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.

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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.

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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?

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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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Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part VII: Remember—An Oath Can Be Amputated (1980)

And so Biberkopf has come to Berlin for the third time. The first time the roofs were about to slide off, then the Jews came and he was saved. The second time Lüders cheated him, but he swigged his way through. Now, the third time, his arm is gone, but he ventures courageously into the city. The man’s got courage, two- and threefold courage.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Pums’ men are gathered in his office to discuss the latest news: Franz Biberkopf isn’t dead, only lost an arm. Various solutions are put forward: they should kill him; they should take up a collection to pay his medical costs; they should do nothing. Reinhold recommends the latter course. He knows Biberkopf is no snitch; besides, if losing an arm wasn’t enough for him, maybe he could lose a head? Finally it’s agreed that they will take up a collection and pay Biberkopf off. Everyone but Reinhold contributes.

Franz, whose right arm has been amputated, is staying with Eva and Herbert (Roger Fritz—he’s the guy who was always with Eva in episodes 1 and 2, presumably Franz’s replacement), who are eager to seek restitution by force if need be for what has happened to Franz. But Franz won’t say who pushed him out of the car, so there isn’t much they can do short of starting a war with Pums. Anyway, Herbert and Eva will be leaving soon for Zoppot, Eva with her john and Herbert incognito. What, Eva asks, does Franz say to that? Franz says it must be really nice in Zoppot. (Poor Eva. Can’t get a rise out of Franz—whom she still loves, as she keeps reminding him—to save her soul.)

Meanwhile, Reinhold is still with Cilly, although it looks as though her 30 days might be nearing their end. Her triumphant announcement that she’s gotten a job singing in a nightclub ends in tears when Reinhold is neither impressed nor even especially pleased, but he tries to soothe her in his own twisted fashion. (Always the same old bullshit. . . . You’re always crying. Either a guy behaves the way you imagine he should in your goddamned heads, or you cry and bawl and never leave a guy in peace. That’s Reinhold’s idea of a bromide.)

Bruno (Volker Spengler) shows up with an offering for Franz. But Franz doesn’t want Pums’s money—he didn’t even do the lookout job, after all. Bruno sticks his hand in his pocket and Eva flips out, starts screaming bloody murder, convinced that she and Franz are about to be shot. Franz collapses on the ground and Bruno takes off (with Franz’s collection money conveniently still in his pocket). This is a wake-up call for Franz Biberkopf. He’s got to get back on his feet, back into the world, back to the Alex, before he collapses entirely, or just wastes away. Franz gets dressed, takes a last vaguely melancholy tour of Herbert and Eva’s place, and sets off.

First stop: an alleyway clearly marked “Children Not Admitted” dedicated to pleasure and perversion, lit like somebody’s vision of hell (impressive in itself, since it’s daytime), whips cracking, moans echoing, fires burning, overseen by a bald MC in a white Barnum and Baily–style cape (Peter Kuiper), who assures Franz he’s got the finest collection of broads in Berlin. The greatest, the most exciting thing he has to offer? The great whore of Babylon, who sits by the waters on a scarlet beast and has drunk the blood of all the saints. (This is a brilliant interpretation of Döblin’s text, by the way. There is no such alleyway in the book, just a reference to the Whore of Babylon.) But Franz refuses. Anything you show me now would disappoint me. Don’t make the mistake of promising too much . . . Ah, says baldie, smiling sadly, the same old difference between fantasy and sad reality . . .

Next stop, a bar, where Franz orders three beers and a schnapps and engages in a surprisingly charming “dialog” with each, to the horror of the proprietress and the delight of her employee, Emmi (Traute Hoess). I know it sounds corny—and it could have been really annoying in a Robin Williams-y kind of way, but it’s actually very sweet, this dialog (Franz does all voices), the high point of the episode. Emmi, who can’t stop laughing, sits down at Franz’s table; looks like she’ll be spending the rest of the evening with him. He’s definitely her type.

In the subway Franz runs into Meck who tries to skulk away without even saying hello. Franz confronts Meck, who won’t look Franz in the eye—reminds him of how differently they greeted one another at their last meeting. Franz cheerfully tells Meck he’s a carnival barker now, and a one-armed boxer. Really, he should come check out his act. (Franz makes repeated jokes about his arm throughout this episode, claiming variously that he left it at home with his girlfriend as a pledge, that he keep its in alcohol on a shelf, that he’s going into business with it—it stands upright on a table and screams Only those who work shall be permitted to eat! and the rabble are willing to pay 5 marks just to watch it.) Meck, whose guilt is palpable, can’t get away fast enough.

Franz and Emmi end up in a nightclub where Willy (Fritz Schedlwy) and a young fop (Udo Kier) are playing billiards; Willy, a proto-libertarian, discourses on the folly of paying veterans’ pensions. (You don’t get paid for other stupidities . . . There are thousands running around doing nothing and getting paid for it. . .  anyone stupid enough to go to war . . . etc.) Franz, who’s been playing a Weimar slot machine (i.e., a one-armed bandit) finds this amusing and good-naturedly joins the conversation. Although everyone assumes Franz lost his arm in the war (a notion he does nothing to disabuse them of), Franz seems to think what Willy has to say makes a lot of sense. Their conversation, however, is interrupted by the arrival on stage of the evening’s act, none other than Cilly.

Cilly recognizes Franz in the audience as her set is ending, runs backstage and confronts Reinhold, who’s been waiting in her dressing room. Why didn’t he tell her Franz was alive? The swine! Reinhold pushes her aside, storms out.

Meanwhile, out in the club Willy is schooling the others in linguistic relativity: you can say something has been stolen (the gold watch he’s wearing, for example), or you can say it has been removed from its place of origin, or simply that it has changed owners. (Just as what the authorities call military service, he, Willy, calls deprivation of freedom.) Emmi goes to the ladies’ and Franz decides to take off, but not before suggesting that Willy come visit him at Frau Bast’s one of these days. Is Franz Biberkopf be about to reneg on his pledge to stay clean? (Remember: an oath can be amputated.) End of Part VII.

So, not the most eventful of episodes, but it’s quite enjoyable, and sets up a new rack, to follow the billiards metaphor. Anyway its nice to see Franz get back up on his feet, if only briefly, and with such relentless good cheer. Of course we know the gods are not yet finished with Franz Biberkopf—still, we needed a little space in which to recover after the events of Part VI.

But what about Eva? As I mentioned in my last post, she does not even put in an appearance in the novel until now, when Franz has himself delivered to Herbert and Eva’s place after he is run over. They take him to the hospital, pay his bills, and oversee his convalescence. Eva, Döblin tells us, is even in love with Franz, but so far there’s been no mention of his ever having been her pimp (nor even her boyfriend), neither does she pay his rent or watch over his doings like a guardian angel. A pretty minor character, in other words. So again, my question, remains: why did RWF need to reinvent her? What purpose does this ubiquitous Eva serve? I still can’t even hazard a guess—even less so after her bizarre outburst when she thinks Bruno has a gun and is going to shoot her. (This comes directly from the novel, but it doesn’t seem consistent with the tough cookie RWF has already depicted.) Stay tuned.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part VI: Love Has Its Price (1980)

Cursed be the man, saith Jeremiah, that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree by the waters, that spreadeth his roots and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green and shall not be careful in the year of drought neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

—Voice-Over Narration, Part 6, Berlin Alexanderplatz

By now, I’m sure everyone will have noticed the strong biblical current that runs throughout Berlin Alexanderplatz. We saw it most clearly in Part 4, of course, with the slaughterhouse and the story of Job, but it has cropped up elsewhere, too (in Part 3, for example, when Otto Lüders raids the widow’s flat and the narrator describes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise). If I have mentioned these references, I realize I haven’t actually drawn any explicit conclusions about them. That’s because it still feels a little early and I’m not entirely sure how it all fits together, beyond the obvious themes of morality and punishment (or persecution, or victimization) within a working class milieu. I also don’t want to overstate the importance of the biblical references, which are but one strand in a more complex tapestry.

That said, Part 6 continues the biblical motif and makes recurring use of the above passage quoting Jeremaiah and spoken by the narrator (i.e., RWF), which would seem to suggest that one of Franz Biberkopf’s defining weaknesses (okay, sins) is his willingness to be seduced. How else would you describe Reinhold’s power over him? As for Reinhold’s own nature, the narrator evokes a more ancient evil, in a recurring reference, poetic and literary I assume, to black water lying silent and deep, in the dark forest, untouched by the storm that rages outside, primeval and still.*

Speaking of recurring motifs, have I even mentioned the flashing neon light that dominates so many night scenes in Berlin Alexanderplatz—red outside the windows of Franz’s room (which means it’s also flashing red inside), blue outside the men’s room at Max’s bar? I don’t think so—which is pretty surprising when you consider how obtrusive that light is, literally coloring whatever scene it accompanies as it so dramatically does, inexorable as a heartbeat flashing on and off through the night, relentless and hypnotic, prompting analogies cinematic as well as biological, supremely self-reflexive. (Despair and The Third Generation also use this device, though nowhere near to the extent that Berlin Alexanderplatz does.) If I haven’t mentioned it until now, it’s not because I don’t find it significant; there’s just been too much to talk about. Besides, I always knew I’d get to it eventually.

Part 5 opens with this crazy-making flashing blue light, in the men’s room at Max’s bar, where Reinhold, a desperate tremolo to his stutter, practically demands that Franz take Trude off his hands . . . or else. Franz, delighted with his own newfound clarity and righteous resolve, refuses. (It’s for the best, believe me!) The relentless blue light flashes on and off, on and off, as the depth of Reinhold’s psychotic misogyny becomes startlingly clear, but Franz doesn’t notice. It’s as though Franz is in a dream state, unable to read the signs.**

And indeed, the next scene (the “official” opening of Part 6 introducing the episode’s title) begins with a dream, while the rest of the episode will unfold according to the logic of one. Franz awakens in bed with Cilly, shaken after a nightmare. In the dream he says he was a horse, a workhorse, out in the freezing cold, when he wanted to be inside in the warm straw, and his toes were frozen so that he wanted to die. But suddenly he’s a bird in a tree, approached by a snake. He wants to fly away but he can’t. The snake slithers closer until it bites and kills him. But then he’s not a bird any more, he’s himself and the snake is Reinhold. But he’s still dead, Franz is. And Reinhold is still Reinhold.

Poor Franz. He knows the truth, deep down, but he just doesn’t want to face it. (Cilly gets it, though. She knows why Franz is so shaken. She knows, on some level, where all this is leading.)

Back in the bar, Boss Pums holds court; his men jump when he calls, but Franz still doesn’t want any part of it. Meck reminds Franz that having just enough money to get by is fine, but there’s something to be said for knowing you’ll have enough to eat in ten days, or three weeks. It all depends, says Franz. It depends, how you look at things and how much you have to sell yourself to have that certainty. . . but here’s Reinhold, nastier than usual, a dark cloud on the landscape apparent to everyone except Franz (and maybe Trude—but I’ll get to her later). Franz pays no mind, no sir! Franz is schooling Reinhold in the art of how to live with women, and he’s feeling pretty good about it. Musing aloud to himself—and to Reinhold, seated nearby—as the series theme is interpreted by a chiming glockenspiel.

Back with Cilly, Franz gets up from bed—he didn’t even take his boots off!—in a daze. Why were all those bells ringing? Is it a holiday? No, Cilly says, it’s just another day. Something must have happened, Franz is sure of it. Why else would the church bells be ringing? Cilly hasn’t heard any bells—and neither have we. (Although I would have sworn I had the first time I watched this episode: remember the glockenspiel from the last scene!) Franz is uneasy. He needs to go out into the street and see for himself. (Does Cilly know that she will never see Franz again? I think she does.)

There’s a fight going on out on the Alex between two men. One of them is Pums’s man, Bruno (Volker Spengler), who’s getting the stuffing beaten out of him by the other guy. When the cops arrive and the victor runs off, Franz, Samaritan that he is, approaches Bruno to see if he’s okay. Bruno, about to be arrested himself, asks Franz to go to Pums and tell him that he, Bruno, won’t be able to make it that night. Sure thing. How could Franz refuse?

Pums HQ is another world entirely, unlike anything Franz has ever seen: opulent, stylish, lit like a nightclub, overseen by Pums’ fur-clad, gun-toting wife (Lilo Pempeit, Mütter Fassbinder herself in her most sublime over-the-top cameo yet). Pums explains to Franz that he’ll simply have to sub for Bruno that night, now that he’s here. There’s no other possible solution. There’s a delivery coming in and he needs men. Franz’s skepticism wavers when Pums tells him his rate (5.5 marks/hour is clearly more than Franz has ever dreamed of) and evaporates entirely when Reinhold shows up. Franz knows things are okay if Reinhold is involved! Reinhold, agitated and glowering, does his best to ignore Franz. Cursed be the man that trusteth in man.

Off they go to make their pickup, Franz riding in the back of one of two small trucks or vans with Reinhold. They arrive at their dark, deserted destination. Franz follows Reinhold and Pums up the stairs. Pums turns on Franz with his lantern, angry. Who told you you could come up here? You’re supposed to stand watch! And slowly it dawns on Franz. This isn’t a delivery, it’s a robbery, and he, Franz Biberkopf, is the lookout! He decides to hotfoot it out of there.

But Reinhold is on him before he knows what’s what. Didn’t anyone tell you? Contemptuous and snide, he drags Franz back to his station, then slugs him on the arm, hard, when Franz protests. And now here’s Meck—didn’t you know? I’m the other driver! This is turning out to be a very bad dream indeed.

Back in the van and they’re off. Reinhold is seriously agitated. But look, there’s a car following them—never mind that it’s just a hotshot and his dame who’s dared him to race the car ahead to see who’s faster. Franz, initially panicked at the prospect of a return to Tegel, lets go of his fear, starts laughing. It’s worth it to see Reinhold so freaked out, covered in perspiration. Franz can’t stop laughing now, it’s too funny. Reinhold, still blistering at being told by Biberkopf how to handle women, gets madder and madder. Carefully, quietly, while Franz is still laughing at him, he unlatches the door of the speeding car and pushes Franz out.

The rest of the episode alternates between Franz and Reinhold. The latter is back in Berlin at the bar. Meck is there, of course, and Cilly is there too, drunk and disconsolate. Meck tells Max that Franz is dead in an accident. Where’s Reinhold, asks Cilly? She goes and finds him in the men’s room, asks if he doesn’t still love her a little? Sure, says Reinhold after thinking it over a moment, it’s been long enough. Into a stall they go.

Cut back to Franz as he flies out of the back of the speeding car straight into the path of the car behind them, which runs over and crushes Franz Biberkopf’s arm. Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm. The horrified couple (Karl Scheydt and Christine de Loupe) stop, equivocate as to the extent of their moral obligation to go to the police, and finally agree to take Franz to an address he whispers to them (he doesn’t want to go to the cops, either, for obvious reasons).

Reinhold, on a serious bender now, brings Cilly back to his place. Problem is, Trude’s still there, and she’s been worried sick about Reinhold, who hasn’t come home in three days. Who is this woman? Reinhold asks, voice dripping with contempt. And so it goes. Trude (Irm Hermann!—back again at last, if only briefly, after so many years, cast once again in a role you just know she had already lived to whatever extent with RWF) avows her love; Reinhold insults her. Trude refuses to leave; Reinhold threatens her. Trude throws herself on his mercy, begs him not to hurt her; Reinhold tears her blouse, slaps her, spits in her face. (In the book, I have to say, it’s far worse). Eventually he throws Trude out, literally, and locks the door behind her, triumphant. He’s finally managed to throw someone out! Hooray for Reinhold!

Meanwhile, Franz, bleeding profusely, losing consciousness, occasionally gasping from pain, waxes profoundly, existentially poetic to the strangers who ran over him as they speed through the darkness, carrying him, we hope, to safety (it’s the most beautiful scene of Part 6, and possibly of the entire series so far):

It’s important that we’re happy when the sun rises and the lovely light comes. The gas lamps have to go out, the electric lights have to go out. People have to get up when the alarm clock rings. For a new day has begun. The world has gone on turning. The sun has risen. You can’t be sure what’s up with this sun. People are very concerned with this sun. It’s supposed to be the central body of our planetary system. For our Earth is only a small planet. But what are we, then? When the sun rises and we are happy one should actually be sad, for what are we really? The sun is 300,000 times bigger than the Earth and there is no end of other numbers and zeroes, which simply goes to show that we are a zero ourselves, absolutely nothing. It’s ridiculous, really, yet one’s happy nevertheless. You come out onto the street and feel strong. Colors emerge, people’s faces come to life, and there are forms that you can grasp with your hands. What a good thing it is that we can see. That we can see these colors and the lines. And people always take pleasure, when they can show what they are . . .  that they’re doing something . . . experiencing something. We take pleasure in a little warmth. We’re happy that the flowers can grow. But that other matter, that must be a mistake. There must be an error in those terrible numbers with all the zeroes.

Beneath this soliloquoy, strings worthy of Bernard Herrmann, strikingly beautiful. Which is a surprise, really, not at all what we’re used to (to the extent that one can ever “get used to” Peer Raben’s score, which is radically different from episode to episode). Whereas the music in Part 5 could seem overblown and self-conscious—one of the aspects I love about it, of course—designed, it seems, to foreshadow tension (Part 5 being a transitional episode, in which the threat and menace of Reinhold is hinted at but not yet realized), the music in Part 6, when all that tension really hits the fan, erupting in violence, is surprisingly subdued, modest, tasteful, melancholy by comparison. I think it is the most coherent of the episodes, musically, and possibly the least intrusive, without in any way receding into the background. (Raben and RWF do things with train whistles, car horns, and the principal end-credits-theme in this episode that are just breathtaking. And don’t forget about that glockenspiel.)

Oh, but I almost forgot: turns out Eva does turn up as a character in the novel (typical, huh?). I reckon I’ll be talking about her in Part 7.


* This collage of references—biblical, literary, and earth-scientific (for lack of a better term)—comes directly from Döblin, of course. The closest narrational analogy I can think of, for what it’s worth, is in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. (RWF, of course, doesn’t show us the black water in the dark forest, as Malick probably would, but maybe you get the idea if you’ve seen that movie?)

** It just occurred to me that the flashing colored light is exactly the effect that Hitchcock used in Vertigo to signify Scottie’s dream state. Coincidence?


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Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part V: A Reaper with the Power of Our Lord (1980)

Part 5 seems to mark a transition from one set of concerns (how is Franz Biberkopf going to make a life for himself outside of prison?) to another. Whatever those new concerns turn out to be exactly, they are, at least for now, dominated by the newly introduced Reinhold—a character who will in large part determine our hero’s fate. (I know this because the paperback edition of the novel I am reading was published as a movie tie-in and features movie stills and descriptive captions that include some pretty gross spoilers. Why do they do this? Do publishers just assume that nobody reads books anymore without having first seen the movie, so we won’t mind if the photo on page 273 tells us what happens on page 410?)

As such, Part 5 raises more questions than it answers. Here are a few of them.

1. Who is Eva?
I’m just shy of the halfway-mark reading Berlin Alexanderplatz (p. 290), and Eva (Hanna Schygulla)—ubiquitous in the film—has not even appeared. What does this mean? Did RWF completely invent her? And if so, why? If I haven’t mentioned this conspicuous absence until now it’s because I wanted to give the novel some time to develop—perhaps Eva is a key player who just doesn’t show up in the original story until much later. But I think it’s been long enough. I think the time has come to look more closely at this mysterious character.

At the beginning of Part 5 we learn that Eva has been paying Franz’s rent at least since he went to prison. She was the first and only person to visit Franz on his first day back from Tegel. She seems to know where he is at all times, whether it’s selling tie holders on the Alexanderplatz, going door to door with shoelaces, locked away in a fleabag rooming house or, as in the opening scene of Part 5, back at Frau Bast’s, following his epic bender. Is she a guardian angel, an imaginary temptress, or just a fantasy projection? Whatever she is to Franz, it’s impossible to just ignore her. She matters. (Out of thirteen episodes and an epilogue, Schygulla appears in twelve. Only Günter Lamprecht appears in more than twelve episodes.)

And then there’s the question of her name. Eva, Eve: original sinner, responsible for mankind’s eviction from paradise, mother of all human weakness. No wonder Franz ran screaming with his shoelaces when she answered that unfamiliar door in Part 3. But what exactly is the nature of the temptation she represents to our hero? It can’t be promiscuity—Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Nor is it infidelity as such (no conscience there, either). Is it prostitution? Eva mentions that Franz was formerly her pimp, a relationship he refuses to reinstate. (He tells both Lina and Eva that he will never rely on a woman in that capacity again.) And yet, he accepted money from the widow after he slept with her in Part 3, and he continues to permit Eva to pay his rent. And, although he initially refuses Eva’s request to sleep with her (not like in the past, just for fun), he eventually grants it. Where is the line with him?

2. What is the source of Reinhold’s power?
It’s hard to fathom, but Franz Biberkopf is smitten with Reinhold (Gottfried John) from the very first moment he lays eyes on him—sallow, stooped, stuttering—at Max’s bar, drinking lemonade from a straw. Franz romantically imagines that Reinhold has served time in prison too and that Reinhold, looking at Franz, knows that he has served time and that they are, ergo, brothers. Never mind that he hasn’t and they’re not: Franz is not deterred. Franz has a puppydog infatuation with Reinhold which I fear could be his undoing. When Reinhold shows up with his lady friend at the corner where Franz sells newspapers (no longer the Völkischer Beobachter, thank goodness), Franz is stupidly, childishly thrilled.

Reinhold, it goes without saying, wants something from poor dumb Franz. He explains it to him later that night in the men’s room of the bar. Reinhold, until recently so smitten with his Fränze (Helen Vita), needs to get rid of her post haste. He can’t stand the sight of her, suddenly, and now he’s got his eye on a new girl. Maybe Franz can help him? Take her off his hands, even? Reinhold will send her to Franz’s place the next day with some boots for him, a gift. If one thing should lead to another, Franz being possessed of considerable charms in this area . . . Sure thing, says cheerful Franz. Happy to help a friend out.

Everything goes like clockwork. Next thing you know, Fränze has moved in with Franz and the two are making like rabbits, happy and cuddly both in and out of the sack. But after a few more weeks, Reinhold shows up at Franz’s corner again with his new girlfriend, Cilly (Annemarie Düringer), who, you guessed it, he just can’t stand the sight of anymore. Hasn’t Franz gotten rid of Fränze yet? He’d better act fast, because Reinhold has his eye on a little blonde called Trude. Franz dutifully picks a fight with Fränze in front of the newsagent (Herbert Steinmetz), with whom Franz has engineered the girl’s hand-off. Just in time, too. Cilly’s at the door, delivering a gift for Herr Biberkopf from Reinhold.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Franz was happy with Fränze. He’s happy with Cilly. When Reinhold approaches Franz yet again—he’s fed up with Trude now too—Franz tells Cilly everything. And, although he didn’t see it at first, Franz suddenly realizes that this has got to stop. He’ll make Reinhold see reason. He and Cilly will go and visit this Trude and warn her, tell her to stand her ground. A man has got to learn to settle down after all. Reinhold may be Franz’s friend, but enough is enough.

3. What is Reinhold’s game?
Reinhold, in this episode, will make demands of Franz that force him to identify the line he does not wish to cross and, maybe, cross it anyway. He’s a first-class manipulator, and not just of women. It’s not clear what he’s up to—yet—but it’s already obvious that he is a sinister force. The narrator tells us so up front:

There is a Grim Reaper whose name is Death, with the power of our lord. He whets his knife today, sharp for the foray. Soon he will sheer a path. And we must bear his wrath.

Reinhold clearly has “issues” with women. Does he hate them? Is he psychotic? A repressed homosexual? He tells Franz he suffers from a compulsion, beyond his control, to immediately possess one and then, when he tires of her (usually after 30 days), just as immediately to discard her. I don’t entirely buy it, though: this alleged weakness just doesn’t ring true. On the contrary, Reinhold appears very much in control of himself at all times. Surely a man this powerful and this cunning doesn’t need a guy like Franz Biberkopf to take women off his hands, at any rate. The desperate trip he takes to the Salvation Army with Franz in tow as his witness, looking, he claims, for support in the battle with his own nature, seems like an act to me. So what is Reinhold up to? For what foray does he whet his knife?

And then there’s the fruit game. When the episode opens, Meck points out Herr Pums (Ivan Desny), the big boss in the fruit trade for whom Reinhold “works,” despite the fact that we never actually see him doing so (it’s hard to imagine the always sharply dressed Reinhold ever pushing a barrow out in the elements). Why does Franz implicitly and immediately mistrust Pums? The latter offers him a job right away, but Franz declines. There’s something fishy in the fruit trade: a worm—or a serpent, more likely?—in the apple.

4. What is that huge piece of machinery in Franz’s room?
OK, this might sound silly, and it’s certainly hard to believe I hadn’t noticed it before now, but there is a massive piece of black iron machinery separating Franz’s bed from the table where he eats in his room at Frau Bast’s, which looks like some sort of ancient stripped-down vehicle—a truck chassis, perhaps, or farm machinery, or construction equipment—or maybe even a printing press. (Or could it be some prehistoric boiler? Honestly, I haven’t the faintest clue.) What is it doing in Franz’s room, in any case, and why has RWF been avoiding it until now? You really don’t notice it in Parts 1-4 because of the camera setups, whereas in Part 5 the camera tracks right around it while Franz, seated on his bed on the other side of this huge thing, very sweetly explains to Fränze why she should stay with him and not worry about Reinhold any more. I’ve scrutinized it in slow motion many times now and I simply cannot figure out what the hell it is, let alone what it means. But it’s got to be there for a reason. If anybody out there knows what I’m talking about could you post a comment and let me know? I feel so helplessly ignorant. (I have already vowed not to watch the DVD extras or read the Criterion liner notes until I’ve finished the series.) [Postscript: According to Dieter Minx,  it’s a printing press. For what that’s worth. I’m still scratching my head. —EB ]

* * *

Just a few other observations: Peer Raben’s music continues to delight and astonish. The cycle—and that’s really what it is—beginning with Fränze’s arrival at Franz’s room, suitcase in hand, and ending with the vanquishing of Cilly, is accompanied by a single piece of piano music—dark, modern, vibrating, and serial, having neither beginning, middle, nor end, unspooling in a continuous loop—which is, of course, the perfect accompaniment to these scenes, in which the women come and go like the seasons. As with so much of Raben’s music, it’s a little jarring at first—a little obtrusive, a little too foregrounded—but quite beautiful, and of course used to brilliant effect.

My favorite moment in the movie (aside from the tracking shot described in #4 above, which is much lovelier than I’ve described it) is part of this same musical loop. Reinhold visits Franz at work for the second time (the first was to “introduce” Fränze, the second, Cilly). In the far upper-left corner of the screen, behind Franz and Reinhold (nicely framed in a two-shot), barely discernible, a violent scuffle between Nazis and Communists is taking place up on some sort of terrace—the red armbands of the former can only just be made out, along with the latter’s hammer and sickle–festooned banner—as the two groups try to wrestle control of the communist symbol. The action is easily missed, since the dialog between Franz and Reinhold commands your attention, until the two men part ways, their conversation concluded, and the foreground of the reverse shot is suddenly, briefly, crossed by a group of Nazis, running at full speed as they make off with the banner while Franz slips down into the subway to talk to the newsagent about taking Fränze. It only lasts a moment—the less vigilant among us might not even register it—but it’s a chilling reminder of the ways this epic struggle between the movements and ideologies that defined the age were, at the same time, literally backdrop, commonplace enough for a time at least as to scarcely attract attention.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part IV: A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence (1980)

Franz Biberkopf awakens in a dark, dingy, down-market room, a castaway in a sea of empty beer bottles, on a bender to beat all benders. Otto Lüders’ duplicity was just too much to bear; Franz has hidden himself away from the world and is drinking himself into oblivion.

Franz stumbles downstairs with his crate of bottles, which gossipy Frau Greiner across the way replaces with fresh ones. He sits at his window watching the activity in the street and in the apartments across the way. A woman walks across the cobblestones below, all business, then turns to look up at Franz where he sits perched in his window, and winks. Franz winks back. Next thing he knows she’s in his room, taking off her dress. Franz, awkwardly, begins to apologize . . .  out she storms, furious at having been tricked (“you winked, didn’t you?).

He reads the newspaper and drinks. He throws up and drinks some more. He complains of crippling stomach pains, seeks the help of a priest (at least in his mind), spends several days and nights tossing and turning in his room, feverish and sick, attended by his saintly landlord, Baumann (Gerhard Zwerenz).

The fever breaks, the worst appears to be over, although Franz is still not out of the woods. Another feminine apparition visits him (are any of these women who visit Franz in his squalor even real? Impossible to say for sure, but I have my doubts): Eva (Hanna Schygulla) appears at his door one night, as though it were perfectly natural for her to be there, and gingerly steps over the sea of beer bottles to sit with a perspiration-soaked Biberkopf on his disgusting floor. Eva, we at last learn, is a successful prostitute and Franz, whom she still loves, was once her pimp. She offers him help, she offers him money, but Franz vehemently refuses both. (He made a vow, after all.)

Franz looks out the window after Eva has gone only to spot something going on in the dark over at the wholesale warehouse across the street. A robbery is in progress. How dare thieves bring their perfidious activities to the street where he, Franz Biberkopf, lives! Something hitherto dormant in him, a sense of moral outrage, perhaps, is awakened and suddenly Franz snaps out of his torpor. By the time Herr Greiner and his Frau are arrested for collaborating with the thieves—in broad daylight and in front of the entire neighborhood—Franz is back to his old self, ready to return to life on the Alex, as though he had achieved some kind of catharsis, survived a trial by fire. Baumann bids him a sad goodbye. Franz returns first to the newspaper vendor in the subway (he’ll need a source of income again), then to find Meck, who’s selling clothing now. (Don’t ask where he gets his merchandise.)

Part 4 is a tricky one to describe—there isn’t really all that much in the way of action, and the plot is meandering and uncertain. Unlike Parts 1–3, Part 4 almost exclusively depicts Franz’s emotional and spiritual state. Even those plot developments that do involve action seem like feverish projections, hallucinations that unfold as in a dream, random and disconnected. And aside from a couple of forays into the world outside, which anyway feel just as detached and unreal as the interior scenes, this episode takes place almost entirely in Franz’s dreadful room.

After a shaky start, Part 1 saw Franz slowly find his footing back in Berlin, largely thanks to the catharsis or closure or whatever it was he achieved (by force) through Minna. In Part 2, Franz regained confidence, found work (never mind how compromising), and even started a happy, relatively healthy new life with Lina. After a promising start, however, Part 3 punished Franz for failing to recognize (among other things) a situation too good to be true. And Part 4—well, Part 4 is a long, dark night of Franz Biberkopf’s soul. (Never mind that it does, paradoxically, happen to feature more daylight scenes than any of the preceding three). Politics, unemployment, social issues, sexual and emotional relationships, none of these seem to penetrate the penumbra that separates Franz Biberkopf and his spiritual crisis from the outside world. (They do penetrate it, of course, but on an unconscious level. More on this later.)

The religious overtones are inescapable, beginning with the music, which is downright liturgical (J.S. Bach’s cantatas spring to mind, but I’m not sure how accurate that is), and which is woven into nearly every scene from the very first shot. From the moment Franz Biberkopf awakens and fumbles blindly for a bottle that isn’t empty as he lies on his filthy bed, accompanied by the echoing, unearthly soprano and organ, we know we are in a world removed from the everyday.

The pivotal scene in Part 4 takes place in Franz’s smoky, candle-lit room, after the worst of his “sickness” has already passed. He and Baumann play cards and enact a dialog based on the Book of Job, with Baumann as Satan and Franz as Job (late-stage Job, of course, after he has lost his riches and been cast out of his house into a cabbage patch). Here Satan does not appear to want to induce Job to curse God, exactly, but to admit that he does not actually want the help he claims has been denied him, whether from God or man or Satan. It’s a strange scene, but quite moving. And it confirms for us, if we weren’t quite sure, what is going on: like Job, Franz fervently, desperately wants to hew to a right path, to align himself with God—which is to say, with the good—no matter what misfortunes befall him. But he cannot let go of his thoughts, he cannot make himself “wholly beast.” And temptation to return to his old ways anyway beckons from all sides (Otto Lüders, Eva, the Greiners). Franz is only safe when locked in his awful room, drinking.

The card game between Job and Satan is sandwiched between two remarkable sequences in a slaughterhouse, introduced by an intertitle: Man’s fate is like that of the beasts. Just as they die, so does he.  The first of these consists of a montage of hand-colored still photographs taken in a 1920s abbatoir, with step-by step narration describing a steer’s slaughter in graphic and poetic detail. (And no, that’s not an oxymoron. The description is profoundly moving.) Astute readers will note, of course, that this scene harkens back to the slaughterhouse of In a Year with Thirteen Moons. (Did Döblin’s novel inspire RWF to develop that connection with Armin Meier’s career as a butcher in the first place? I would wager that it probably did.)

The second, which comes after the Job scene, is not derived from documentary sources but was shot for the film. An old bearded man in a loincloth, covered in places with what looks like moss (Job, once handsome, found himself covered in sores, another way that God tested him) enters an empty warehouse carrying a lamb. He sits with the animal in his lap and quickly, efficiently, but compassionately, slits the animal’s throat. (And yes, it looks like he really does. Animals, it seems, were harmed in the making of this motion picture.)

This scene does not exist in the novel as such—or rather, it does, but in a different form. In the novel you read a (spine-chilling, heart-breaking, vegetarian-making) description of an old man slaughtering a calf—no reference to Job. The juxtaposition of slaughterhouse and Story of Job (and Franz Biberkopf) are there, sure, but the relationship between them is not very clear. By making the old slaughterer biblical, allegorical, RWF draws these threads together: the suffering of Job, of Franz Biberkopf, of lambs to the slaughter, are all of a piece. And they have all the same breath, and men have no more than beasts.

As I’ve already mentioned, Döblin’s novel is a modernist work, a dense tapestry woven from floating passages of text from a variety of sources, unanchored and unattributed, often impossible to pin down or ascribe to any one source. Very difficult, as such, to adapt to the screen—which requires, as a rule, a vantage point (or at least something like one). RWF’s solution to this problem—a stratagem no doubt born in the theater, where this problem must be commonplace—was to put those floating snippets of text in the mouths of secondary characters, or occasionally to visualize them through other media. (He seems to have reserved intertitles and voice-over narration for the book’s chapter subbheadings and third-person omniscient narration.)

For example, RWF has Frau Greiner, not some third-person quasi-narrator as in the book, describe at length the various characters (and their salient foibles) who inhabit the block of flats Franz finds himself living and drinking in. And a series of legal memoranda written by the attorney across the street (a real skinflint, according to Frau G), which just “appear” in the novel, are here staged, enacted, as the lawyer dictates to his mute secretary (Margit Carstensen), framed by the office window as in a painting as Franz gazes out from his window-sill across the street, Rear Window–style. (Really nice camera-work in this sequence, which culminates in the lady in the street’s wink.) And of course RWF has Franz read the ads in his newspaper—which again, just appear in the novel, unattributed—aloud, while he drinks.

The heaviest narrational lifting in Part 4 is reserved for Herr Baumann—a character, I should mention, wholly invented by Fassbinder. (At least so far. I wouldn’t completely rule out Baumann’s appearance later in the novel, although he wouldn’t be the same character in that case, would he?). Why in an adaptation this faithful did RWF feel the need to invent this particular—minor—character? In the novel, the  landlady is vaguely malevolent but mostly insignificant. And surely there were other vehicles RWF could have used to convey the Job business?

Gerhard Zwerenz, who plays Baumann, was not, as far as I can tell, really an actor at all. A prolific novelist and essayist (his Wikipedia page, only available in German, is impressive, to say the least), he wrote The Earth Is Uninhabitable Like the Moon, a work RWF spent several years trying to make into a film, as well as the novelization of The Marriage of Maria Braun. RWF clearly admired him. He dedicated Veronika Voss to Zwerenz and cast him in a small role in The Stationmaster’s Wife and, more important, as the journalist to whom Elvira turns for help before her suicide in In a Year with Thirteen Moons. (He also opened a marvelous essay on Claude Chabrol with a quote from Zwerenz.) A startling Abraham Lincoln look-alike (same craggy, leathery face, same moustacheless beard, same aura of profund wisdom and courage), Zwerenz exudes an other-worldly calm and sagacity and gentleness. Shot from below in candlelight as he often is in Berlin Alexanderplatz, he looks like some sort of 19th-century Lutheran elder, stern, all-knowing, but kind. As Baumann, he functions as a sort of guardian angel—or perhaps just an angel of Franz Biberkopf’s better nature. (He also plays a mean Satan.)

Zwerenz was—still is, I think—a leftist intellectual and outspoken social critic who served in both the German and Red Armies in WWII (if I’m reading Google’s tortured translation of his Wikipedia page correctly), a member of the East German Communist party after the war who later defected to the West. His very presence links Franz Biberkopf’s saga to political and social realities that were an important part of RWF’s agenda—connections which Döblin in 1929 would not have been in a position to make, living and writing as he was in the midst of this unfolding history.

RWF peppers his Berlin Alexanderplatz with political-historical references. Part 4 includes two important posters seen in the background of dramatic scenes. The first of these, when Franz goes out into the street after his “illness” (intending, he declares, to visit the Jews in Münzstrasse—remember them?), is an announcement of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—anarcho-proletarian lambs to the slaughter, par excellence. The second of these can be seen in the very last scene of the episode, when Franz reunites with Meck. Behind them, a poster announces the incarceration of Carl von Ossietzky, German pacifist, imprisoned in 1929 for exposing the secret German rearmament which violated the Treaty of Versailles and, of course, jump-started Hitler’s war machine. He was convicted of treason in 1931 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935, which he was unable to physically accept, incarcerated as he was in Esterwegen concentration camp, where he died in 1936. (Gerhard Zwerenz, I should mention, won the Carl von Ossietzky prize for contemporary history and politics in 1986.)

So here’s my favorite scene of the film, nicely modified by RWF from the novel to give it a more coherently poetic as well as a political edge. In his delirium, Franz hallucinates turning to a priest for help. In RWF’s version the figure to whom he directs his confused and humble plea is a drayman, a burly laborer in cap and black leather smock loading his truck with heavy sacks outside the church, unmoved by the stooped and crumpled man in a brown wool coat and hat.

Good day, Reverand. I’m Franz Biberkopf, a worker, a casual laborer. I was a furniture mover, unemployed. I wanted to ask you something. How can I stop my stomach pains, heartburn, acid indigestion? Here it comes again! Noxious bile! It comes from drinking a lot. Excuse me for accosting you like this on the street. Am I keeping you from your work? But what can I do about this horrible bile? One Christian has to help another. You’re a good person, but I won’t go to heaven. And why? If criminals exist, I can tell you all about them. Loyal and true, we swore it to Karl Liebknecht. We gave our hand to Rosa Luxemburg. I’ll go to Paradise when I die, and they’ll bow down before me and say: “That’s Franz Biberkopf, loyal and true, a German. Does odd jobs, loyal and true. High flies the banner, black, white and red. But he kept it to himself. He didn’t turn to crime like the others who want to be Germans, and who cheat their fellow citizens.”

As in the slaughterhouse scenes, or the preceding scene in which Baumann, on hands and knees, cleans Franz’s vomit from the floor while talking to him about the occupations of the human heart, or the moment of Ida’s death in Part 1, we are in the realm of the sacred. The ecclesiastical choral music on the soundtrack, the deft, almost surreal camera movement, Franz’s humble, rambling plea, all underscore this. At the same time, we are in the realm of the political: the Marxists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were political leaders whose significance to the working classes was also spiritual, after all, while the laborer and even the landlord here, in words and deeds, are both exemplars of a secular religiosity as well as an implicit political stance. This, I think, is the essence of RWF’s eloquent humanism: he shows us how spiritual, political, historical, and social realities all converge and overlap in a single, precious life.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part III: A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul (1980)

Style and form—everything rested on this. No style without morals, no morals without style.
—Ingrid Caven, Interview with Katia Nicodemus, signandsight.com, 5/31/2007

Part 3 picks up where Part 2 left off: outside Max’s bar where Franz, still shaken by the dust-up with Dreske, proclaims his love to Lina. Franz came close—so close!—to breaking his vow to stay on the straight and narrow back there. But one wrong move and they throw the book at a guy like him, so he knows he has to be careful.

Meanwhile, there’s still the question of finding—and holding—a job. But wait, Lina has an idea. She suddenly remembers her Uncle Otto. OK, he’s not her actual uncle, but an old family friend. (Is it just me, or does that sound a little creepy?) He’ll be able to help Franz, for sure! So off they go to Uncle Otto’s place, a basement apartment more basement than apartment. Lina introduces Franz as her fiancée.

Turns out Uncle Otto Lüders (Hark Bohm), recently widowed, is unemployed too, and has been for two years. How does he get by? Oh, this and that. Right now he has a sideline selling shoelaces. Perhaps Franz can get in on the shoelaces gig too. Uncle Otto kindly agrees to take him under his wing. There are enough shoes in Berlin for the two of them.

The next day sees Franz and Otto outside an elegant apartment building, cases strapped over their shoulders. Franz will take the apartments on the left-hand side of the building this time and Lüders the right. Up the stairs Franz goes. He hesitates for a moment outside the first door, then rings the bell. A sad thin woman (Angela Schmid) answers and Franz launches into his spiel. Surely her husband needs shoelaces? Everybody does, and he’s got them in three sizes! No, the woman says, staring intently at Franz, her husband is dead. Franz apologizes. The woman invites him in for coffee. (Don’t do it, Franz! Don’t go in there!) On the dining room wall a picture of a big man who looks a bit like Franz Biberkopf with a big black moustache. Suddenly Franz understands. He puts his hand on the woman’s neck . . .

By the time Franz gets back to Max’s bar, Lüders is already waiting. Franz buys lunch but needs to get change because he has . . . 20 marks! That’s got to be more than their entire inventory is worth! Franz tells Otto about the widow, and how he left his case there so he’ll have to go back. Where was this? Lüders asks. First door on the first floor on the left. Can you believe the luck? Franz gives Lüders  a tenner; they are a team, after all.

Next thing you know, there’s Uncle Otto Lüders standing outside the widow’s door. Expecting Franz, her excitement turns to confusion, then fear. Lüders pushes his way in, demands coffee—like you made for my friend. The innuendo is menacing and nasty. As he is about to leave, Lüders’ tone becomes threatening. He demands money. The camera tracks back to the next room as the widow, frightened, looks on while Lüders ransacks the place, looking for valuables, and the narrator describes the story of the serpent in Paradise.

Lüders does not show up at Franz and Lina’s in the morning, so Franz goes out alone. Franz, spooked by the ubiquitous Eva (Hanna Schygulla) who answers one of the first doors he tries (and whose relationship to Franz, maddeningly, we still don’t know) runs away. Franz practically runs to the florist across the street, where he buys flowers for the widow. Of course she won’t let him in when he rings and slams the door in his face. Franz scribbles her a note, stomps on the flowers, and leaves.

When Franz does not come home that night Lina is certain he has run away and left her. She finds Meck at Max’s, where Max tells them how Franz came for lunch and received first a package from Lüders (his inventory of shoelaces returned) and then a letter marked confidential, which turned Franz’s face green and caused him to run out. Oh, and another thing: Lüders had come for lunch, spotted Franz, and turned tail and run. What could have caused him to flee Franz like that? Smelling something fishy, Meck and Lina pay a visit to Uncle Otto. When it becomes clear that Lüders is lying about what happened, Meck shows him the knife he carries with him at all times, which he won’t hesitate to use if Lüders doesn’t find Franz by the next day.

Lüders locates Franz in a nearby flophouse, where bunks are rented by the night. Franz refuses to return home and rejects the money Lüders offers him. Once more Franz sees red, brandishes a chair, threatening horrible violence, and once more the cloud passes just as quickly. What is the matter with Franz, Lüders asks. He doesn’t understand him at all. “I haven’t learned,” Franz slowly replies, “to say in simple words what’s going on in my head, and what you did to cause what’s going on in my head. I haven’t learned that, because if I’d have learned that, I would have learned a lot more as well, and what has happened would not have happened.” Franz knows he is culpable and complicit in some fundamental way but he’s still not sure how. Is this a chink in his sense of righteous victimhood? Could be.

Meck and Lina go to the flophouse, only to find that Franz has already moved on, leaving instructions with the blowsy proprietress (Christiane Maybach) that nobody is to come looking for him. Maybe they should stop looking, suggests Meck. Maybe Lina can come stay with him now, so she won’t be alone and he won’t be alone, either. (He’s always been fond of her.) Lina silently nods okay, yes, and the episode ends.

Is it my imagination or is the pace picking up? Part 3 moves forward at a nice tight  melodramatic clip. With very little voice-over, no interior monologues and no intertitles to provide commentary on or distract from the inexorable forward (downward?) movement of the story, Part 3 is more melodrama than modernist collage. What little narration there is contributes to the film’s fairy tale–like quality rather than fragmenting it, as was the case in Parts 1 and 2. (Not that that sort of fragmentation is a bad thing; in fact, it seems more faithful to the spirit of the novel.)

This is a good time to point out that the complete title of Döblin’s novel is actually Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf. This is no ordinary novel: it is a sweeping saga, an epic tale, a larger-than-life story. Everything in the production contributes to this epic fairy tale quality: the camerawork, the compositions, the blocking, the music, and especially the lighting, which is almost always artificial (i.e., manipulable, controlled), since most of the scenes take place indoors and at night.

As we’ve come to expect, Berlin Alexanderplatz features a full array of framing devices and those trademark reflective surfaces (mirrors, windows, etc.) which duplicate and reverse the characters’ images. But there’s a new element at work here too: everywhere surfaces sparkle and gleam, from the shiny silver taps and fixtures in Max’s bar, to the glasses and bottles and silverware, to the light fixtures and even Max’s eyeglasses. The effect is magical and strange, exactly what you would expect in a fairy tale.

For me the most perfect example of this kind of heightened unreality is the scene in the florist’s shop. Shot from inside through the front window, we see Franz leaving Eva’s building across the street, partially screened by red and white gladiolus (gladioli?) and elaborate greenery. Pan 180 degrees, as Franz enters the shop, to an oval mirror on the wall opposite the door, where Franz is now framed with roses beneath his face, like an old-fashioned portrait hanging on the wall of your great-grandmother’s house.

FRANZ: I have to buy some flowers. But I’m not sure . . . not quite sure what kind they should be. The thing is, they have to mean “the past keeps following you, driving you on and on, driving you someplace where there’s no future.” Do you understand?

Cut to a close-up of the florist, warmly lit, the image diffuse and slightly gauzy, against a vivid backdrop of bright zinnias, flattened by a long-ish lens, flowers and florist comprising what looks like a single plane, almost like strangely lit wallpaper.

FLORIST: Yes sir. I understand you. What you need are carnations. White carnations, sir.

FRANZ: White carnations? But they’re flowers for death, aren’t they?

FLORIST: Yes, sir. But you asked for flowers for a death, didn’t you?

More than any moment in Fear Eats the Soul, or Martha, or Fear of Fear, or in any Fassbinder film I’ve seen, this tiny little scene, lasting less than two minutes total, made me realize something profoundly important about the way RWF used melodrama, which I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on until now. By manipulating those cinematic codes we associate with a certain Golden Age of Hollywood—codes of lighting, music, color, set decoration—RWF both induces an emotional response and at the same time makes the audience aware of the mechanism by which that response is elicited. OK, we know that. But here’s my point: contrary to the way I have always thought about, say, Brechtian distancing, or what Godard was doing in the 1960s, this awareness does not intellectualize or circumvent the audience’s emotional response, it actually makes it more emotionally powerful, because it is honest, achieved without guile. Does that make any sense at all?

RWF honestly shows you what he is doing: look at the beautiful yellow light that focuses your attention on the kind florist whose stock in trade is quotidian human tragedy and joy, look at the way flowers convey desire and loss, look at the image of Franz Biberkopf trapped in a frame, listen to Peer Raben’s melancholy strings on the soundtrack . . . these are not tricks to make you lose yourself in imaginary identification, nor does RWF bracket them in ironic quotation marks. You are free to contemplate the mechanism by which these beautifully styled elements heighten your awareness of Franz Biberkopf’s plight, which only serves to heighten your awareness of . . . Franz Biberkopf’s plight. This is the opposite of manipulation; it is an emphasis on form that I now see is fundamentally moral.

Curiously, the image I keep coming back to as I try to articulate this idea, if only to myself, is a mise-en-abîme, as in a series of endlessly repeating reflections in facing mirrors, the kind you find in barber shops or in elegant old-fashioned Ladies’ powder rooms. Reflections of reflections, which give you a perspective impossible to attain when you’re “inside” the image, as we normally are, even when we’re watching movies. At least we think we are—that’s the seductive power of identification, right? The proscenium arch, the frame, just disappears. Reflections of reflections of reflections: how perfectly Fassbinder is that?

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Comments Off on Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part III: A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul (1980)

Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part II: How Is One to Live If One Doesn’t Want to Die? (1980)

After the roller coaster ride of Part 1, reality. We knew Franz’s euphoria couldn’t last. Struggling under the impossible reparations imposed at Versailles, in the midst of a global economic depression, it turns out Weimar Germany is just not a good environment for an ex-con to try to regain his place in society. With 673,582 men unemployed in Berlin alone (Lina looks it up), what’s a man to do?

What Franz needs, Meck suggests, is a trade. Franz tries hawking tie holders in the street, but his sales pitch, which quickly veers into hardscrabble philosophy tinged with traces of anti-Semitism, attracts no interest—his only customer, Eva (Hanna Schygulla), buys one out of charity, only to spark Lina’s jealousy. Franz decides that consumer gadgets just isn’t his line; newspapers seem more the thing.

The newsagent in the U-Bahn station (Herbert Steinmetz) sets Franz up with some publications specializing in “sexual education” (illustrated, of course)—the latest thing, he assures Franz, and perfectly legal, too. Franz, skeptical at first—he knows where looking at too many pictures leads (funny how predominant the impotence theme is proving to be already)—agrees to give it a try and takes some volumes on the topic of homosexuality back home with him. When he describes one of the stories he read to Lina—unerotic and heartbreaking as Franz tells it—she freaks out and tries to run away, assuming Franz must be “like that.” (A brisk grope sets her straight.) Lina marches back to the newsagent and gives him a piece of her mind, along with the unsold magazines. Franz watches, entranced, from the sidelines.

Despite Franz’s diminished prospects, Lina convinces him to take her to a night club, Die Neue Welt (The New World—a dance hall with mercifully few traces of Liza Minelli or Joel Grey). Franz meets a man at the bar who immediately identifies Franz as a “true German.” (Franz fails to mention during the man’s rant against Jews, Poles and the French, that his own girlfriend happens to be Polish, but whatever; that’s not the way Franz thinks). The man offers to give Franz “a chance.” Things are looking up!

The next day sees a slightly discomfited Franz in the U-Bahn station once more, this time in sandwich board and Nazi armband, hawking the Volkischer Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper. Franz, imprisoned by his sandwich board, labelled with the swastika he’s been told to wear, stands helpless, proud, defiant as characters wander in and out of his range, the station itself a dimly lit stage on which the action unfolds.

The subway station, of course, is the perfect platform for this drama (pun not entirely intended)—which, I think, is why RWF set it there. The whole world seems to pass through: sales vendors energetically vie for attention—hawking sausages, pickled herring, and, yes, Nazi propaganda—while private dramas play out unnoticed in the dim light. Daylight just barely penetrates from the subway entrances visible in the distance. I want to say the light down there is crepuscular, but I’m not sure if that quite describes it? You could certainly call the lighting expressionist—or you could just say it is highly dramatic, highly theatrical.

Which, of course, you could say about this entire scene (or this entire series, really): it’s highly theatrical. More so than with many of RWF’s films, you really notice the extent to which his background in theater prepared him for this: the lighting, the staging—the way he uses space, the way he blocks each scene for the camera and for the audience, the choreography of camera and actors within the space—I really do think these owe as much to a theatrical vision as they do to cinematic one. (You particularly notice this in the long shots; the close-ups are pure cinema.) Which is not to say that Berlin Alexanderplatz is “stagey” or “uncinematic”—quite the contrary! What I think RWF has achieved here is really extraordinary: a synthesis (not to mention a mastery) of these two art forms that enables him to achieve both critical distance and a sort of fairy tale unreality, while at the same time commanding a profound empathy for his characters. Maybe this is the quality I’ve been trying to put my finger on that sets Berlin Alexanderplatz apart? (In a Year with Thirteen Moons achieves this, too—whatever “it” is exactly.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, anyway. Here’s Franz, a sandwich board around his neck and a swastika on his arm, trying to muster enthusiasm for another product to sell. A sausage vendor (Jürgen Draeger) greets him and expresses curiosity about the Volkischer Beobachter. They’re supposed to be alright, the man says, but. . . he senses something else. They’re against the Jews, aren’t they? Personally, Franz says, he has nothing against the Jews, but (gaining confidence) one must have law and order. That’s the thing! The sausage vendor shrugs, wishes Franz good luck—everyone has to make a living according to his own lights—and adds almost as an afterthought that he is Jewish—no hard feelings, though. Franz looks as though he has accidentally swallowed a fly.

Ah, but here comes Dreske, whom Franz seems to know from the last war, and a couple of his comrades, who are communists. They openly mock Biberkopf, who doesn’t actually seem to know much about Nazi philosophy, but, his back now up, defends his untenable position as though he actually had one. (Referring proudly now to the swastika on his armband: “There’s nothing on it a man can’t answer for.”) After the war, the republic promised a better way of life, but there’s no work, no butter, no order (he’s on a roll now.) When a man has seen the things Franz Biberkopf has seen . . .

After work, Franz goes to Max’s bar to wait for Lina. (Max, by the way, is played by the lovely Klaus Holm, grandfather Gast in the The Third Generation.) Franz has the place to himself, contentedly eating a cheese sandwich he no doubt purchased with his day’s wages, when who should enter but Dreske and his comrades—more of them this time than in the station—looking for a drink and a song and, it would appear, a fight. They immediately launch into the Internationale and demand that Franz join them. He refuses and says he will sing something himself, then recites a poem written by a fellow prisoner in Tegel—who, if I read the flashback correctly, committed suicide in the cell next to Franz’s. But the communists are not satisfied, so Franz sings a song of wartime camaraderie (here’s where a knowledge of German culture and history would really come in handy) and then The Watch on the Rhine. This infuriates the communists, one of whom menacingly approaches Franz and demands the Nazi armband he is sure is in Franz’s pocket. (I don’t know the character’s name so could not look up the actor.) Dreske refuses to intervene, suggesting that Franz has earned whatever punishment he gets.

Franz Biberkopf, as they say, loses his shit. He kicks the table over, grabs a chair and brandishes it like a crazed lion-tamer. He shouts. He sings. He flashes back to his jarring re-entry into the world just a few short days previously, when the sky and the buildings seemed about to crash in on his head. For a moment it looks like he is going to run completely, violently, amok and beat these men to a pulp and then . . . the moment passes and he is calm again. The communists, meanwhile, have all slunk silently back to their table across the room. Franz leaves, while Dreske comforts his comrades with Leninist platitudes.

These are very difficult scenes to describe, of course, because they require you to work through your natural revulsion at the sight of our protagonist wearing a swastika, on the one hand, and at the same time (in my case, anyway) disregard your natural sympathy for the communists. RWF (and presumably, Döblin) makes you abandon your  presumptions and look at the conditions that would drive a man like Biberkopf to the Nazis in the first place. In any case, Franz doesn’t seem to know what the party really stands for, doesn’t even appear to have read the paper he’s selling—just as he doesn’t use a tie holder or read magazines devoted to sexual education. It’s a job, and a job is what Franz desperately needs.

At the same time, Franz knows intimately that the society he has re-entered is broken, that a guy like him cannot live and work and expect to make ends meet under the current circumstances, although he desperately needs to. So maybe . . . The communists, he reminds Dreske, haven’t delivered on any of their promises, so maybe those other guys will. That’s as far as it goes with him, and it is probably as far as it went with a good many people in those fateful early days, right? All too happy to overlook the ideology for the promise of better times. (We hear this from our own low-information middle every election cycle: “You guys haven’t fixed anything so I’m voting for the other guys.” If they bother to vote at all, that is.)

This is probably a good time to mention Gunther Lamprecht’s performance as Biberkopf. I have had to remind myself several times now that this same actor played Maria’s mother’s good-natured boyfriend in The Marriage of Maria Braun—another under-employed working class character, but with none of the simple, sweet, pugnacious and paradoxical menace of Franz Biberkopf. Gunther Lamprecht is that good: I have to  remind myself that this persona is not the only one he’s equipped to play. (In some ways Lamprecht’s performance reminds me of James Gandolfini’s career-defining turn as Tony Soprano, but only superficially; what Lamprecht really captures is Biberkopf’s well-intentioned but dangerous ignorance, his sweet, sometimes child-like innocence which can turn to violence at the drop of a hat, not because he is steeped in a culture and tradition of violence à la the Sopranos, but because he just doesn’t know what else to do when the time comes, because he is a great big bear of a man who can beat a person to death with his bare hands. When push comes to shove, you use the gifts you’ve been given—especially when those gifts are pushing and shoving. It isn’t his fault. This is the beauty of Lamprecht’s performance: he makes you feel that Franz Biberkopf genuinely believes this.


Note: I found a used copy of the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz for $15 at Powell’s Books in Portland. (They have a great website. Next time you have to turn to Amazon, especially for anything out of print, try Powell’s first!) I’ll start reading tomorrow.

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Comments Off on Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part II: How Is One to Live If One Doesn’t Want to Die? (1980)