By Jeremy Carr.
Newly released from Tegal Prison, Franz Biberkopf cautiously looks over a custodial stretch of land just inside the wall that separates the penitentiary from the city streets. He walks a bit, hesitantly but with a slight smile. The camera is close on Franz, tracking this emphatically prolonged discharge. Finally free, he is traumatized by the sights and sounds of Berlin’s urban fury, the unexpected intensity causing him to hold his hands to his ears in painful agitation. The first chapter title of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) appears on screen: “The Punishment Begins.”
It’s ironic, of course, as having spent four years incarcerated for manslaughter, this should be the end of the sentence for troubled Franz. And yet, the hard times locked up have scarcely prepared this large, lumbering man for what awaits him on the other side of his confinement. Franz is a cumbersome figure, played with instantly elicited empathy by Günter Lamprecht. Grasping his head during this preliminary bombardment, or grimacing and groaning on the floor in a scene soon thereafter, he is, throughout the ensuing 15 hours or so, boisterous and unsteady, emanating an anxious stream of bewilderment and conflict. In a persistent push-pull of emotional energy, his distressed howls run counter to his unnerving calm, the oscillation wearing away at his composure and psychological fortitude, and often afflicting those around him in the process. Franz has been beaten down by his past and the present doesn’t get much better – “Don’t look back,” advises one of the prison guards, a word of caution that would seemingly suggest otherwise. But no, it’s tough outside, too. The people are tough. And it’s hard to keep on the straight and narrow. There is a chance for redemption and ample opportunity to prosper; renewal is there for the taking. But still, that ominous opening title keeps coming back. This is just the beginning.
Taking place in 1928 Berlin, during the period of Germany’s unruly and unstable Weimar Republic, the 14-part Berlin Alexanderplatz is, first and foremost, a mesmerizing period piece. Its emphasis on historical context is evident in a breadth of antique detail and in each chapter’s opening credits, which feature the ubiquitously modern symbol of a locomotive alongside assorted photographic documentation of the time. Fassbinder’s film, his thirty-fifth in just over a decade (counting television movies, like this one), delivers an absorptive, authentic ambiance, enriching his vision of a bawdy, seedy, and swinging city, one that boasts an effusive nightlife with flourishing arenas of entertainment, recreation, and prostitution. But there is, like much else in the film, a complex contradiction to this sordid state. There emerges from the backdrop an anomalous solace for someone like Franz, a familiarity bolstered by the amount of time Fassbinder and Franz spend in each of the film’s primary locations – after every dramatic, usually tragic incident, Franz’s retreat within this unsavory milieu feels like coming home. Yet there is also something restrictive about the setting, a relentless social impediment to Franz’s individual advancement. The scenic framework is an expressive visual device, reflecting and manipulating each character’s better angels and demons, and a reminder of what stacks against those susceptible to the region’s illicit red-light ways. While Franz is “crushed” by the overpowering environment of 1920s Berlin, as noted by the narrator of Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary, Notes on the Making of “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” one of several supplements included on the Criterion Collection’s comprehensive release of the film, this vivid, raucous city symphony is also undeniably engaging.
In the words of critic Wolfram Schütte, interviewed in Hartl’s documentary, the Bavaria Studios rendering of this particular metropolis “evokes a city that exists only in the behavior and psyche of the characters, and which is held together by Fassbinder’s running commentary.” But who exactly resides in this city, who fosters its constitution? As keenly observed by Franz himself, “The strangest thing in the world is people,” and he would surely know. Rarely alone in this disorderly locale, Franz encounters a varied congregation of characters, most of whom are defined by an eccentric temperament with kindness and cruelty doled out in almost equal measure (though the era’s indulgences and moral slant have perhaps titled more toward the latter). Among those within Franz’s immediate, enduring orbit, it is Eva who first impresses. Played by Fassbinder favorite Hanna Schygulla, emitting her typically distinctive radiance, Eva had been under the supervision of Franz during his earlier pimping days, but now she is largely preoccupied with her lover, Herbert (Roger Fritz). She remains enamored with Franz, however, and is one of the few constants in his life. Another is his kindly landlady, Frau Bast (Brigitte Mira), who has seen Franz during the worst of times, witnessing the homicide that landed him in prison to begin with. These two exemplify the compassion, forgiveness, and the loyalty that distinguish the best of what Berlin Alexanderplatz has to offer.
Franz also has the friendship of Max (Claus Holm), a worried bartender who recognizes the dangers that tempt his ardent patron, and he has the unyielding devotion of Emilie, or “Mieze,” as he christens her because he like the name. In this critical role, Barbara Sukowa, a relative newcomer, gives an exceptional performance. Based partly on Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina, the charming, childlike innocent of Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), her Mieze is prone to pathetic, tragic subservience, cheerfully professing her love for Franz even after he has bloodied her face in a fit of rage. Her response encapsulates the film’s ethical haze when it comes to its bedeviled protagonist. “I know nothing about Franz,’ she says, “but I love him.” In any event, her guilelessness yields the strength to endure, to endure, like Franz, one obstacle after another. Characters like Eva, Frau Bast, and Mieze possess a genuine affection, felt at the instant of Fassbinder’s initial presentation. On the other hand, though, there are directly portentous figures like Reinhold (Gottfried John), whose dubious intentions are assumed before he ever says or does anything. Such instantaneous identification is a testament to Fassbinder’s directorial guidance (the response deriving from camera placement, musical accompaniment, and the tone of each character’s introduction) and to each actor’s persuasive expression. And it’s to the benefit of all, then, that Berlin Alexanderplatz affords time enough to explore these characters further, in depth, beyond this superficial, however accurate, impression, and to observe the evolving idiosyncrasies of their capricious relationships.
This includes not only the parading flock of women who surround Franz (he is a perhaps surprisingly prolific ladies’ man), but also the band of scheming associates who predictably make his acquaintance. In Berlin Alexanderplatz’s multifaceted register of what motivates men and women alike, their needs and wants, Franz is at the mercy of it all. He is manipulated and abused by Reinhold, betrayed by his old friend Meck (Franz Buchrieser), and his romantic entanglements are more often than not physically and psychologically detrimental. Accordingly, and quite successfully, Lamprecht carries the weight of Berlin Alexanderplatz’s thematic and emotional resonance. His embodiment of Franz hinges on a peculiar charm, a way of being aggressive and unknowing at the same time. He is at once strangely giddy and unexpectedly thoughtful, relaying his dreams and observations with a pure, ingenuous sense of truth. But Franz is easily swayed by the personalities around him, notably the gangsters who lead him back down the darkened path of crime. In a subsequent incident, one of the film’s half-dozen or so defining moments, Franz is shoved from a getaway car and his arm is run over by another vehicle following behind. The devastating turn of events (his arm is amputated) then leads to a period of debilitating despair, as Franz regards himself as nothing more than a useless cripple. Though he could rat on his thieving “pals” with more than enough justification, he chooses to rejoin the gang and jumps in to do what he can with one arm, to be useful in some way, to be needed, to belong. Later stating the belief that one is better dead than disloyal (for death is out of one’s hands), Franz’s commitment to even those who have wronged him is as baffling as it is admirable, another of Berlin Alexanderplatz’s more demanding ambiguities.
This is likely a result of Franz’s own self-reflection: “Are we nothing anymore,” he wonders, “just because we did something once?” To that end, while Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t always a pretty picture of humanity, presenting the ambivalent, dissolute, and forbidden “fringes of society,” as Schygulla remarks, there remains the tantalizing promise of deliverance. Franz temporarily assumes occupations on the right side of the law, peddling tie holders on the sidewalk and selling shoelaces door to door, and for a time, the film settles into an earnest depiction of working-class mediocrity, with the ups and downs of day-to-day behavior, the domestic conventions, and the meals and drinks in various social situations. But it doesn’t take. Franz appears skeptical of this deceptive well-being (as does Berlin Alexanderplatz generally), and he begrudgingly concedes the hazards and barriers that inevitably arise; literally so, as lawful restrictions are placed on his residency and his movements. When Franz and Mieze travel to Friedewald, their excursion to the countryside suggests an escape and a reprieve; the lakes and forests and open blue skies stand in marked contrast to the grim cityscape of Berlin. But it, too, is not to be, for such easy contentment would defy the film’s erratic fits of rage, its demonstrative starts and stops, and Franz’s corresponding bouts of boozy self-destruction, primal frenzy, and sorrowful seclusion. It’s little wonder he looks back on his time in prison with a degree of fondness, recognizing the institution as a sanctuary, a place of security and predictability. Conversely, his increasingly shambolic apartment begins to mirror his own internal disorder and his confused descent. But even more concerning are the flashbacks to the fateful, fatal fight with his former companion, Ida (Barbara Valentin). These painfully protracted glimpses provoke a recurring remembrance of what once was and what could still be. On the surface, Franz is something of a gentle giant, sharing his concern for Max’s barroom finch, for example, and its exposure to all the cigarette smoke, but we must never forget his terrifying potential – Fassbinder won’t let us. Knowing what Franz is capable of when quarrelling generates considerable tension when a similar situation arises, and athough there is “no cause for despair,” according to Berlin Alexanderplatz’s narrator at the end of chapter six (the narration voiced by Fassbinder himself), these words ring hollow, not unlike that inauspicious first title. Indeed, by the end of the film, when an ill-omened timestamp randomly appears on screen, the evocation is that something is bound to happen. It has to. This is the nihilistic certainty of Berlin Alexanderplatz, this incessant trauma with no sign that it could be any different.
Franz’s story is but one of many similar cases, where temptation and struggle mingle to form one’s volatile life experience, and part of this cultural contention concerns Berlin Alexanderplatz’s somewhat understated political tender. Fassbinder, when making the film, acknowledged the parallel politics of the associated times – the tumult of the late 1970s and the upheaval of the late 1920s – but for all that could have been, he presents such material mostly in passing, like a casual fact of life or an incidental afterthought. The gravity of the film’s political content is subtle and even subsidiary, just as it is for Franz. There are conversational nods to capitalism and socialism, to Nazism and Communism, and a poster of Hitler, plastered on a wall, conjures the emerging face of a threatening nationalism. But that’s for the viewer. In the film proper, this type of fleeting illustration exists on the periphery of the central narrative. In fact, it is through Franz that Fassbinder shows just how easily, even unwittingly, one gets swept up in the partisan clamor and empowering rhetoric. Notwithstanding the potent connotations of his swastika arm band, which he reluctantly wears while hawking a Nazi newspaper, it’s hard to say if Franz actually buys into the ideology. It’s possible he sees it simply as a job, working in blissful ignorance (though he does recite some of the party’s elementary platitudes). In this case, Franz represents an average citizen’s susceptibility to the philosophical application of such dogmatic grandiloquence, especially one who is lost and looking for a spiritual-social safety net. Franz becomes the implicit vessel for a culture’s communal impasse. Like the most memorable of Fassbinder’s protagonists, he is a representative focus for much broader subject matter. His is a naïve, halfhearted activism if it is anything, but it’s enough to summon, as it did for Berlin Alexanderplatz’s original audiences, a resounding political tension and the perception of related social anxiety. In the words of fellow German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, writing in a 2007 article for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, translated and included for Criterion, “The pain caused by the film somehow went deeper, and with each further episode, broadcast one week after the other, it seemed like a dirty thorn was boring itself deeper and deeper into the wound of this republic, a country that wasn’t very comfortable in its own skin anyway and, accordingly, was soon thereafter to fall into a cultural and political stupor.”
Fassbinder had been captivated by Alfred Döblin’s 1929 source novel since he was a teen. It is a major modern work in just about everyone’s estimation, including Peter Jelavich, author of “‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture,” who discusses the text for Criterion. So, when Fassbinder finally had the chance to realize his conception of the famous tome, the resulting product was a befitting 931-minute mini-series, premiering in late 1980 on the state-funded channel Westdeutscher Rundfunk. Not everyone shared the director’s enthusiasm, however, or at least they couldn’t relate to his version of the story. Berlin Alexanderplatz disappointed critics and disinterested viewers. There were, to begin with, complaints about the murky imagery. Shot on 16mm by Xaver Schwarzenberger, the film looked fine when given a later, 35mm theatrical exhibition, but it was apparently rather shoddy when seen on the era’s television sets. Presented on this Criterion disc in a new digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and Bavaria Media, supervised and approved by Schwarzenberger, this is likely the best the film has ever looked (though the restoration itself has been the subject of considerable controversy, some of which is covered in a print interview included with the Criterion set).
As unique as it is problematic, the imagery of Berlin Alexanderplatz is indeed conspicuous. The picture is coated with a gauzy sheen, a desaturated, depleted opacity, with soft, unrefined blurs punctuated by an occasional glint taken from an individual’s eye or a piece of metal. Flashing, nearly-neon lights pulsate into Franz’s darkened room, adding subdued bursts of color in a film mainly tinted by a hearty, pungent lager yellow. Sometimes, as he was wont to do, Fassbinder shoots through a piece of glass, fabric, or a mirror. Other times, the view is obstructed by a block of furniture. The camera is placed high and low; it is mobile, with restless zooms, circular tracks, and abrupt tilts; and it is static, kept at a distance, pitiless and revelatory. Frequently in sync with Peer Raben’s score, the film will occasionally reach a point of heightened theatricality, like when a sinister storm hits right on cue or when exaggerated gestures and passions overwhelm all involved. But nothing anticipates the conclusion of the film, a surreal fantasy sequence lasting nearly two hours. Abounding with religious iconography and modest special effects, this dream tableaux features angels and fire and death, disco balls, flagellation, sex and violence, and the sensations of exhaustion and madness in one grand, delirious summation of not only Berlin Alexanderplatz, but of every good Fassbinder film before and following.
Epic by virtue of its length alone, Berlin Alexanderplatz can be an unwieldy piece of work, which was also a complaint upon its initial airing. The entire film invokes words used to describe one of Franz’s lady friends, after she attacks an argumentative vendor: “unkempt but delightful.” With rambling musings and pauses for on-screen passages from Döblin’s book, the film taxes a typical attention span. It is episodic with no evident, long-term trajectory. It is both naturalistic and expressionistic, encased in a “collage” narrative with endless digressions and multiple scenes of ostensible irrelevance: Franz has a comic conversation with three glasses of beer and shot of kummel – he is nuts, according to one waitress, but “no more than anyone else” according to another. Fassbinder’s narration directly addresses the characters, guides their inner thoughts, and reveals the indirect complexity of their thought processes, and his treatment of sex and violence is an entwined collusion of raw, uninhibited, clinical confusion.
Döblin’s book had been adapted for the screen before, by Phil Jutzi in 1931. This was a less overwhelming, 90-minute version of the novel, cowritten by Döblin himself and also included with the Criterion package. Fassbinder considered it “quite a good film.” His version, however, is something special. It was the “central work in his life,” according to Schygulla, who never saw the completed series but insists the director was like Franz, Mieze, and Reinhold all in one. Despite, or perhaps because of the film’s immense logistical challenges, from the research to the production design, Fassbinder himself gave the impression that Berlin Alexanderplatz would be his masterpiece. It was certainly an ambitious undertaking for the then 35-year-old filmmaker (who would tragically pass away just two years later), and the scope wasn’t lost on members of the film’s cast and crew either. In a phrase aptly describing how one still feels while watching this sweeping filmic opus, Lamprecht recalls reading the series’ fourteen scripts in one week’s time. It was a grueling process, he says, leaving him “exhausted but elated.”
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.