will have noticed the strong biblical current that runs throughout Berlin Alexanderplatz. We saw it most clearly in Part 4, of course, with the slaughterhouse and the story of Job, but it has cropped up elsewhere, too (in Part 3, for example, when Otto Lüders raids the widow’s flat and the narrator describes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise). If I have mentioned these references, I realize I haven’t actually drawn any explicit conclusions about them. That’s because it still feels a little early and I’m not entirely sure how it all fits together, beyond the obvious themes of morality and punishment (or persecution, or victimization) within a working class milieu. I also don’t want to overstate the importance of the biblical references, which are but one strand in a more complex tapestry.
That said, Part 6 continues the biblical motif and makes recurring use of the above passage quoting Jeremaiah and spoken by the narrator (i.e., RWF), which would seem to suggest that one of Franz Biberkopf’s defining weaknesses (okay, sins) is his willingness to be seduced. How else would you describe Reinhold’s power over him? As for Reinhold’s own nature, the narrator evokes a more ancient evil, in a recurring reference, poetic and literary I assume, to black water lying silent and deep, in the dark forest, untouched by the storm that rages outside, primeval and still.*
Speaking of recurring motifs, have I even mentioned the flashing neon light that dominates so many night scenes in Berlin Alexanderplatz—red outside the windows of Franz’s room (which means it’s also flashing red inside), blue outside the men’s room at Max’s bar? I don’t think so—which is pretty surprising when you consider how obtrusive that light is, literally coloring whatever scene it accompanies as it so dramatically does, inexorable as a heartbeat flashing on and off through the night, relentless and hypnotic, prompting analogies cinematic as well as biological, supremely self-reflexive. (Despair and The Third Generation also use this device, though nowhere near to the extent that Berlin Alexanderplatz does.) If I haven’t mentioned it until now, it’s not because I don’t find it significant; there’s just been too much to talk about. Besides, I always knew I’d get to it eventually.
Part 5 opens with this crazy-making flashing blue light, in the men’s room at Max’s bar, where Reinhold, a desperate tremolo to his stutter, practically demands that Franz take Trude off his hands . . . or else. Franz, delighted with his own newfound clarity and righteous resolve, refuses. (It’s for the best, believe me!) The relentless blue light flashes on and off, on and off, as the depth of Reinhold’s psychotic misogyny becomes startlingly clear, but Franz doesn’t notice. It’s as though Franz is in a dream state, unable to read the signs.**
And indeed, the next scene (the “official” opening of Part 6 introducing the episode’s title) begins with a dream, while the rest of the episode will unfold according to the logic of one. Franz awakens in bed with Cilly, shaken after a nightmare. In the dream he says he was a horse, a workhorse, out in the freezing cold, when he wanted to be inside in the warm straw, and his toes were frozen so that he wanted to die. But suddenly he’s a bird in a tree, approached by a snake. He wants to fly away but he can’t. The snake slithers closer until it bites and kills him. But then he’s not a bird any more, he’s himself and the snake is Reinhold. But he’s still dead, Franz is. And Reinhold is still Reinhold.
Poor Franz. He knows the truth, deep down, but he just doesn’t want to face it. (Cilly gets it, though. She knows why Franz is so shaken. She knows, on some level, where all this is leading.)
Back in the bar, Boss Pums holds court; his men jump when he calls, but Franz still doesn’t want any part of it. Meck reminds Franz that having just enough money to get by is fine, but there’s something to be said for knowing you’ll have enough to eat in ten days, or three weeks. It all depends, says Franz. It depends, how you look at things and how much you have to sell yourself to have that certainty. . . but here’s Reinhold, nastier than usual, a dark cloud on the landscape apparent to everyone except Franz (and maybe Trude—but I’ll get to her later). Franz pays no mind, no sir! Franz is schooling Reinhold in the art of how to live with women, and he’s feeling pretty good about it. Musing aloud to himself—and to Reinhold, seated nearby—as the series theme is interpreted by a chiming glockenspiel.
Back with Cilly, Franz gets up from bed—he didn’t even take his boots off!—in a daze. Why were all those bells ringing? Is it a holiday? No, Cilly says, it’s just another day. Something must have happened, Franz is sure of it. Why else would the church bells be ringing? Cilly hasn’t heard any bells—and neither have we. (Although I would have sworn I had the first time I watched this episode: remember the glockenspiel from the last scene!) Franz is uneasy. He needs to go out into the street and see for himself. (Does Cilly know that she will never see Franz again? I think she does.)
There’s a fight going on out on the Alex between two men. One of them is Pums’s man, Bruno (Volker Spengler), who’s getting the stuffing beaten out of him by the other guy. When the cops arrive and the victor runs off, Franz, Samaritan that he is, approaches Bruno to see if he’s okay. Bruno, about to be arrested himself, asks Franz to go to Pums and tell him that he, Bruno, won’t be able to make it that night. Sure thing. How could Franz refuse?
Pums HQ is another world entirely, unlike anything Franz has ever seen: opulent, stylish, lit like a nightclub, overseen by Pums’ fur-clad, gun-toting wife (Lilo Pempeit, Mütter Fassbinder herself in her most sublime over-the-top cameo yet). Pums explains to Franz that he’ll simply have to sub for Bruno that night, now that he’s here. There’s no other possible solution. There’s a delivery coming in and he needs men. Franz’s skepticism wavers when Pums tells him his rate (5.5 marks/hour is clearly more than Franz has ever dreamed of) and evaporates entirely when Reinhold shows up. Franz knows things are okay if Reinhold is involved! Reinhold, agitated and glowering, does his best to ignore Franz. Cursed be the man that trusteth in man.
Off they go to make their pickup, Franz riding in the back of one of two small trucks or vans with Reinhold. They arrive at their dark, deserted destination. Franz follows Reinhold and Pums up the stairs. Pums turns on Franz with his lantern, angry. Who told you you could come up here? You’re supposed to stand watch! And slowly it dawns on Franz. This isn’t a delivery, it’s a robbery, and he, Franz Biberkopf, is the lookout! He decides to hotfoot it out of there.
But Reinhold is on him before he knows what’s what. Didn’t anyone tell you? Contemptuous and snide, he drags Franz back to his station, then slugs him on the arm, hard, when Franz protests. And now here’s Meck—didn’t you know? I’m the other driver! This is turning out to be a very bad dream indeed.
Back in the van and they’re off. Reinhold is seriously agitated. But look, there’s a car following them—never mind that it’s just a hotshot and his dame who’s dared him to race the car ahead to see who’s faster. Franz, initially panicked at the prospect of a return to Tegel, lets go of his fear, starts laughing. It’s worth it to see Reinhold so freaked out, covered in perspiration. Franz can’t stop laughing now, it’s too funny. Reinhold, still blistering at being told by Biberkopf how to handle women, gets madder and madder. Carefully, quietly, while Franz is still laughing at him, he unlatches the door of the speeding car and pushes Franz out.
The rest of the episode alternates between Franz and Reinhold. The latter is back in Berlin at the bar. Meck is there, of course, and Cilly is there too, drunk and disconsolate. Meck tells Max that Franz is dead in an accident. Where’s Reinhold, asks Cilly? She goes and finds him in the men’s room, asks if he doesn’t still love her a little? Sure, says Reinhold after thinking it over a moment, it’s been long enough. Into a stall they go.
Cut back to Franz as he flies out of the back of the speeding car straight into the path of the car behind them, which runs over and crushes Franz Biberkopf’s arm. Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm. The horrified couple (Karl Scheydt and Christine de Loupe) stop, equivocate as to the extent of their moral obligation to go to the police, and finally agree to take Franz to an address he whispers to them (he doesn’t want to go to the cops, either, for obvious reasons).
Reinhold, on a serious bender now, brings Cilly back to his place. Problem is, Trude’s still there, and she’s been worried sick about Reinhold, who hasn’t come home in three days. Who is this woman? Reinhold asks, voice dripping with contempt. And so it goes. Trude (Irm Hermann!—back again at last, if only briefly, after so many years, cast once again in a role you just know she had already lived to whatever extent with RWF) avows her love; Reinhold insults her. Trude refuses to leave; Reinhold threatens her. Trude throws herself on his mercy, begs him not to hurt her; Reinhold tears her blouse, slaps her, spits in her face. (In the book, I have to say, it’s far worse). Eventually he throws Trude out, literally, and locks the door behind her, triumphant. He’s finally managed to throw someone out! Hooray for Reinhold!
Meanwhile, Franz, bleeding profusely, losing consciousness, occasionally gasping from pain, waxes profoundly, existentially poetic to the strangers who ran over him as they speed through the darkness, carrying him, we hope, to safety (it’s the most beautiful scene of Part 6, and possibly of the entire series so far):
It’s important that we’re happy when the sun rises and the lovely light comes. The gas lamps have to go out, the electric lights have to go out. People have to get up when the alarm clock rings. For a new day has begun. The world has gone on turning. The sun has risen. You can’t be sure what’s up with this sun. People are very concerned with this sun. It’s supposed to be the central body of our planetary system. For our Earth is only a small planet. But what are we, then? When the sun rises and we are happy one should actually be sad, for what are we really? The sun is 300,000 times bigger than the Earth and there is no end of other numbers and zeroes, which simply goes to show that we are a zero ourselves, absolutely nothing. It’s ridiculous, really, yet one’s happy nevertheless. You come out onto the street and feel strong. Colors emerge, people’s faces come to life, and there are forms that you can grasp with your hands. What a good thing it is that we can see. That we can see these colors and the lines. And people always take pleasure, when they can show what they are . . . that they’re doing something . . . experiencing something. We take pleasure in a little warmth. We’re happy that the flowers can grow. But that other matter, that must be a mistake. There must be an error in those terrible numbers with all the zeroes.
Beneath this soliloquoy, strings worthy of Bernard Herrmann, strikingly beautiful. Which is a surprise, really, not at all what we’re used to (to the extent that one can ever “get used to” Peer Raben’s score, which is radically different from episode to episode). Whereas the music in Part 5 could seem overblown and self-conscious—one of the aspects I love about it, of course—designed, it seems, to foreshadow tension (Part 5 being a transitional episode, in which the threat and menace of Reinhold is hinted at but not yet realized), the music in Part 6, when all that tension really hits the fan, erupting in violence, is surprisingly subdued, modest, tasteful, melancholy by comparison. I think it is the most coherent of the episodes, musically, and possibly the least intrusive, without in any way receding into the background. (Raben and RWF do things with train whistles, car horns, and the principal end-credits-theme in this episode that are just breathtaking. And don’t forget about that glockenspiel.)
Oh, but I almost forgot: turns out Eva does turn up as a character in the novel (typical, huh?). I reckon I’ll be talking about her in Part 7.
* This collage of references—biblical, literary, and earth-scientific (for lack of a better term)—comes directly from Döblin, of course. The closest narrational analogy I can think of, for what it’s worth, is in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. (RWF, of course, doesn’t show us the black water in the dark forest, as Malick probably would, but maybe you get the idea if you’ve seen that movie?)
** It just occurred to me that the flashing colored light is exactly the effect that Hitchcock used in Vertigo to signify Scottie’s dream state. Coincidence?