Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part VIII: The Sun Warms the Skin, but Burns It Sometimes Too (1980)

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the opening credit sequence in Berlin Alexanderplatz yet. That’s odd, since the credits are obviously the first thing you see in every episode and they’re always the same. A scratchy tenor on the soundtrack over a montage of grainy, period photographs of everyday working-class Weimar life superimposed over an image of moving train wheels (de rigueur in art cinema across Europe in the 1920s and early thirties: pitch perfect, as usual).

The credits begin. Each of the following names is shown in succession, which is to say, each person has the screen to themselves for 3–5 seconds:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Günter Lamprecht

Xaver Schwarzenberger

Dieter Minx

Barbara Baum

Helmut Gassner

Harry Baer

Juliane Lorenz

Karsten Ullrich

Milan Bor

Renate Leifer

Peter Knöpfle

Peer Raben

Peter Märthesheimer

Together with major contributions by many others, present:

Berlin Alexanderplatz

After the Novel by Alfred Döblin
A Film in 13 Chapters and an Epilogue
from Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Is it just me, or is this unusual—extraordinary, even? Only one of the series’ three producers (Peter Märthesheimer) is mentioned at all, and he comes last, not first in the list. The costume designer (Barbara Baum) is given credit before the music composer (Peer Raben). Editing, sound design, make-up, even “artistic collaboration” (Harry Baer’s newly devised title to explain his many roles) are all listed before the series’ title. All of these representatives of all these departments, in other words, are given equal credit for presenting the series, for making it possible, not just for doing their compartmentalized jobs, in a collaborative effort. (Of course now I feel like I’m going to have to go back and look at RWF’s other credit sequences; I have this vague sense that he may have done something similar in The Third Generation.)

Speaking of RWF’s frequent collaborators, I was reminded in Part VIII of a quote from Barbara Baum in her interview in Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Fassbinder. Citing Berlin Alexanderplatz as the biggest challenge of her eight-year collaboration with RWF she notes that “Rainer wanted the basic tone to be gray: [He said:] ‘We are shooting a black-and-white film, even if it is in color.’” (p. 158). Of course the film is not black-and-white—nor even composed of actual shades of gray, and not even, technically, monochromatic (except for the credit sequence, obviously), but the overall palette, the coordinated effect of the film’s visual elements—lighting, color balance, costumes, sets—is a world composed of a thousand shades of brown. Which sounds drab, and I guess it is, but beautifully so. The rare appearances of actual color—the flashing red light outside Franz’s room, most notably, or the blue tissue paper later in this post’s episode—really hit you as a result.

Part VIII opens with Franz’s less-than-triumphant return to Max’s bar—not yet open for business or else already closed for the night—for the first time since losing his arm. Of course Max lets him in, warily greets him, brings him a drink. Franz picks up a newspaper, immediately starts laughing—sharply, mirthlessly, too loud: Terrible Family Tragedy in the Ruhr Area! Ha ha ha! Max, surprised by this heartless new Biberkopf, doesn’t understand what there is to laugh about, and the two argue about whether the man who threw his three children into the river after his wife’s suicide is remorseful in his jail cell (Max’s opinion) or sleeping peacefully, enjoying his tobacco, and eating and drinking better than he would if he were outside, as Franz maintains.

Wait. Franz Biberkopf is arguing that a guy is happier in prison than outside? What happened to the chill that used to come over him at the very thought of Tegel? Is he no longer afraid of returning there—or is he just trying to convince himself that he’s no longer afraid?

Later, sitting in his room with Frau Bast, he’s despondent. What can a guy do without his right arm? Frau Bast innocently suggests a trade, maybe a stand or a cart. Newspapers or . . . fruit perhaps? More mirthless hilarity from Franz. (Fruit! He’s certainly had luck with that business . . .) The doorbell rings and Frau Bast announces that Herr Biberkopf has a visitor.

Franz didn’t really think Willy from the nightclub would come visit him when he suggested it at the end of Part VII, but here he is in the flesh, wondering why Franz wants to see him. Franz spits it out. It’s about that gold watch of Willy’s. Franz would like to get in on the action, be a part of it. There’s not much a guy can do with one arm. No, Willy agrees, there’s not much a guy can do. But if he’s smart and has friends. . . Willy agrees to pass merchandise on to Franz, something every day, which he, Franz, can then pass on, and make good money while he’s at it. That’s it! That’s exactly what Franz had in mind.

“Work’s a bunch of baloney. And the newspapers, I spit on them. It makes me mad just looking at those knuckleheads, the news dealers. How can a guy be so dumb, busting his ass, with cars driving past next to him?”

Looks as though that oath to fly straight and stay straight has indeed been amputated.

And now look at Franz Biberkopf in a natty light-colored summerweight double-breasted pinstripe suit, right sleeve tucked smartly in his pocket, strutting down the alley where Baldie is still pushing the whore of Babylon, looking like he owns the place. (He’s still dismissing Baldie’s offers—not interested in that kind of prostitution, not yet, or at least not literally. Taken as metaphor, however, Franz has already cozied up to the great whore.) Franz works with Willy now and he’s flush. Even alone in his room, we can see that Franz is pretty pleased with himself, listening to the gramophone with his feet up on the table, contentedly smoking a cigar.

Eva and Herbert show up and boy, are they impressed. Franz even has an Iron Cross he can pin to his breast so his missing arm looks like recognition for wartime heroics. He busts out a bottle of cognac and they drink to their respective good fortune. Turns out Eva and Herbert are back early from Zoppot themselves: Eva’s banker friend’s hotel room was robbed on the same day he withdrew 10,000 DM from the bank, while he and Eva were at dinner! (You see what tragic things happen in the world?). More crazy laughter from Franz. He can’t stop laughing, it’s so funny. He thinks he might die from it.

But there’s still something missing, Eva says, echoing Frau Bast: Franz needs a girl. And as luck would have it, Eva knows just the one. Herbert agrees. And guess what? She’s right outside, just across the street. Eva has only to give her a little wave and she’ll come trotting right up.

Franz hesitates, he isn’t sure—what if this girl is bothered by his stump?—but Eva pushes ahead. (This shyness is not like our Franz.) Eva and Herbert beat a hasty departure and in a heartbeat Frau Bast announces there’s a girl to see Herr Biberkopf. Too late to run and hide, Franz steels himself, head in hand. He looks up, and there she is. And that’s it. Franz Biberkopf is smitten from the first moment he sets eyes on Emilie Karsunke from Bernau (Barbara Sukowa), dressed in palest gossamer peachy-cream-pink, a floppy ribbon in her bobbed hair, clutching her handbag in front of her, bathed in radiant light (homage to Jimmy Stewart’s first view of Kim Novack in Vertigo?) in the middle of Franz’s brown room. It’s like the sun rising, mutters Franz, and the girl smiles so sweetly, so innocently that we know exactly what he means. Peer Raben cranks up the sweetness on the music track—which takes us straight back to that beautiful hallucinatory monologue about sunrise at the end of Part VI after Franz’s arm has been crushed.

So Franz has himself a new girl. And note that the possessive here, has, is literal; with ownership comes naming rights. Emilie says she wants to be called Sonia (that’s what Eva calls her, on account of her Russian-looking cheekbones) but Franz has always wanted to have a girl called Marie, so they settle on the diminutive Mieze.

The montage that follows, bracketed by paragraph-long intertitles (which RWF seems to be using more frequently—I’m sure we’ll talk about that soon), nicely encapsulates their idyllic early days, and beautifully quotes a whole host of other movies, albeit in a minor key: Franz and Mieze on a rowboat out in the country, the camera tracking them along the river’s edge; Mieze hiding behind a tree in the woods, playing blind man’s bluff until one-armed Franz, blindfolded, stumbles and falls, helpless among the roots and fallen leaves, as he tries to find her.

Back in Berlin, Franz is sleeping. Mieze, who has already been out, tiptoes into his room and leaves a gift: a chirping canary in a cage and a bottle of something wrapped in robin’s egg blue tissue paper. Oh, and a note “From your silly Mieze”. Out she tiptoes again, with an admonition to Frau Bast not to wake a guy when he’s sleeping. Franz soon wakes, though, and is bowled over by her thoughtfulness. (We know, of course, that the little caged bird is a powerful symbol for Franz himself, not all that different from the fragile creature chirping away as though oblivious to its own captivity, its tiny lungs at the mercy of its keepers. The first scene of this very episode ended with Franz gazing at Max’s little bird’s cage which, you’ll remember, had once upon a time provided Max the proof of Franz’s good-heartedness back during the Lüders incident in Part III.)

But Franz needs to be careful. Willy arrives, wondering why Franz didn’t show up yesterday as arranged. (He was too busy with Mieze and forgot.) Next, Frau Bast delivers a letter which has just arrived for Fraülein Mieze, which Franz hastily opens (rights of ownership, it appears, extend to communications). It’s a love letter! Some guy has sent his Mieze a love letter! Off to Eva’s for advice, but not before Eva has her way with Franz, right there on the living room floor. (What is up with her? I still don’t quite have a handle on this character: free agent or temptress? I’m assuming the former, for obvious reasons. This is Fassbinder, after all.)

Next, Eva’s off to have a talk with Mieze, and nobody can stop her. She finds Mieze on the street, takes her for a cab ride, shows her the letter. Mieze laughs and laughs until she realizes that Franz could leave her over it. She confirms that she loves Franz (her first question is whether he liked the canary) and begs Eva to talk to him for her, which Eva does.

Back at the flat where Franz has fallen asleep, Eva spells it out: A girl doesn’t want to spend all her time just making coffee and cleaning up for a guy. She wants to be able to give her man things, too, to show him how much she loves him! So what if some other guy falls for her once in a while? Who cares if he writes her a letter? Cheating has nothing to do with it. Aha, says Franz, finally getting it. Here we go again. That’s how the wind blows, eh?

And of course that is exactly how the wind blows and has always blown, whether or not Franz has chosen to acknowledge it: overtly with Eva, of course, who worked for Franz, but also with Ida, and now with Mieze. Again, Barbara Baum explains:

“About the women around Franz Biberkopf he [RWF] said, ‘They’re all prostitutes, but only because they are poor, to get a little extra money.’ They were really respectable housewives. Under no circumstances must I betray them through their costumes.” (Chaos as Usual, p. 158).

This is why Mieze and Ida don’t look like the whores in Baldie’s alleyway, don’t even consider themselves whores. They’re just (lower class) women trying to get by, trading on the only commodity they have to sell. Even the woman in the street who winked at Franz in Part III was working it.

Of course, the women who aren’t actually turning tricks on the street are trading their bodies for food and shelter too, which is no doubt why Lina and Fränze and Cilly were so easily traded, passed back and forth from “owner” to “owner.” They’re all part of the same game. From, Emmi, the barmaid in Part VII, willing to spend an evening with Franz in exchange for drinks and whatever else, to Eva, who services bankers and other bigshots for a much higher fee, to Franz, who must share “his” girl with other men for money, everyone is caught to varying degrees in the same double bind. How do you reconcile the fact that the activity that puts food on the table and clothes on your back is also the hallmark, the currency, the way to and of, the very manifestation of love?

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