Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part VII: Remember—An Oath Can Be Amputated (1980)

And so Biberkopf has come to Berlin for the third time. The first time the roofs were about to slide off, then the Jews came and he was saved. The second time Lüders cheated him, but he swigged his way through. Now, the third time, his arm is gone, but he ventures courageously into the city. The man’s got courage, two- and threefold courage.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Pums’ men are gathered in his office to discuss the latest news: Franz Biberkopf isn’t dead, only lost an arm. Various solutions are put forward: they should kill him; they should take up a collection to pay his medical costs; they should do nothing. Reinhold recommends the latter course. He knows Biberkopf is no snitch; besides, if losing an arm wasn’t enough for him, maybe he could lose a head? Finally it’s agreed that they will take up a collection and pay Biberkopf off. Everyone but Reinhold contributes.

Franz, whose right arm has been amputated, is staying with Eva and Herbert (Roger Fritz—he’s the guy who was always with Eva in episodes 1 and 2, presumably Franz’s replacement), who are eager to seek restitution by force if need be for what has happened to Franz. But Franz won’t say who pushed him out of the car, so there isn’t much they can do short of starting a war with Pums. Anyway, Herbert and Eva will be leaving soon for Zoppot, Eva with her john and Herbert incognito. What, Eva asks, does Franz say to that? Franz says it must be really nice in Zoppot. (Poor Eva. Can’t get a rise out of Franz—whom she still loves, as she keeps reminding him—to save her soul.)

Meanwhile, Reinhold is still with Cilly, although it looks as though her 30 days might be nearing their end. Her triumphant announcement that she’s gotten a job singing in a nightclub ends in tears when Reinhold is neither impressed nor even especially pleased, but he tries to soothe her in his own twisted fashion. (Always the same old bullshit. . . . You’re always crying. Either a guy behaves the way you imagine he should in your goddamned heads, or you cry and bawl and never leave a guy in peace. That’s Reinhold’s idea of a bromide.)

Bruno (Volker Spengler) shows up with an offering for Franz. But Franz doesn’t want Pums’s money—he didn’t even do the lookout job, after all. Bruno sticks his hand in his pocket and Eva flips out, starts screaming bloody murder, convinced that she and Franz are about to be shot. Franz collapses on the ground and Bruno takes off (with Franz’s collection money conveniently still in his pocket). This is a wake-up call for Franz Biberkopf. He’s got to get back on his feet, back into the world, back to the Alex, before he collapses entirely, or just wastes away. Franz gets dressed, takes a last vaguely melancholy tour of Herbert and Eva’s place, and sets off.

First stop: an alleyway clearly marked “Children Not Admitted” dedicated to pleasure and perversion, lit like somebody’s vision of hell (impressive in itself, since it’s daytime), whips cracking, moans echoing, fires burning, overseen by a bald MC in a white Barnum and Baily–style cape (Peter Kuiper), who assures Franz he’s got the finest collection of broads in Berlin. The greatest, the most exciting thing he has to offer? The great whore of Babylon, who sits by the waters on a scarlet beast and has drunk the blood of all the saints. (This is a brilliant interpretation of Döblin’s text, by the way. There is no such alleyway in the book, just a reference to the Whore of Babylon.) But Franz refuses. Anything you show me now would disappoint me. Don’t make the mistake of promising too much . . . Ah, says baldie, smiling sadly, the same old difference between fantasy and sad reality . . .

Next stop, a bar, where Franz orders three beers and a schnapps and engages in a surprisingly charming “dialog” with each, to the horror of the proprietress and the delight of her employee, Emmi (Traute Hoess). I know it sounds corny—and it could have been really annoying in a Robin Williams-y kind of way, but it’s actually very sweet, this dialog (Franz does all voices), the high point of the episode. Emmi, who can’t stop laughing, sits down at Franz’s table; looks like she’ll be spending the rest of the evening with him. He’s definitely her type.

In the subway Franz runs into Meck who tries to skulk away without even saying hello. Franz confronts Meck, who won’t look Franz in the eye—reminds him of how differently they greeted one another at their last meeting. Franz cheerfully tells Meck he’s a carnival barker now, and a one-armed boxer. Really, he should come check out his act. (Franz makes repeated jokes about his arm throughout this episode, claiming variously that he left it at home with his girlfriend as a pledge, that he keep its in alcohol on a shelf, that he’s going into business with it—it stands upright on a table and screams Only those who work shall be permitted to eat! and the rabble are willing to pay 5 marks just to watch it.) Meck, whose guilt is palpable, can’t get away fast enough.

Franz and Emmi end up in a nightclub where Willy (Fritz Schedlwy) and a young fop (Udo Kier) are playing billiards; Willy, a proto-libertarian, discourses on the folly of paying veterans’ pensions. (You don’t get paid for other stupidities . . . There are thousands running around doing nothing and getting paid for it. . .  anyone stupid enough to go to war . . . etc.) Franz, who’s been playing a Weimar slot machine (i.e., a one-armed bandit) finds this amusing and good-naturedly joins the conversation. Although everyone assumes Franz lost his arm in the war (a notion he does nothing to disabuse them of), Franz seems to think what Willy has to say makes a lot of sense. Their conversation, however, is interrupted by the arrival on stage of the evening’s act, none other than Cilly.

Cilly recognizes Franz in the audience as her set is ending, runs backstage and confronts Reinhold, who’s been waiting in her dressing room. Why didn’t he tell her Franz was alive? The swine! Reinhold pushes her aside, storms out.

Meanwhile, out in the club Willy is schooling the others in linguistic relativity: you can say something has been stolen (the gold watch he’s wearing, for example), or you can say it has been removed from its place of origin, or simply that it has changed owners. (Just as what the authorities call military service, he, Willy, calls deprivation of freedom.) Emmi goes to the ladies’ and Franz decides to take off, but not before suggesting that Willy come visit him at Frau Bast’s one of these days. Is Franz Biberkopf be about to reneg on his pledge to stay clean? (Remember: an oath can be amputated.) End of Part VII.

So, not the most eventful of episodes, but it’s quite enjoyable, and sets up a new rack, to follow the billiards metaphor. Anyway its nice to see Franz get back up on his feet, if only briefly, and with such relentless good cheer. Of course we know the gods are not yet finished with Franz Biberkopf—still, we needed a little space in which to recover after the events of Part VI.

But what about Eva? As I mentioned in my last post, she does not even put in an appearance in the novel until now, when Franz has himself delivered to Herbert and Eva’s place after he is run over. They take him to the hospital, pay his bills, and oversee his convalescence. Eva, Döblin tells us, is even in love with Franz, but so far there’s been no mention of his ever having been her pimp (nor even her boyfriend), neither does she pay his rent or watch over his doings like a guardian angel. A pretty minor character, in other words. So again, my question, remains: why did RWF need to reinvent her? What purpose does this ubiquitous Eva serve? I still can’t even hazard a guess—even less so after her bizarre outburst when she thinks Bruno has a gun and is going to shoot her. (This comes directly from the novel, but it doesn’t seem consistent with the tough cookie RWF has already depicted.) Stay tuned.

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