“Okay, now I have mastered this craft.”
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, upon wrapping Berlin Alexanderplatz (quoted in Chaos as Usual)
If Part XIII seemed a little lackluster, let’s just say the Epilogue more than makes up for it. It certainly puts to rest any questions I might have had as to why RWF seemed to be in such a rush to get to the end. What a finale! Spectacularly surreal yet surprisingly coherent, the Epilogue works as both conclusion to this sprawling fifteen-plus–hour epic—it really does tie up an awful lot of loose ends I assumed would never be tied—and as a kind of encapsulation of the worldview that informed not just this movie, but the entirety of RWF’s career. I really didn’t expect this.
From the opening scene in the cemetery where Franz goes searching for Mieze’s grave—RWF uses the same street where nearly all the film’s exteriors were shot, by the way, transformed in broad daylight only by torches, candles, and the occasional coffin—accompanied by a pair of angels in electric golden wigs (played by Margit Carstensen and Helmut Griem), we know we are in a reality removed even from the rest of the story, a reality shaped not just by desire and loss, guilt and shame and fear, but by a singular genius who had been dreaming this dream of Franz Biberkopf’s for a very long time indeed.
Franz, exhausted and despairing, having abandoned hope of finding and killing Reinhold, gets himself arrested by the police. So who should he run into in prison but . . . Reinhold! Turns out he also got himself arrested on minor charges using a false identity via stolen papers. (What better place to hide from a murder rap than prison?) The encounter plunges Franz into a hysterical coma, a catatonia-like state from which he cannot be roused. At first the authorities assume he’s faking it, but they soon have no choice but to transfer him to a mental hospital for treatment.
What follows is a kind of Walpurgisnacht in Franz Biberkopf’s head in which the multitude of characters who have had a stake in his story all come home to roost, condensed and displaced as in dreams, scattered and reconfigured in a sort of narrative kaleidoscope, loaded with symbols that mutate and shift as the episode progresses. Mieze’s murder, the moment when Franz’s arm is crushed by the wheels of the car, Reinhold’s visit to the Salvation Army, Lüders robbing the widow . . . it’s all there, revisited by a rotating cast of characters in a handful of hallucinatory, brilliantly repurposed locations, accompanied by a tapestry of idiosyncratic but by no means arbitrary musical selections (the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen, Elvis . . .). It’s crazy-audacious and it works. By the time Franz Biberkopf is hoisted high on his crucifix, Glenn Miller on the soundtrack and a mushroom cloud on the rear-projection screen (seriously!), it all comes together. It really does.
The Death of a Child and the Birth of a Worthwhile Human Being
Franz, the angels explain, has failed to grow up. To do so he must embrace Death, whom he’s managed to avoid up to this point through stubborn denial and a naïve but unshakeable faith in his own strength. (This denial has taken many forms, ranging from the refusal to acknowledge that he in fact killed Ida—technically, she died of “complications” from his beating—to his failure to even consider the possibility that Reinhold really tried to kill him when he threw Franz under the car.) But now, he has no choice: he must accept Death, embodied (not surprisingly) by a revolving cast of characters: Herr Baumann (Gerhard Zwerenz), Lüders, Reinhold . . . In doing so, Franz must at last face up to his own culpability. (I’ll come back to this.)
The hallucinations pile up and intermingle, grow ever more bizarre, more baroque, the symbolism more loaded. Lüders becomes Reinhold; the widow becomes Mieze; Franz is run over by Herbert and Eva; Mieze is run over by Franz and Reinhold, while Cilly sings accompanied by Willy on piano; Pums and his men run the slaughterhouse in which Franz and then Mieze are slaughtered and flayed; Reinhold wears enormous false eyelashes when he wields the whip that lashes Franz, and a crown of thorns as he enumerates Franz Biberkopf’s sins; the Jewish wurst vendor from the subway wears a concentration camp uniform with a Nazi armband and carries an armful of Franz Biberkopf dolls, each in SA uniform; Frau Bast and Meck complete a Nativity Scene with Biberkopf as the Baby Jesus in Nazi garb before Franz is hoisted onto the cross and finally crucified (see above) . . . You get the idea.
Franz Biberkopf eventually “dies,” only to be reborn as . . . a night watchman in an automobile factory. He testifies at Reinhold and Meck’s trial. (Meck is let off; Reinhold is convicted of manslaughter and gets only ten years.) He drinks at Max’s bar. He has learned that no man is an island, that there is strength in numbers. Neither RWF, nor Döblin before him, has much more to say about him. He is an assimilated member of society now, decent at last. As RWF himself was quick to point out, he will probably end up voting for the Nazis in 1933.
Sugar and Dirt
So what sins is Franz punished for, exactly? They’re actually harder to pin down than you might think. Ida’s death, of course, is the most obvious, but it’s not the only one, and it may not even be the most important. (By the end of the series, we’ve seen that sequence when Franz beats her to death at least half a dozen times, to the point where the event ceases to have much impact.) Eva blames Franz for allowing Mieze to be sacrificed on the alter of his own vanity. Reinhold accuses him of being more interested in competing with him than protecting Mieze. The women from his past who haunt Franz’s dream say he’s a pimp and a burglar who puffs himself up. Do all these crimes really warrant the same punishment, though?
In Berlin Alexanderplatz I think they do, though possibly in reverse order of importance to the conventional moral wisdom. (Here, Franz’s failure to acknowledge his feelings for Reinhold, for example,or even to grasp the ways the existing power structure ensures the misery of the working classes and turns men like Franz into cannon fodder, seem no less serious than killing his girlfriend). Curiously, it’s Reinhold—the ultimate serpent in the soul of the serpent—who puts it most succinctly:
You go on about crooks and swindling, but you don’t even look at people. You don’t ask why and how come. How can you be such a judge of people when you don’t have any eyes? . . . And the world should be as he wants it. It’s all quite different, my boy. Now you can see it. It couldn’t care less about you, the world couldn’t.
To which Meck later adds:
The world needs different guys, brighter ones, who see how things are: not made of sugar, but of sugar and dirt and all mixed up together.
Franz thinks the world owes him sugar in return for his own good intentions. He is too focused on trying to remain decent to actually see the world and the people in it for what they are: complex, compromised, corrupted by the institutions that define and control them. Franz Biberkopf’s great sin is to assume that all he needs to do in life is stand firm and resolved and decent, when in fact the very concept of decency is a meaningless illusion in a corrupt society.
It’s no wonder Franz doesn’t understand the position of workers like Eddy (Part X) or the anarchists whose meetings he attends with Willy (Part IX), with their insistence on solidarity over individual initiative. (Whereas he thinks a cynical crook like Willy, who gets off on heckling the socialists and the movement anarchists, is smart as hell). In Part IV he rambles on about being “loyal and true” to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, as though “loyalty” was the point of the workers’ uprisings after the Great War. He doesn’t understand the hatred a Nazi armband inspires among Dreske’s comrades (even though Franz himself used to be one them) nor the sad resignation of the sausage vendor in the subway. Lüders’ “betrayal” plunges him into despair when, really, on some level at least, Franz should have seen it coming. (Lüders’ is oppressed by the same system Franz is. Is it any surprise he’s so angry? He’s barely scraping by selling shoelaces, while Franz makes twenty marks engaging in an “immoral” act with a stranger.)
Beneath it all, of course, lurks Franz’s powerful, uncontrollable attraction to Reinhold, which he doesn’t understand or know what to do with. Worse, he doesn’t understand that a guy like Reinhold will never forgive a guy like Franz for loving him in the first place, that such a love is bound to be intolerable to him—all the more so since Reinhold, it turns out, has homosexual tendencies himself (which manifest themselves in prison in what is surely the most unexpected scene in all of Berlin Alexanderplatz). It’s not just that Franz Biberkopf is too innocent, too simple for this corrupt world: his willfull ignorance makes him blind—and that makes him dangerous both to himself and others.
Adam and Eve in Plato’s Cave
As I’ve mentioned already, I had a hard time making sense of the many biblical references in Berlin Alexanderplatz, especially since they seemed to shift from episode to episode, jumping from one “host” to another. It’s only after watching the Epilogue (twice) that I realized that this makes perfect sense, that this is the nature of symbols.
Just as Eva, the widow, and Mieze can each “represent” Eve at various times without contradiction, or the Serpent can be embodied by Lüders, Reinhold, or Eva, so the characters who inhabit Franz Biberkopf’s hallucination keep morphing into one another depending on their symbolic value, which is to say, depending on the value the narrative assigns them at that point. The fact that Döblin chose to rely so heavily on Jewish and Christian symbolism may have as much to do with the fact that these images had dominated and informed European cultural identity for centuries—which is to say, functioned as powerful archetypes even a Franz Biberkopf would recognize—than it does with the author’s relationship to religion. (Although, apparently, Döblin did convert from Judaism to Christianity, so there is probably plenty of baggage there too, now that I think about it.)
Religious symbols and allusions in Berlin Alexanderplatz, in any case, function in much the same way as the many other recurring references do—Döblin also repeatedly invokes Napoleonic wartime rhetoric, for example, and uses all manner of newspaper stories and advertising slogans, radio and popular music of the day, to create the tapestry of contemporary reality that makes Berlin Alexanderplatz so compelling. Analogies to James Joyce are inescapable, but for me the key to understanding the significance of many of these allusions lies in imagery RWF himself added, in a reference I only grasped in the Epilogue: the story of Plato’s cave.
In that opening scene in the cemetery, the many dead who talk to Franz are in the film played by characters we already know (this is a device RWF frequently used: putting unattributed snippets of text into the mouths of established characters, or collapsing multiple voices into one). One of the people who inform Franz that they are dead is Nachum (Peter Kollek), the Jew who had rescued Franz from the courtyard in Part I, when the latter sang his bellicose anthems like a madman, afraid the roofs would slide down on him. In this scene, Nachum describes his suicide by morphine injection rather than face a slow and painful death from disease (this is the death Sigmund Freud chose, btw, for whatever that’s worth): as he began his descent from this world, Nachum says he had music played on the gramophone—jazz, hits—and requested the Symposium be read aloud to him.
This got me thinking about Plato. And while I realize the Symposium is notable not for the parable of the cave (which anyway appears in the Republic), but for the discourse on love—useful when thinking about the loves of Franz Biberkopf and the forms they take (or should take, but don’t), nicht wahr?—this image of men chained in darkness, deriving all knowledge and meaning from images projected onto the wall of their cave, seemed the most effective way to think about all those references that sometimes seem to clutter up the narrative: these are the images through which the Franz Biberkopfs and the Miezes of this world would have been taught to perceive it. (Now, thinking back, that notoriously dark scene in the Jews’ flat back in Part I—in which Nachum tells Franz stories to help him understand the world—with only that strange orange-yellow light illuminating the windows from outside, behind the characters’ backs, evokes Plato’s cave quite nicely, doesn’t it?)
Later on in Franz’s dream, Dreske the communist stands at the podium of the Salvation Army and delivers a speech to a group of people who sit with their backs to him (i.e., facing the back wall, not the speaker), like cave-dwellers mesmerized by the imagery on the cave wall: Meck, the Greiners from Part IV, Max, the bar owner, the newspaper vendor from the U-bahn station (Herbert Steinmetz). These are the story’s petit bourgeois, the people who in a few more years will cast their votes for the National Socialists, whose imagery of volk and vaterland they will have internalized. In front of the podium, eating, oblivious to the speech, sits Franz Biberkopf, in full Nazi uniform.
Franz Biberkopf, Meet Franz Walsch
I’ve written a lot about patterns in RWF’s work, those elements and motifs and thematic constellations so insistently recurrent I once threatened to diagram them. They’re all here: the powerless antihero protagonist who succumbs to his or her own victimhood; the masochism that calls itself love but may just be narcissism; the destructive and inhuman power of bourgeois societal institutions; the nostalgic longing for/cynical distrust of political movements; the conflicted, ambivalent bisexual love triangle; the extraordinary magnanimity and generosity with which even the lowliest of characters is depicted; even the slaughterhouse imagery . . .
Berlin Alexanderplatz, then, is the ultimate expression of lifelong preoccupations, issues RWF had been working out for as long as anyone had been paying attention. And I realize now that that’s no accident: Berlin Alexanderplatz is where many of those preoccupations actually originated, in the novel RWF first read as a teenager—when it provided “genuine, naked, concrete life support” for a confused and “almost murderous puberty”—and which he later maintained “helped determine the course of my life.” (The Anarchy of the Imagination, p 161, 163.) To the extent that RWF made “the same movie” over and over throughout his career, Berlin Alexanderplatz is that movie.
But it’s not just a culmination; I think Berlin Alexanderplatz is also a bridge that connects two different sets of preoccupations (and maybe two different types of film)—namely, those “lifelong preoccupations”—which I would characterize as personal and individualistic—with another set of concerns, equally powerful, that are, on the contrary, historical and cultural and specifically German. Berlin Alexanderplatz, in other words, is where the classic Fassbinder antihero is situated in history, at the intersection of the personal and the political, thereby adding an essential historical dimension to the critique of German society he’d been engaged in from the very beginning. (And, yes, I know, The Marriage of Maria Braun came first, but to my mind, that movie is a bit of an outlier. I don’t see Maria as a typical RWF protagonist, for one thing. But that’s a whole other argument.)
Of course, there were concrete limits to how much of the Nazi future RWF could incorporate into this saga; Döblin was prescient, but nobody could have foreseen, in 1929 when the novel was published, just how far things would go. Although the Nazi threat is present throughout the film, the Epilogue is the only installment in which RWF was able to really run with it. Which is too bad. I don’t think we can really appreciate this saga of one small-time criminal’s travails outside this historical context (even if Döblin couldn’t at the time). Which brings us back to that crucifix and that mushroom cloud, Glenn Miller (and, later, Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night”) on the soundtrack: Franz Biberkopf dies for mankind’s sins and is resurrected as a decent human being who will march in lock step with the rest of decent society—straight to war, which will ultimately usher in a new world order dominated economically, politically, and culturally by the USA.
Master of His Domain
There’s a wonderful documentary by Hans-Dieter Hartl included on the Criterion DVD boxed set. Shot on the set of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the film candidly captures RWF and his team at work and offers a rare glimpse of his working style. With minimal commentary, no talking heads, and no interviews, the film gives you a sense of the sheer complexity of the production—something you just don’t get watching Berlin Alexanderplatz itself (or I couldn’t, anyway). Some of the outdoor scenes, for example, required scores of extras and multiple vehicles, with insanely complex camera movement and tracking. Seeing what that actually looked like on set is just incredible.
Watching RWF choreograph the actors in this environment only confirms his extraordinary skill—honed in the theater, no doubt, where bodies must be managed in real time and space (as opposed to the editing room). He quickly rehearses actors and blocking while Schwarzenberger and his team run through the camera movement, and then, bang, roll camera. With no video feed to show what was actually being recorded, he would nonetheless manage to complete these incredibly complex shots often after only a single take. And I’m talking about long takes with multiple actors and movement so complicated—you need to see Schwarzenberger on that crazy circular track to get the full effect—it makes you dizzy. Who does this?
But RWF’s amazing capacity to visualize—and realize—ridiculously complex shots quickly and efficiently and to coordinate the actions of large numbers of cast and crew in intricate tableaux, impressive though these things surely are, are not what impressed me most. Watching him at work, what really jumps out at you is his calm, his complete self assurance. He doesn’t yell on set. He doesn’t even raise his voice. Instead of Action! he says Bitte; instead of Cut! he says Danke. (Maybe that’s just the convention in German cinema? Even so, it sounds so polite when he says it!) I’m sure he had his moments—no human could get through a project like this without melting down periodically—but you can tell, watching him coach Elisabeth Trissenaar, say, or explain for the third time that a car entered the frame too late, you can see he’s at the very height of his powers and he knows it. What really comes across is how happy he is, doing what he loves and doing it well, openly and honestly and on his own terms.
Which is precisely what he’d been urging us to do, in film after film, all along.