Alexanderplatz amounted to two hundred and fifty days of shooting. After part thirteen, there was a six week break especially requested by the production manager. The story time in Alexanderplatz stretches over a little less than four years, which meant there were four times four seasons to prepare for. Minx [production manager] spent weeks on the shooting schedule. He became increasingly desperate, because he could never get hold of Rainer. Eventually I was at the end of my tether. Everyone was. There was a time when we could barely stand the sight of each other. At one point Rainer wanted to fire me, but Minx said, in effect, that if I went, he went too.
We had been cooped up together much too long in far too cramped a space—one room where I had witnessed him in every kind of condition. There were times when he couldn’t stand Gottfried John or Günther Lamprecht, or couldn’t stand the “Biberkopf room” set, where he had spent two months. He no longer knew where else to point the camera. He would come into our studio and lie down on the floor, completely beat. I mean really: shut the door, boom, flop down, and snore. Maybe just for five or ten minutes. Then he’d get up, as though reborn, full of energy, and on he went again. It was only only normal that, after a year’s work under these circumstances, he should have said, “I can’t stand your guts.” After this project, with all its stress and torture, nothing could ever faze him.
—Harry Baer in Chaos as Usual (pp. 58–59)
There’s a moment back in Part XII when Meck drives the unwitting Mieze to Freienwalde for her fateful assignation with Reinhold. They pull up outside the café and Franz Buchrieser (Meck) gets out of the car and walks around to open the passenger door for Barbara Sukowa (Mieze). But Buchrieser doesn’t shut the door hard enough, and it slowly swings back open, facing the camera, and just hangs there, awkwardly gaping in the center of the frame. He helps Sukowa from the car and, without missing a beat, returns and shuts the door. Perfectly natural, right? Except we know it was a mistake. That open door is as jarring and intrusive a reminder of the artifice of the whole business as the classic boom microphone that has crept into so many low-budget frames over the years.
Almost any other director with even a modest budget would have shot another take, or else cut the shot early to eliminate that swinging door entirely. But RWF didn’t, and I think the reason he didn’t was twofold. First, to have recut the shot would have meant sacrificing the rhythm of the scene:
Rainer never did any mastershots from which things later could be assembled. On the contrary, it was clear from the way a scene was conceived that the rhythm from frame x would essentially be what would later be edited in the studio. Rainer always cut right into the camera. [Chaos as Usual, p. 54]
Second, I don’t think RWF actually cared whether viewers noticed the mistake or not. My bet is he figured that door was, at worst, a minor, momentary intrusion, which would be forgotten almost immediately—if indeed anyone actually noticed it in the first place. So why waste precious time? (And, really, how else do you make forty-four films in twelve years? And since when did RWF concern himself with maintaining the illusion of transparent reality anyway?)
It’s not that he was satisfied. It’s that he was impatient. One of his lines was, “You can only learn from mistakes if you are constantly working. “ He couldn’t allow himself to repeat a take umpteen times, just to be able to say, “This is it!” He was panting for the next scene that was already spilling out of his head. [Chaos as Usual, p. 53]
If I seem to be dwelling on this one moment in an episode I’m supposed to have already finished with, it’s not simply because it offers useful insight into RWF’s working style (although, of course, it does that quite nicely). What’s really interesting to me is the fact that this one tiny glitch in the twelfth episode of a fourteen-part epic is the exception that proves the rule: despite the brutal shooting schedule and tight budget, not to mention the complexity of the production, this sort of slip-up was remarkably rare in Berlin Alexanderplatz. And that really is amazing—especially when you consider how, according to Dieter Minx, RWF insisted they cut five to six weeks off the shooting schedule just to compensate for construction cost overruns. Just think about all the corners they must have had to cut while keeping so many moving parts oiled and synchronized and working.
And maybe that’s why the next episode (Part XIII) stands out: it marks the first time, after all these many hours, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that RWF was getting tired, as though he just wanted to get it over with. (Or maybe it’s just me. Because that is how I feel at this point: I’m ready for it to be over and done with.)
It’s hard to pinpoint what seems off about this episode. There are some beautiful moments, and the performances are as fine as ever. (Lamprecht’s in particular.) The opening scene, for example, is marvelous. Franz sits alone in his room listening to a song on the Victrola, lonely and abandoned, surrounded by Mieze’s clothing, strewn everywhere, and dressed in her stockings and cloche hat, lipstick smeared across his mouth and face like some deranged clown. The narrator describes a storm that rages in the forest and the state of Mieze’s human remains (“Her face is destroyed, her teeth are destroyed, her eyes are destroyed, her mouth, lips, tongue, and throat . . .”) and we assume Franz is mourning because he knows Mieze is dead. But it turns out he doesn’t know that she’s dead. He’s just feeling sorry for himself because he thinks she’s left him.
Eva shows up, as she does at such times, and convinces Franz the girl will come back, assuring him she’s just flighty—only to crumple in anxiety herself because, actually, this isn’t like Mieze at all. In the meantime, Eva reminds Franz of the baby she’s carrying, which seems to comfort them both, however briefly. So far, so good.
The next scenes, however, feel a little plodding to me, as though RWF decided he just needed to put one foot in front of the other in a straight line to get to the story’s end, when previously he had skipped and careened and wandered in circles with no end in sight. Did he just run out of steam, whether nearing the end of that grueling production phase, or later in the editing room (when he was more likely to have been working in sequence, episode by episode)? Or did he have to condense or cut too much in the script when he had to quickly rewrite all the episodes and rework their dramatic arcs to fit the new broadcast format? Or is this just the nature of a story as it moves toward its conclusion with so many loose and ragged ends still untied? I honestly have no idea.
But so. After this poignant opening scene, Franz, ironically enough, goes to Freienwalde, either looking for Mieze or just retracing his own memories. (He sits down and rests near the very spot where Reinhold strangled her, but notices nothing.) This should be moving but, for me, wasn’t. Now that we know Franz doesn’t know Mieze is dead it’s just repetitive and irritating.
Next, Franz shows up at Pums’ HQ looking for work—why is it that Reinhold always opens the door when Franz knocks?—just in time to cast the tie-breaking vote that will determine whether the gang continues to steal goods, as Pums asserts they must, or switch to cash, which Reinhold, Rudi (Vitus Zeplichal), and Meck advocate. Franz, as instructed, votes with Reinhold. Pums goes along on the robbery with them anyway, even though he disapproves, and gloats after the men botch it. (They can’t even get the safe open.) In the process, Meck, who wields the blowtorch, is badly burned.
Franz brings Meck home with him to administer to his burns. The magnitude of Meck’s guilt regarding his complicity in Mieze’s murder comes rushing over him in the face of Franz’s kindness. He tries to warn Franz about Reinhold but Franz will have none of it. Love persists, blind as ever.
Meck goes to ask Max for advice. Is he culpable if he assisted in the disposal of a dead body when he had no active involvement in the death itself? Max doesn’t think so, but then he’s not a lawyer. But that’s enough for Meck, and in the next scene he leads the police to the spot where Mieze’s body is buried.
In the final scene of the episode, a tearful Eva brings the newspaper article proclaiming Mieze’s death to Franz (“Prostitute Found Murdered in Freienwalde”). There’s even a picture of Franz on the front page—and one of Reinhold, too! Franz doesn’t seem to get it. He just laughs and laughs, overjoyed at the proof that Mieze didn’t leave him.
Reality, however, begins to break through. He opens the birdcage in the center of the room and removes the canary, symbol of the fragile innocence of Mieze’s love, and slowly crushes it in his one hand.
There is a reaper whose name is death. And he arrives on hatchets and knives, blowing a little flute. Then he opens wide his jaws, and he takes out his trumpet. Will he blow his trumpet? Will he beat the drum? Will the terrible black battering ram come? Ever so softly.
Franz has finally started to put two and two together. It was Reinhold, he now realizes, who did this to Mieze, and he tells Herbert and Eva, at long last, about how Reinhold pushed him out of the car that fateful night. (This, he says, feels just like it did that night as he lay under the car.) But it doesn’t matter; he’s not mad at Reinhold. There’s no point. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. This wasn’t Mieze’s fault. It wasn’t Franz’s fault. You never know what a guy like that is going to do. (There is a reaper whose name is death.) Herbert wants to find Reinhold and take care of things, or at least lead the cops to him. But no, says Franz, don’t touch him. He’s mine. End of Part XIII.
Of course the authorities suspect Franz of murdering Mieze. After Ida, who wouldn’t? But you know what? With only the Epilogue still to come, I’m not going to pursue this. I’m going to stop here, awkward and inappropriate as it feels to do so. The end is in sight, so why waste time in idle speculation? I have no idea how—or even whether—I’ll be able to make definitive sense of this . . . strange and wonderful thing called Berlin Alexanderplatz, when the time comes, but for now I’ll just say that I’m thinking a lot about lambs to the slaughter and the tribulations of Job. I’m thinking about serpents (not to mention serpents in the souls of serpents) and original sin. I’m thinking about crime and punishment, and I’m thinking, always, about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the consciousness behind this extraordinary film. (And, make no mistake: true as it is to Döblin’s novel, this is Fassbinder’s Alexanderplatz, no question about it.) We’ll just have to wait and see how it all comes together. I can’t wait.