Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part XI: Knowledge Is Power and the Early Bird Catches the Worm (1980)

And even if the worms eat dirt and let it out behind them, they always eat it up again. The little devils show no mercy. If you stuff their bellies full today, tomorrow they have to start all over again.

—Narrator, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Part XI

Once again I’m going to have to retract what I said in my last post. From the moment we see him return to Reinhold’s place at the very beginning of Part XI, it’s clear that Franz has not in fact learned a thing. Or if he has learned something during the course of his travails, it doesn’t matter. It’s perfectly clear now that he’s going to keep making the same mistakes over and over—stubbornly, willfully, in spite of what better judgment he might be capable of—until it’s too late. Why? Franz Biberkopf is in love.

This realization no doubt hits everyone differently and at different moments. But the intertitle that follows Franz’s return to Reinhold’s flat is unequivocal:

And while he’s dancing with Eva he loves two people. One is his Mieze, whom he wishes could be there. The other is — Reinhold.

(For me, the moment of revelation was that scene in Part IX when Franz shows Reinhold his “injury.” Other, more astute viewers may have caught it earlier—remember Franz’s first sighting of Reinhold at Max’s bar when he romanticizes the stooped, jaundiced stutterer as a kindred spirit? But no matter. At whatever pace, we all arrive at the same place in the end.)

Like a bear to a hive or a terrier to a skunk, Franz can’t stop himself. He knows Reinhold is dangerous—he’s got to know this—but he keeps coming back for more— stump dangling, sleeve flapping—eager to believe Reinhold’s lies. (He practically crafts his lies for him, he’s so eager to swallow them.) It’s like watching a slow-motion car wreck. You want to look away, but you can’t.

The entire episode is like this. When Franz decides to join Pums’ gang again and takes part in a laborious robbery, lifting heavy goods through a hole in the floor with his one arm, at one point almost suffocated by the heavy load he tries to support over his head as he lies there on his armles side; when, later he gleefully, giddily accepts  payment from Bruno; when in the men’s room at Max’s he proudly tells Reinhold about Mieze’s plan to have him sire a baby with Eva; when Reinhold, lurking in the stairwell to the cellar of Franz’s building lures Mieze down to have a “chat,” you really do just want to cover your eyes or look away. But of course you can’t.

It gets worse. Franz invites Reinhold to see for himself just how much Mieze loves him. It’s important, rationalizes Franz, for a guy like Reinhold to see what true devotion from a broad looks like. (Never mind that it’s this insistence on schooling Reinhold in how to handle women that cost Franz his right arm in the first place.) He hides Reinhold under the covers of his bed—Mieze’s bed—so he can spy on the deliriously happy couple when Mieze comes home, which of course she soon does.

This would be creepy enough, but when Mieze launches into a desperate confession because she has just been unfaithful to Franz, the scene becomes unbearable. Franz, in a fury, attacks Mieze with everything he’s got—yep, it’s Ida all over again—despite her screams and the presence of onlookers (the ever-lurking Frau Bast shows up for an Ida-reprise, as if on cue). And because Reinhold is watching, Franz beats her all the more savagely, no doubt punishing her for this added humiliation in the eyes of the one person whose opinion matters most in the world.

Reinhhold eventually reveals himself and jumps to Mieze’s rescue. Franz, dazed and ashamed, takes off while Frau Bast ministers to the girl’s wounds. Reinhold quietly makes his exit, but we know it won’t be for long. Even though Franz and Mieze are reunited the next day—Mieze, unperturbed by the stares her damaged face elicits from strangers, claims their love is even stronger now because of what happened, so she’s glad that it did—we know things are not going to end well. (And if, like me, you’ve looked at the movie stills and read all the captions in the 2004 Continuum edition of the novel, you know exactly what’s coming.)

But if the events of this episode are barely watchable, the performances are riveting. Gottfried John as Reinhold, lurking in the stairwell, hands thrust deep in his pockets, all sinister swagger, nervously pacing, is at once pathetic and frightening as he tries first to find out what Mieze knows about him, then to poison her relationship with Franz. Barbara Sukowa’s Mieze’s interminable wail when Franz finally stops beating her is almost impossible to describe—it’s not a cry of sadness or pain so much as an angry howl from the depths of her soul, a furious protest at the injustice of what is happening and a refusal to accept it. When she starts to flail at the air around her, as though blindly trying to fight back against an invisible assailant . . . well, I don’t even know how to describe what she’s doing. It’s unsettling and sad, totally unexpected, indescribably poignant. It’s an unforgettable piece of acting.

And that’s something I haven’t written all that much about lately, although I’ve been meaning to. In episode after episode, the performances RWF was able to elicit or coax from his actors in Berlin Alexanderplatz seem super-charged, unprecedented—even from actors he’d worked with many times already. (One exception: Hanna Schygulla’s Eva is an awful lot like Maria Braun, if you ask me, so no big surprises there.) Gottfried John’s Reinhold in particular really stands out, especially since his many roles in previous RWF films had been so low-key. Stooped and mustachioed, he’s almost unrecognizable as the former Anton Saitz (In a  Year with Thirteen Moons), tall and impossibly skinny in his tennis whites, dancing along with Jerry Lewis, impervious and opaque. He is transformed. He is Reinhold.

The real surprise, for me, though, is Barbara Sukowa, who I’d always considered a little one-dimensionally hard-edged. (I’m thinking of her roles in Marianne and Juliane, Zentropa, RWF’s own Lola—still to come—and Women in New York.) Her Mieze—sweet, innocent, passionate, bright—is completely against what I have always assumed to be “type” and completely—how do I put this?—completely true to itself. Her devotion to Franz is not merely credible, it comes off as existentially profound. It’s a hard character to pull off without falling into cliché or cloying caricature, and this feat is especially impressive because, as I said, Barbara Sukowa doesn’t fit the type. And yet, there she is, pretty as can be in pale shell-pink, bobbed hair tied back with a pert little bow, eager to please, adorable.

So once again, what’s remarkable here is RWF’s vision—in this case, his ability to cast, against expectation and type—something Barbara Baum talks about in that wonderful interview in Chaos as Usual, which I’ve mentioned already:

Rainer had a sixth sense for casting. His judgment of an actor’s quality was foolproof. Of course, he often did quite unusual things. He cast actors from the time of “Grandpa’s movies” and galvanized them to perform in outstanding ways that had to be taken seriously.

Her anecdote about the transformation of Annemarie Düringer into Cilly sums up his genius quite nicely, and it’s one of my favorite snapshots of his style:

The first time I saw Annemarie Düringer it was during a fitting and I said to myself, “I’ll never get this right.” In the script it said, “Cilly, who almost looks like a movie star, is wearing a rabbit fur coat; a poverty-stricken Jean Harlow of the Alexanderplatz—a cellar child.” I knew Ms. Düringer only from her films. Suddenly I was facing a dark-haired, very resolute, intelligent lady in sports clothes and horn-rimmed dark glasses. She was about fifty at the time. I didn’t know what to do. She herself was doubtful that she was right for the part. She absolutely wanted to talk to Rainer about it. But he refused to see her. I had grave doubts whether the costumes I had designed would really transform Ms. Düringer into Cilly. The she began to pose in front of the mirror, to move as Cilly. It was fantastic: she slipped out of suburbia and into the role. On her first shooting day I sneaked into the studio to observe Rainer’s reaction to Ms. Düringer. Rainer radiated joy. He thought she was stupendous. When he discovered me, he said with a boyish twinkle, “That one was the toughest, right?” I was extremely proud and happy.

This, more than any other anecdote I can think of, sums up what I love about Rainer Werner Fassbinder—who, lest we forget, “discovered” Hanna Schygulla, Gottfried John, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, and so many others, in addition to reviving countless careers which otherwise would have been considered moribund or stalled (Brigitte Mira, Barbara Valentin, Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny, etc., etc.).  I believe that potential he saw in actors undiscovered or past their prime, invisible to everyone else, perfectly reflected his attitude about humanity in general—an attitude that was fundamentally optimistic, contrary to what his work and his biography might suggest. And that, I think, is what kept him going, when anyone in their right mind would have long given up in despair: an unwavering belief in the potential of his actors—fellow human beings—which persisted in spite of the inevitable disappointments.

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