Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part XIII: The Outside and the Inside and the Secret of Fear of the Secret (1980)

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.

 

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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.

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Uncategorized | Tagged ,

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.

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Tagged , ,

A Few Words on Substances and the Artist (Prompted by Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.)

Like pretty much everyone, I reacted to the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death from a drug overdose with utter shock and profound sadness. After a little reflection, however, I realized the shock was probably misplaced. The real surprise might be that he managed to stay clean and sober for as long as he did. Is it really so surprising that an artist of this extraordinary intensity should find the allure of drugs ultimately irresistible? Not to me. Which made me think, not surprisingly, of Fassbinder.

They’re not so different, Hoffman and Fassbinder. The kind of performances that both were able to summon from the depths of their own experiences and psyches (and I use the term performance loosely to include authorial and directorial performance); the grueling discipline they subjected themselves to; the intense, seemingly round-the-clock focus they required of themselves; the complexity and nuance, the deep understanding and generosity and kindness each brought to the characters they realized (regardless of how they behaved in their personal lives—that’s not what I’m talking about here)—not to mention the sheer appetite through which they seemed to engage with the world—all this must have been utterly exhausting. (Precisely the word PSH used to describe the acting process in that now much-cited Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, by the way). Who in their right mind would sign up for such a way of life? Who could endure it—and who would want to?

The qualities that enable a person to direct four feature-length movies and four stage plays in a single year, or transform themselves from a 250+ pound man into the diminutive Truman Capote through sheer concentration (the opposite of De Niro-style weight gain or Christian Bale–caliber weight loss, by the way), are not normal, rational, or healthy. Happy, secure, stable, well-adjusted adults do not willingly spend days, weeks, or months on end taking on the extremes of other humans’ misery, nor do they willingly subject themselves to punishing, ultimately arbitrary work schedules—for years on end—that threaten their mental and physical health. To do so is to already have crossed a line into the irrational and the unknown and the dangerous. You’d “have to be crazy” to do what these guys did. So why are we surprised when they show the same disregard for their well-being by abusing drugs?

Let me put it this way: I cried for two whole days after watching Synechdoche, New York a single time. What could it possibly have been like to inhabit Caden Cotard’s character day and night for the weeks and weeks it took to shoot? I cannot imagine living with that degree of sadness and pain. Can you? (I reckon we should probably be worrying about Charlie Kaufman right about now, too.)

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not justifying drug use on the grounds that it helps artists make great art—god knows, we lost an entire generation of jazz musicians to that particular fallacy—and I’m not suggesting that drugs are a necessary outlet for the intense emotional burden some great artists bear. But I don’t understand the incomprehension and the hand-wringing and, worst of all, the accusations of weakness and irresponsibility that ensue when such an artist does seek oblivion or relief or stamina or whatever it is they seek through drugs. Just watch Berlin Alexanderplatz or In a Year With Thirteen Moons or Synechodoche, New York, or even that otherwise pretty mediocre transvestite movie costarring De Niro, elevated only by the cringe-inducing honesty of Hoffman’s performance. (What was that movie called? That’s how otherwise unmemorable it was: I’ve forgotten the title but I remember the performance). Weakness has nothing to do with it.

What keeps coming up, in memorium after memorium, is the anger and resentment we feel at the thought of all those great PSH performances we are forever deprived of because of Hoffman’s selfish recklessness. No different, I’m sure, from the laments about all the films RWF would never be able to make after his untimely death at the age of 37 (nine years younger than PSH, I might add). We feel cheated and deprived when the artists we deeply admire let us down by dying when they didn’t have to. But did we ever stop to wonder what it cost them, that genius, that intense burning brilliance, when they were alive and working? Do we ever stop and think, if not how sad, at least, what an incredible sacrifice (or even, wow, that looks really scary)? Do we ever marvel at that fact that they are even able to get up in the morning to do it, day after day, despite the incalculable personal cost?

When we bemoan the loss of all the great films Fassbinder could have made had he not been a driven, drug-abusing libertine, we fail to acknowledge that it’s the driven, drug-abusing libertine who made the art we so love (and at the death-defying pace he found necessary to get it done). That’s who he was, that’s how he worked. We don’t have to know why, exactly, and we don’t need to understand how he pulled it off for as long as he did to know, at least on some level, that we probably couldn’t have expected the one without the other. To speculate on how things could have been had he not succumbed to the scourge of drugs seems a little dishonest and naïve and, to my mind, implicitly puritanical (though quite commonplace in this pathologizing era of the DSM-5). Better simply to accept that he was a creative genius who took irrational risks on behalf of that genius. It paid off spectacularly, too—until, of course, it didn’t. That’s how risk-taking works.

Of course the situation was different for PSH, who spent most of his working life in abstinence. Still, to wonder how he could have stayed clean for 23 years while contributing some of the most beautiful performances of the century, only to blow it all on a heroin binge after starring in a high-concept pop-culture dystopic adventure for young adults, is to make impossible assumptions about who he was deep down—and about which impulses he should have given in to (the deep, painful creative ones) versus the ones we know he should have successfully combated (the impulse to get really fucked up, for example—whether in hindsight, or because we have zero tolerance when it comes to the well-documented risks posed by drugs). I just don’t know how you can presume to separate the two on someone else’s behalf or how you can know where the line is or should be for them.

So, rather than dwell on the whys and what-if’s of a brilliant career cut short by a seemingly preventable death, I suggest we look back in wonder and amazement at the body of work PSH managed to leave us—against the odds, I might add—and at the mysterious complexities of a human being who could go there in the first place.  That’s what we’ve had to do with Fassbinder, after all.

Posted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part X: Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls (1980)

Part X opens in Eva’s elegant flat—not the one she lives in with Herbert, but the one her wealthy gentleman has installed her in, the one Franz stumbled upon that day selling shoelaces, way back when he had two arms—to which Mieze has been invited. Has Mieze ever even dreamed of a life so opulent? Doesn’t she want a place like this, too? She just needs to find herself a rich gentleman like Eva’s and get Franz to stop hanging around political meetings with that good-for-nothing Willy and those stupid communists who don’t even have enough money for a pair of pants to cover their asses . . .

Part X closes on Franz, alone in his dismal room, sobbing his heart out after Mieze has left with her new gentleman (Adrian Hoven), rich just like Eva’s, who has rented her a nice apartment and is taking her away for several days. (“It’s my job, Franz. I have to do it,” whispers Mieze, before slipping out.)

Closing intertitle: The serpent in the soul of the serpent.

What does this mean? Although I would have assumed serpent references at this point would be reserved for Reinhold, it’s impossible not to think of Eva here, original sinner that she is. And indeed, everything Eva has done this episode—encouraging Mieze to find a wealthy gentleman to “keep” her, thereby severely limiting her time with Franz; getting Mieze to demand that Franz stop seeing Willy or attending political meetings, so he’ll have nothing to do and be wholly dependent on Mieze for his livelihood; yelling at Herbert for suggesting that Franz curtail his boozing lest things end up as they did with Ida; planting the seed of curiosity in Mieze’s head about finding out who is responsible for Franz’s accident, and maybe seeking retribution; getting Mieze to agree to let Franz get Eva pregnant (yes, you read that correctly)—all these things are directly linked to Franz’s abject loneliness and misery. Is this Eva’s game, to ruin things for Franz so he’ll come crawling back to her? Is she even aware that this is what she is doing?

Eva mentions that her gentleman would like her to have his baby, but she doesn’t want one with him. She wants to have Herbert’s baby, but she’s pretty sure he can’t have one. Or Franz’s. Stunned silence from Mieze who, after a few long moments erupts in a shriek. She starts hugging and kissing Eva indiscriminately, overcome, it turns out, with joy. Mieze thinks this is the most wonderful thing she’s ever heard and ends up making Eva promise that she will have Franz’s baby.

Boy, is Franz in for a shock—a series of them, in fact. First Mieze nervously tells him about her new gentleman, who’s found her an apartment—she’s been meaning to break the news to Franz, but just didn’t know how. Big red flag for Franz: “He’s rich and he’s married. And you’re pussyfooting like that? There’s something behind it!”. Franz immediately assumes that Mieze wants to get rid of him. Isn’t this pretty much what happened with Ida? So when she tells him Eva’s coming over in a few minutes to make a baby, Franz goes through the roof.  Mieze explains that she can’t get pregnant herself—she’s been to three doctors who’ve all said the same thing—so this is the only way they can have one. This seems to assuage him, and he agrees to sleep with Eva, yet again.

Meanwhile, Franz is still trying to make sense of it all. He’s tried being independent and straight and he’s tried being a crooked hot shot and neither has worked out so well, so now he’s flirting with left-wing politics again. It started out as a lark—Willy enjoys taunting the lefties for sport—but Franz seems to be taking it more seriously now, even if he’s not quite on board. How could he be? He’s not even a worker anymore.

How is Franz to live? Back at the bar, Willy proclaims that “anyone in his right mind must believe in Nietzsche. Do whatever gives you pleasure. Understand? Anything else is drivel.” Max doesn’t want to hear about politics, either: he just wants to live, that’s all. (“I don’t give a hoot about your Marxism.”) What matters to him is whether or not he can get a loan and for how long and how much. That’s what’s important in this world.

“You make it all sound so simple,” says Eddy (Jan Groth), a joiner with a sick wife at home (her uterus has joined with her rectum—god only knows what he’s talking about—collapsed pelvic wall, maybe?). But it isn’t that simple, not when the doctors say your wife is just suffering from nerves, and you’ve got a daughter crippled from rickets at home, and you live with the permanent threat of layoffs when orders are few (a threat which does not extend to management, he notes), and the medical examiner says your rheumatism is not eligible for subsidized treatment. But the worst part of it all? The kids are only learning as much as their parents did in school. Imagine that. How can anything ever change? Eddy doesn’t need Karl Marx to explain any of this to him, either. Nobody needs Karl Marx to figure that out.

Franz, who’s been listening quietly, pays the tab and leaves. Outside, he’s not sure where to go next so he just starts walking. The camera tracks along with him, block after block as he wends his way amongst the hotshots and the working girls and the newsboys, rarely cutting, in what is possibly the most beautifully choreographed scene of the entire series. And indeed, choreographed is exactly the word for it: this scene owes more to the musical than it does to conventional melodrama, consisting largely of a sort of duet between Franz, muttering snippets of the conversation in the bar, and a young newsboy who utters the same lurid headline over and over, sometimes at a shout, other times quietly, almost plaintive. Theatrical and musical, it made me think immediately of Brecht (it would totally work on the stage):

Franz, singing to himself, walks a couple of blocks, finally sits down on some steps across the street from a newsboy in the foreground.

[cut to]

NEWSBOY: Child molester scandal! Czech Jew abuses 20 boys! No arrest made. (quieter now, approaching Franz) Child molester scandal. Czech Jew abuses 20 boys. No arrest made.

[cut to]

FRANZ: (close up) Her uterus has become joined with her rectum. They operated on her, but it didn’t help internally.

[cut to]

NEWSBOY: (close up) (almost conversationally) Child molester scandal. Czech Jew abuses 20 boys. No arrest made. Child molester scandal. Czech Jew abuses 20 boys. No arrest made. Scandal. Child molester scandal. Czech Jew abuses 20 boys.

[Franz gets up, approaches. Camera tracks to a 2-shot, following Franz, circling around the lad]

No arrest made. What’s up? Something bothering you?

FRANZ: Why do you ask?

NEWSBOY: You’re acting so strange, walking around me. Out with it if you’ve got a problem.

FRANZ: (Still walking around him – camera still tracking) Nothing really. It’s just that I used to sell newspapers myself.

NEWSBOY: So what?

FRANZ: That’s what I said. It’s nothing really. (Smiles, walks away – camera still tracking as Franz walks back the way he came)

NEWSBOY: Scandal! Child molester scandal!

FRANZ: And the kids learn exactly the same as we did. You can imagine what comes of that.

[Still walking, camera still tracking]

And with a nervous illness you’re perfectly fit. Anyone with a nervous illness is perfectly healthy.

[Franz enters a shop. Cut to]

NEWSBOY: (Close up) Czech Jew exposed as child molester! No arrest made!

[Cut back to Franz coming out of the shop with a bottle of booze in hand]

FRANZ: And nobody needs Karl Marx for that anymore. But it’s true neveretheless. (sings a little) Taxi!

NEWSBOY: Child molester scandal!

FRANZ: What does a bowlegged person do in the country?

NEWSBOY: Czech Jew exposed as child molester!

FRANZ: (Climbing into taxi) What do I care about politics and all that crap? It’s no help to me. Take me to Tegel!

[Taxi drives off , camera tracks back to newsboy as he walks toward camera]

NEWSBOY: Czech Jew exposed as child molester! No arrest made!

Of course the logical next stop is Tegel, which sits, impassively, at the very center of the riddle that defines Franz’ Biberkopf’s existence. Franz, too drunk to make any sense out of anything, lies down to sleep on a park bench, where he is roused by a not unkind policeman, with whom he engages in a slightly comic dialog before hailing another taxi. Back home, before passing out, Franz, incoherent but insightful—notice how his most poetic insights always seem to come when he is barely conscious?—concludes thus:

A newspaper has a lot of letters, and the letters are black. A car is black, and the trees are red. Blood is red. But freedom is not order. Order is black., black like the car. And black, like the car, are the letters in my newspaper.

Franz, it seems to me, is beginning to see the nature of his predicament more clearly (he doesn’t need Karl Marx to do so, either, although I do think the meetings have helped). Intuitively, he is beginning to grasp the order of things: Pums’ men in their black cars, Tegel, the newspapers that hawk lurid stories to fill the time and imaginations of ordinary folk (not to mention the suckers who sell them for a pittance) are all on the same side of the equation, all part of the same system in which Franz is trapped like a fly. (There’s a very strange scene in this episode involving a spider, which I haven’t been able to fit in for lack of a clear and cogent explanation; let’s just say that the image of being trapped like a fly is not entirely without context here.) I wonder if he’ll have a chance to benefit from this dawning understanding before it’s too late.

Posted in Uncategorized

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?

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part VIII: The Sun Warms the Skin, but Burns It Sometimes Too (1980)

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the opening credit sequence in Berlin Alexanderplatz yet. That’s odd, since the credits are obviously the first thing you see in every episode and they’re always the same. A scratchy tenor on the soundtrack over a montage of grainy, period photographs of everyday working-class Weimar life superimposed over an image of moving train wheels (de rigueur in art cinema across Europe in the 1920s and early thirties: pitch perfect, as usual).

The credits begin. Each of the following names is shown in succession, which is to say, each person has the screen to themselves for 3–5 seconds:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Günter Lamprecht

Xaver Schwarzenberger

Dieter Minx

Barbara Baum

Helmut Gassner

Harry Baer

Juliane Lorenz

Karsten Ullrich

Milan Bor

Renate Leifer

Peter Knöpfle

Peer Raben

Peter Märthesheimer

Together with major contributions by many others, present:

Berlin Alexanderplatz

After the Novel by Alfred Döblin
A Film in 13 Chapters and an Epilogue
from Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Is it just me, or is this unusual—extraordinary, even? Only one of the series’ three producers (Peter Märthesheimer) is mentioned at all, and he comes last, not first in the list. The costume designer (Barbara Baum) is given credit before the music composer (Peer Raben). Editing, sound design, make-up, even “artistic collaboration” (Harry Baer’s newly devised title to explain his many roles) are all listed before the series’ title. All of these representatives of all these departments, in other words, are given equal credit for presenting the series, for making it possible, not just for doing their compartmentalized jobs, in a collaborative effort. (Of course now I feel like I’m going to have to go back and look at RWF’s other credit sequences; I have this vague sense that he may have done something similar in The Third Generation.)

Speaking of RWF’s frequent collaborators, I was reminded in Part VIII of a quote from Barbara Baum in her interview in Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Fassbinder. Citing Berlin Alexanderplatz as the biggest challenge of her eight-year collaboration with RWF she notes that “Rainer wanted the basic tone to be gray: [He said:] ‘We are shooting a black-and-white film, even if it is in color.’” (p. 158). Of course the film is not black-and-white—nor even composed of actual shades of gray, and not even, technically, monochromatic (except for the credit sequence, obviously), but the overall palette, the coordinated effect of the film’s visual elements—lighting, color balance, costumes, sets—is a world composed of a thousand shades of brown. Which sounds drab, and I guess it is, but beautifully so. The rare appearances of actual color—the flashing red light outside Franz’s room, most notably, or the blue tissue paper later in this post’s episode—really hit you as a result.

Part VIII opens with Franz’s less-than-triumphant return to Max’s bar—not yet open for business or else already closed for the night—for the first time since losing his arm. Of course Max lets him in, warily greets him, brings him a drink. Franz picks up a newspaper, immediately starts laughing—sharply, mirthlessly, too loud: Terrible Family Tragedy in the Ruhr Area! Ha ha ha! Max, surprised by this heartless new Biberkopf, doesn’t understand what there is to laugh about, and the two argue about whether the man who threw his three children into the river after his wife’s suicide is remorseful in his jail cell (Max’s opinion) or sleeping peacefully, enjoying his tobacco, and eating and drinking better than he would if he were outside, as Franz maintains.

Wait. Franz Biberkopf is arguing that a guy is happier in prison than outside? What happened to the chill that used to come over him at the very thought of Tegel? Is he no longer afraid of returning there—or is he just trying to convince himself that he’s no longer afraid?

Later, sitting in his room with Frau Bast, he’s despondent. What can a guy do without his right arm? Frau Bast innocently suggests a trade, maybe a stand or a cart. Newspapers or . . . fruit perhaps? More mirthless hilarity from Franz. (Fruit! He’s certainly had luck with that business . . .) The doorbell rings and Frau Bast announces that Herr Biberkopf has a visitor.

Franz didn’t really think Willy from the nightclub would come visit him when he suggested it at the end of Part VII, but here he is in the flesh, wondering why Franz wants to see him. Franz spits it out. It’s about that gold watch of Willy’s. Franz would like to get in on the action, be a part of it. There’s not much a guy can do with one arm. No, Willy agrees, there’s not much a guy can do. But if he’s smart and has friends. . . Willy agrees to pass merchandise on to Franz, something every day, which he, Franz, can then pass on, and make good money while he’s at it. That’s it! That’s exactly what Franz had in mind.

“Work’s a bunch of baloney. And the newspapers, I spit on them. It makes me mad just looking at those knuckleheads, the news dealers. How can a guy be so dumb, busting his ass, with cars driving past next to him?”

Looks as though that oath to fly straight and stay straight has indeed been amputated.

And now look at Franz Biberkopf in a natty light-colored summerweight double-breasted pinstripe suit, right sleeve tucked smartly in his pocket, strutting down the alley where Baldie is still pushing the whore of Babylon, looking like he owns the place. (He’s still dismissing Baldie’s offers—not interested in that kind of prostitution, not yet, or at least not literally. Taken as metaphor, however, Franz has already cozied up to the great whore.) Franz works with Willy now and he’s flush. Even alone in his room, we can see that Franz is pretty pleased with himself, listening to the gramophone with his feet up on the table, contentedly smoking a cigar.

Eva and Herbert show up and boy, are they impressed. Franz even has an Iron Cross he can pin to his breast so his missing arm looks like recognition for wartime heroics. He busts out a bottle of cognac and they drink to their respective good fortune. Turns out Eva and Herbert are back early from Zoppot themselves: Eva’s banker friend’s hotel room was robbed on the same day he withdrew 10,000 DM from the bank, while he and Eva were at dinner! (You see what tragic things happen in the world?). More crazy laughter from Franz. He can’t stop laughing, it’s so funny. He thinks he might die from it.

But there’s still something missing, Eva says, echoing Frau Bast: Franz needs a girl. And as luck would have it, Eva knows just the one. Herbert agrees. And guess what? She’s right outside, just across the street. Eva has only to give her a little wave and she’ll come trotting right up.

Franz hesitates, he isn’t sure—what if this girl is bothered by his stump?—but Eva pushes ahead. (This shyness is not like our Franz.) Eva and Herbert beat a hasty departure and in a heartbeat Frau Bast announces there’s a girl to see Herr Biberkopf. Too late to run and hide, Franz steels himself, head in hand. He looks up, and there she is. And that’s it. Franz Biberkopf is smitten from the first moment he sets eyes on Emilie Karsunke from Bernau (Barbara Sukowa), dressed in palest gossamer peachy-cream-pink, a floppy ribbon in her bobbed hair, clutching her handbag in front of her, bathed in radiant light (homage to Jimmy Stewart’s first view of Kim Novack in Vertigo?) in the middle of Franz’s brown room. It’s like the sun rising, mutters Franz, and the girl smiles so sweetly, so innocently that we know exactly what he means. Peer Raben cranks up the sweetness on the music track—which takes us straight back to that beautiful hallucinatory monologue about sunrise at the end of Part VI after Franz’s arm has been crushed.

So Franz has himself a new girl. And note that the possessive here, has, is literal; with ownership comes naming rights. Emilie says she wants to be called Sonia (that’s what Eva calls her, on account of her Russian-looking cheekbones) but Franz has always wanted to have a girl called Marie, so they settle on the diminutive Mieze.

The montage that follows, bracketed by paragraph-long intertitles (which RWF seems to be using more frequently—I’m sure we’ll talk about that soon), nicely encapsulates their idyllic early days, and beautifully quotes a whole host of other movies, albeit in a minor key: Franz and Mieze on a rowboat out in the country, the camera tracking them along the river’s edge; Mieze hiding behind a tree in the woods, playing blind man’s bluff until one-armed Franz, blindfolded, stumbles and falls, helpless among the roots and fallen leaves, as he tries to find her.

Back in Berlin, Franz is sleeping. Mieze, who has already been out, tiptoes into his room and leaves a gift: a chirping canary in a cage and a bottle of something wrapped in robin’s egg blue tissue paper. Oh, and a note “From your silly Mieze”. Out she tiptoes again, with an admonition to Frau Bast not to wake a guy when he’s sleeping. Franz soon wakes, though, and is bowled over by her thoughtfulness. (We know, of course, that the little caged bird is a powerful symbol for Franz, himself not all that different from the fragile creature chirping away as though oblivious to its own captivity, its tiny lungs at the mercy of its keepers. The first scene of this very episode ended with Franz gazing at Max’s little bird’s cage which, you’ll remember, had once upon a time provided Max the proof of Franz’s good-heartedness back during the Lüders incident in Part III.)

But Franz needs to be careful. Willy arrives, wondering why Franz didn’t show up yesterday as arranged. (He was too busy with Mieze and forgot.) Next, Frau Bast delivers a letter which has just arrived for Fraülein Mieze, which Franz hastily opens (rights of ownership, it appears, extend to communications). It’s a love letter! Some guy has sent his Mieze a love letter! Off to Eva’s for advice, but not before Eva has her way with Franz, right there on the living room floor. (What is up with her? I still don’t quite have a handle on this character: free agent or temptress? I’m assuming the former, for obvious reasons. This is Fassbinder, after all.)

Next, Eva’s off to have a talk with Mieze, and nobody can stop her. She finds Mieze on the street, takes her for a cab ride, shows her the letter. Mieze laughs and laughs until she realizes that Franz could leave her over it. She confirms that she loves Franz (her first question is whether he liked the canary) and begs Eva to talk to him for her, which Eva does.

Back at the flat where Franz has fallen asleep, Eva spells it out: A girl doesn’t want to spend all her time just making coffee and cleaning up for a guy. She wants to be able to give her man things, too, to show him how much she loves him! So what if some other guy falls for her once in a while? Who cares if he writes her a letter? Cheating has nothing to do with it. Aha, says Franz, finally getting it. Here we go again. That’s how the wind blows, eh?

And of course that is exactly how the wind blows and has always blown, whether or not Franz has chosen to acknowledge it: overtly with Eva, of course, who worked for Franz, but also with Ida, and now with Mieze. Again, Barbara Baum explains:

“About the women around Franz Biberkopf he [RWF] said, ‘They’re all prostitutes, but only because they are poor, to get a little extra money.’ They were really respectable housewives. Under no circumstances must I betray them through their costumes.” (Chaos as Usual, p. 158).

This is why Mieze and Ida don’t look like the whores in Baldie’s alleyway, don’t even consider themselves whores. They’re just (lower class) women trying to get by, trading on the only commodity they have to sell. Even the woman in the street who winked at Franz in Part III was working it.

Of course, the women who aren’t actually turning tricks on the street are trading their bodies for food and shelter too, which is no doubt why Lina and Fränze and Cilly were so easily traded, passed back and forth from “owner” to “owner.” They’re all part of the same game. From, Emmi, the barmaid in Part VII, willing to spend an evening with Franz in exchange for drinks and whatever else, to Eva, who services bankers and other bigshots for a much higher fee, to Franz, who must share “his” girl with other men for money, everyone is caught to varying degrees in the same double bind. How do you reconcile the fact that the activity that puts food on the table and clothes on your back is also the hallmark, the currency, the way to and of, the very manifestation of love?

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