Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part XII: The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent (1980)

The trees do not cease to sing. It is a long sermon. To everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. To everything there is a season: a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence and a time to speak.

If I’ve been avoiding this post for many weeks now (which I have), it’s not simply because the events it concerns are climactic and awful (which they are—let this be your official spoiler alert!). After so many allusions and so much explicit foreshadowing (remember the narrator’s warning when Mieze first meets Reinhold in Part XI?) it’s not like this awful climax came as any great surprise. And yet—here comes your spoiler!—Mieze’s murder in Part XII has left me with a dull, empty feeling which I have been reluctant to probe.

It’s not that the death itself is so shocking. On the contrary, that event has an uncomfortably ordinary quality to it, as though both unexceptional and inevitable. (This, of course, is what makes it so disturbing.) This quality is not so much a function of Sukowa’s and John’s performances—pitch-perfect, as ever—as it is the product of the mechanics of the scene: the camera setups and compositions, the choreographic direction, the somnambulistic pace, the peculiar rhythms of the editing, and, of course, that haunting, increasingly repetitive narration. All of which have everything to do with the way tension and suspense are created . . . or not.

Which is simply to say, if Mieze’s murder—unquestionably the climax of this 16-hour saga—does not have us on the edge of our seats (or in tears), it’s not because her death doesn’t matter and it’s certainly not because RWF didn’t know how to generate excitement or suspense or pathos. It’s because excitement and suspense and even pathos as we usually define them are just not the point.

Almost nothing about this episode, and the final scene in particular, corresponds to our expectations of what a climax “should” be. (And, yes, there’s a double entendre in there: Reinhold may or may not experience one with Mieze.) For one thing, the murder scene itself lasts over 30 minutes and unfolds—I want to say, unspools, almost like wallpaper—without the usual build-up of tension that is the basis for suspense. More so than with Ida’s death (another quotidian crime of passion, by the way, lest we forget), you don’t identify with any of the participants—not even with Mieze—and this lack of identification precludes the kind of tension and release we have come to expect from this type of scene. Think of Hitchcock’s most celebrated sequences: they’re all about identification and point of view alternation (seeing/seen). You have to take on somebody’s viewpoint for the whole thing to work.

Here it’s different. We don’t watch in close-up as the truth gradually dawns on Mieze that she is not going to make it out of those woods alive, for example. (It doesn’t really dawn on her at all. Like the calf to the slaughter, by the time she figures it out, she’s already dead.) Our hearts don’t start pounding as we watch her desperately try to escape, we don’t share her every panicked thought as she vainly tries first one tactic then another, only to be trapped by Reinhold’s superior strength. In this scene as indeed throughout Berlin Alexanderplatz, events unfold as in a dream.

Or as in nature.

When you want to slaughter a calf, you tie a rope around its neck, lead it to the block, lift the calf up, lay it on the block and bind it fast.

To everything, intones the narrator, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. This, of course, is Mieze’s time to die and RWF dispatches it with the cold efficiency of a god who cannot grieve for every creature, of a natural order predicated on the cycle of life. And indeed, it occurs to me that this final scene in the woods has more in common with a life sciences documentary, in which the dance between predator and prey is played out, mostly in long shot, than it does with conventional cinematic drama. (More Planet Earth than Hitchcock?) This explains those confounding camera setups, all the critical dialogue conveyed via long shot, the choreography of the principals, who perform rituals of attraction, mating, repulsion, death. (Which is not to say that there aren’t close-ups in this scene. There are plenty, but they don’t work the way you expect them to.)

This documentary quality, if I can dare to call it that (obviously, it has nothing to do with naturalism or unscripted reality), might also explain why Mieze goes with Reinhold in the first place—something I imagine many people find bewildering, as I initially did (Meck’s assurance that “it’s for the best” doesn’t fully explain her behavior). Mieze, like Ida before her, is a whore. That’s what she is, and sleeping with strange men is what she does, just as squirrels bury nuts and owls sleep during the day. How can the concept of sexual fidelity, which has nothing to do with loyalty in her world, even exist for her?

This is also the moment when all those biblical references that have informed Berlin Alexanderplatz from the very beginning—references to a reaper with the power of our lord and to the serpent in the garden, most notably—come together. (The trees do not cease to sing. It is a long sermon.) Of course, Reinhold is the ultimate serpent and Mieze his Eve, whose insatiable curiosity about her Franz drives her first to meet Pums’ gang against Franz’s better judgment, and finally into the arms of Reinhold. Thus is Franz’s and Mieze’s expulsion from Paradise ensured.

Here, Paradise is characterized by the long, strange, wordless exchange between Franz and Mieze in Franz’s room at the episode’s opening. In Eden, man and woman communicate as the birds and the beasts do, via grunts and howls, pre-logos. And it’s certainly no coincidence that Reinhold kills Mieze in the forest of Freienwalde, where he takes her for a romantic stroll after refreshments in the café, for this place too has been Paradise for Franz and Mieze, the garden in which their simple, innocent love once flourished. (The scene in Part VIII when a blindfolded Franz trips over a tree root during a game of Blind Man’s Bluff and cannot get back up takes on a deeper and even more ominous significance now, in retrospect.)

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about all this, but for now it seems silly to posit too many theories and correspondences before events have conclusively unfolded. There will be time enough for tying up loose ends—or trying to, anyway. (For everything there is a season.) I’ve only got one more episode to go, plus that mysterious Epilogue, so it seems silly to try to draw too many conclusions now.

I shudder to imagine what could possibly be in store for Franz Biberkopf, though.

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