Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part IX: About the Eternities Between the Many and the Few (1980)

I think it’s strange. . . That it’s possible to talk and think for and against the same thing at the same time. It’s really strange.
—Franz Biberkopf

Franz Biberkopf is not accustomed to entertaining thoughts that appear to contradict one another. Nuance has not hitherto colored—let alone characterized—his understanding of or approach to the world. Strange then that in Part IX he should find himself suddenly arguing for and against the same principles, behaviors, and even loyalties with seemingly equal conviction. Where is the truth, if wrong can be right and hate is really love? How is one to live?

Part IX begins where Part VIII left off: Eva continues to explain to Franz the reality—the necessity—of Mieze’s “employment.”  The realization sends him crashing to the floor in a swoon, accompanied by a replay of Ida’s death and a variety of voice-over stories from the ridiculous to the satirically sublime. Franz, who swore to stay straight, is a pimp, and Mieze, the sweetest and most innocent girl he has ever known, is a whore. Because she loves him, Mieze must sleep with other men and, because he loves her, Franz must let her. That sure sounds like a paradox to me.

Franz goes to find Mieze on the street, to take her back, to tell her he loves her. But there’s something he must do, he suddenly realizes, so off he goes again, passing once more down Babylon alley, where he persuades Baldie to give him his sales pitch one more time. But Franz has a story too: in Franz’s story a fly crawls into a flowerpot, lets the sand roll off himself, and crawls on. Franz, who has just accepted the fact that Mieze is a whore and he is a pimp, and who continues to work with Willy unloading stolen goods, has once again and seemingly definitively rejected the whore of Babylon. Another paradox?

But that’s not the thing that Franz realizes he has to do. No, what Franz now knows with utter certainty is that he needs to see Reinhold, so that’s where he goes. The latter, shaken by this unwelcome visitation, and wound tight like a very, very tightly-wound top, lets Franz in, but not before he’s pulled a gun on him. What does Franz want, he stutters. Franz realizes he doesn’t actually know. He should kill Reinhold, he knows, but realizes, slowly, that he doesn’t actually want to. (“That’s just what the others think.”) A strange, dreamlike détente seems to prevail. Franz, who has fallen into a kind of trancelike reverie, ends up apologizing to Reinhold for his absence. “Forget it,” Reinhold assures him, approaching until they are face to face in the twilit room. (Shy little laugh, awkward smile.) “It doesn’t matter.” It’s just that Reinhold would like . . . to see . . . his injury.

I don’t exactly know how to put this, but it’s as though Reinhold has just solicited Franz for sex. The solemnity, the intimacy with which Franz removes his jacket and shirt sleeve to show Reinhold his withered, dangling stump is both highly charged and deeply disturbing. (Has Mieze even seen this in broad daylight, one wonders?) The homoeroticism is unavoidable—at the same time, though, I don’t want to overstate it—yet. Enough to say at this point, I think, that these two have a unique and terrible bond, dangerous and perverse (not to mention paradoxical). I shudder at the thought of where it will lead.

Back at Franz’s, though, domestic bliss. Willy arrives and the two go to Max’s for a drink. After his last visit, however, it’s no surprise that Max has had it with Franz and gives him an earful. Franz Biberkopf swore to stay straight, and now he’s a pimp? At this rate he’ll end up back in jail or with a knife in his ribs. Franz laughs it off. Besides, doesn’t Max live off other people? Doesn’t everyone?

For reasons no more comprehensible to me in Fassbinder than they were in Doblin, Willy takes Franz to an anarchist meeting, where the two back-alley swells stick out like the interlopers they are. The speaker exhorts his audience to shun the existing so-called democracy, refuse to vote—the socialists currently in power are lackeys of the system, slaves to power, no better than the lackeys on the right—while Franz dreams of Mieze (more on this in a bit.). After the meeting has broken up, Franz and Willy linger over conversation with one of the attendees, who pushes his bicycle through the decrepit building as they make their way to the lavatory, and innocently asks what work they do. Willy defers to Franz, who refuses to answer, instead offering smart-ass retorts about the illogic of decrying capitalism while contributing to it through one’s labor, as all proletarians by necessity do (“You slave away making the shells they’ll use to shoot you,” etc.) When Franz declares that he does not work, period, the old worker puts two and two together: if a guy doesn’t do honest work, he must do dishonest work. Franz repeats that the man is a fool for criticizing the organization of capitalism while he tries to organize the workers himself, for enriching the capitalists with his own labor and then bemoaning it, etc., all the while chewing on his cigar, self satisfied and smug, a real wise guy.

Conveniently, the anarchists’ meeting hall is around the corner from Herbert and Eva’s place, so that’s where Franz and Willy go next, still giddy from their antics at the meeting. At Herbert’s, Franz launches into a surprisingly coherent speech against the gross unfairness of the capitalist system, which Eva dismisses with conventional bourgeois arguments about the necessity of preserving order for the sake of bourgeois society (of which she is an eager, newly minted member). Franz, however, persists. Everything he lambasted the poor old prole on the bike for in the preceding scene he now articulates to the skeptical Eva with surprising coherence. Where does Franz stand?

The answer, I think, is on both sides. That’s the problem. Both the anarchists and the pimp argue correctly, at least up to a point, and yet both are ultimately wrong. Franz intuits this on some level he can’t quite articulate. This is why he mocks the old prole on the bike, while defending the principles he espouses to Eva: no amount of organizing on the part of the workers will shift the fundamental inequity of the capitalist paradigm, in which the few (owners) profit from the labor of the many (labor). And yet Franz knows, deep down, that the criminal path he has chosen is no solution, dependent as it is on the existing capitalist paradigm, which it does nothing to alter. Selling stolen goods might benefit Franz, personally, but it does nothing to alleviate the burden on the workers—who after all had to manufacture that watch or that fur or that car, thereby enriching the industrialist-owners, who won’t be impacted by the subsequent “redistribution” of goods by Franz or Willy or Pums. (Either way, they profit.) In fact, this redistribution probably ensures a steady supply of goods for guys like Willy and Pums to steal, since more goods will need to be sold to replace the stolen ones. The wage slaves may be ensuring the profits of the owner classes, but Franz and Willy and Pums are sheer parasites. And as for Franz’s commercial relationship to Mieze or Ida, nothing can alter the fact that they must sell their bodies to enrich Franz. There’s just no equation that makes that relation equitable.

Of course, Franz’s ambivalence about political organization and political action mirrors an ambivalence that runs throughout much of RWF’s work, especially the more political of his films. A self-described anarchist, Fassbinder didn’t trust political movements, no matter how noble their aims. Just look at the absurdity of his depiction of the movement anarchist, Horst Knab, on the one hand, and the Communist Thälmanns on the other in Mother Küsters, or his clear and evident distrust of the RAF in Germany in Autumn, or the outright contempt he shows for the militants in The Third Generation. Or even, closer to home, his depiction of Dreske and his men in Part II.

During the anarchist meeting in Part IX, instead of listening intently to the speaker like the others, Franz replays an erotic daydream or fantasy starring Mieze. He retreats, in other words to the one arena in which he finds both freedom and pleasure. This might seem trivial and selfish, but I would argue that this is precisely the arena to which RWF also retreated on some level, an act which was for him, as I’ve said before, a political act. (This is most apparent in Germany in Autumn.) Freedom, after all, begins at home, and is contingent (at least for RWF) on complete honesty. More to the point, until people free themselves from the bourgeois mores and assumptions that oppress them, in the bedroom as in the workplace, they’ll continue to replicate bourgeois power structures in their own institutions, even if they happen to be good socialists (cf. Mother Küsters and The Third Generation).

Of course, Franz isn’t aware of any of this. Unlike RWF, whose own libertine proclivities he productively channeled into his art—which was always engaged, always committed to an ideal of helping people achieve some degree of enlightenment regarding their own freedom—Franz doesn’t know where he fits on any sort of moral spectrum, and so swings back and forth between ideas of what’s right—for him, for Mieze, for the world around him. And yet his intuition seems to me to confirm something important: I think these apparent contradictions in Franz’s behavior reflect a vague but real and possibly growing desire to transcend the terms of the argument.

I need to wrap this up so I can move on to Part X. Once again I haven’t gotten around to even mentioning the stylistic elements of this episode. I’ll just add here that Part IX uses a lot of static long shots, primarily in Herbert and Eva’s flat. This gives the set a very stagey feel, and made me think immediately of the countless drawing rooms in which domestic dramas play out in the theater. The bourgeois theater, that is. A fitting milieu for Eva to spout her proper new law-and-order philosophy, don’t you think?

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