Monday, February 2, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980
Starring: Günter Lamprecht, Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Gottfried John

Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, where he served time after killing his girlfriend. He’s sent back into 1930s Berlin without many hopeful prospects. He meets up with an old friend, Meck, at a local bar and takes his old apartment. Women come in and out of his life and he takes a series of odd jobs: selling neckties, Nazi newspapers, and shoelaces. He has trouble adjusting to life outside of prison and has breakdowns and alcoholic binges. His old girlfriend, Eva, who he used to pimp out, has great affection for him and tries to support him financially and emotionally. She introduces him to Mieze, a young woman who becomes the love of his life, but their happiness is troubled by Reinhold, a local criminal who deeply fascinates Franz.

Fassbinder’s triumph, possibly the greatest masterpiece of a prolific and intense career, is this 14-part made-for-television miniseries. Based on Alfred D
blin’s novel of the same name, Fassbinder long obsessed over the book and considered it one of his favorite works. Its influence can be felt throughout his career and his life; for instance, he regularly used Franz (and even Franz Biberkopf) as a reoccurring character name in his films. His adaptation is relatively faithful and, clocking in at over 15 hours, lengthy. With the exceptions of the first episode at 82 minutes and the last at 112 minutes, the episodes are each 58 or 59 minutes long. The incredibly poetic titles are as follows:
1. "The Punishment Begins"
2. "How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?"
3. "A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul"
4. "A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence"
5. "A Reaper with the Power of Our Lord"
6. "Love Has Its Price"
7. "Remember — An Oath can be Amputated"
8. "The Sun Warms the Skin, but Burns it Sometimes Too"
9. "About the Eternities Between the Many and the Few"
10. "Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls"
11. "Knowledge is Power and the Early Bird Catches the Worm"
12. "The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent"
13. "The Outside and the Inside and the Secret of Fear of the Secret"
14. "My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue"

The suggestion of the first episode title, “The Punishment Begins,” is that Franz’s real suffering is not to be found in prison, but in daily life. This is a theme expressed in every single one of Fassbinder’s films – that life is painful, hostile, and isolating, particularly bourgeois life.  Franz’s attempts to lead an honest life and leave behind prostituting his girlfriends, theft, and criminality, are met with constant setbacks. For example, the only consistent, well-paying job he is able to find is selling a Nazi newspaper. Even though he doesn’t share their beliefs, he is forced to wear a swastika armband. He is soon ostracized by some of his Jewish and communist friends and eventually quits. The specifics of Berlin Alexanderplatz’s plot is far less important than this attempted journey towards expiation and goodness, which is constantly met with resistance, failure, and hostility.

Franz essentially becomes a spiritual figure and his tale a religious allegory. He is bound up between two figures: the angelic, innocent Mieze and the dark, diabolical Reinhold. In many ways, Reinhold is the film second key character. He represents a sense of impossible, destructive passion that marks many of Fassbinder’s films, including Despair, Fox and His Friends, In a Year with 13 Moons, Martha, Veronika Voss, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and so on. Fassbinder’s protagonists, particularly his male protagonists, have a magnetic attraction for another man. While Fassbinder was bisexual, his relationships with men were most often dramatic at best, destructive at worst. Franz and Reinhold inexplicably love one another, but enact this love by sharing women. Reinhold has a deep-seated need not to be alone, but tires of women quickly. Until Mieze arrives on the scene, he gives them to Franz. This love-by-proxy has a violent underbelly and results in Reinhold murdering Mieze when she refuses to become part of the exchange.

Mieze, played by the angelic yet imperfect Barbara Sukowa, is at once erotic and childlike with her bobbed hair and childlike dresses. She screams, squeals, and giggles, and she and Franz routinely play childlike games as foreplay. She represents the innocence of love, rather than the violence of sex, and the comfort and contentment of home. The transformation of Franz’s flat occurs when she enters his life. What was a semi-clean place of dirty dishes and hanging laundry becomes a place of music (through the bird chirping), flowers, sunlight, and laughter. Fassbinder previously used a caged bird motif in earlier films in a negative light, such as Bolwieser, but here it is a sound of gentleness and hope.

With or without Mieze, Franz’s apartment is a place of depressing repetition. Franz moves between eating, sleeping, and having sex. There are episodes where he leaves the apartment to look for work, but he is primarily found at either the apartment or the local bar. Mieze and the other women are not generally shown eating or drinking, but move between cleaning for Franz and having sex, a similar if gendered routine. As Franz can only hope to return to a life of crime, the women in his life suffer similar fates: Eva, the most solid, dependable female character (and also the most beautiful) is a successful prostitute. Mieze takes up this profession to support Franz when he loses an arm.

The loss of his arm – and ultimately the loss of Mieze – is a sacrifice of, again, religious proportions. Reinhold, Franz’s devil and his Judas, convinces him to take part in a job for his gang. But during the operation, Reinhold becomes overwhelmingly paranoid and is convinced that Franz has informed on him. He pushed him out of the back of a van, causing him to be run over by another car and lose his arm. This loss of limb, during which Franz nearly dies and is believed dead by all his friends, is his final transformation. A normative, bourgeois life is no longer possible thanks to his disability.

This loss of flesh, which soon includes the murder of Mieze at the hands of Reinhold and the loss of Reinhold thanks to his prison sentence, results in Franz’s ultimate descent into the hell of his internal world. In what is perhaps Fassbinder’s finest work, the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz deviates the most from the novel, but is a work of pure genius that blends of existentialist angst, absurdist humor, surrealism, and expressionism. While there are some of these elements throughout the series, particularly in Fassbinder’s frequent voice overs, where he reads sections of the novel in quiet monotone, the epilogue is an Inferno-like descent into the subconscious of Franz – and 1930s Germany. Much of it takes place in Franz’s dream world, where his car accident and crimes are acted out over and over again, mixed with charnel house scenes that blend into orgy. It’s also easy to compare the pile of naked, sometimes bloodied limbs with Holocaust photography. This is also the culmination of the novel’s religious themes, as Franz is eventually crucified and accompanied by angels that look like they stepped out of a Derek Jarman film. The baby Jesus, of course, wears a vivid swastika armband.

What Berlin Alexanderplatz perhaps does most elegantly is to chart the movement from freedom to totalitarianism experienced by the Germans of the 1930s – and by Döblin himself. He was forced to flee Germany when the Nazis burned his books in 1933, which led him on a decade-long nomadic lifestyle, as he traversed Europe, England, and America trying to find employment as a writer. He eventually returned to Germany, where he died in a sanatorium. Both his masterwork and Fassbinder’s adaptation of explores the degeneration and disintegration of society, one that Döblin personally experienced and Fassbinder also felt he was living through in postwar Germany.

Berlin Alexanderplatz comes with the highest possible recommendation. It’s available in a wonderful, restored DVD set from Criterion and, as I’ve said, is likely Fassbinder’s greatest achievement. While I would also place Veronika Voss, Fox and His Friends, and In a Year With 13 Moons in this category, Berlin Alexanderplatz represents the literal best of his achievements. It has the greatest performance from his entire catalog and certain one of the best in all of German cinema: that of  Günter Lamprecht as an absolutely perfect Franz Biberkopf. It also includes almost all of Fassbinder’s major performers: actresses Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, Brigitte Mira, Lilo Pempeit, and actors Günther Kaufmann, Gottfried John, Volker Spengler, and Harry Baer, among others. The soundtrack – ranging from classical to pop and electronica – is his best, as is the set design, and so on. Much has already been written about this towering achievement of ‘70s cinema, but you should just experience it for yourself.

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