Written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; from the novel by Alfred Döblin; cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger; music by Peer Raben; costumes by Barbara Baum; edited by Juliane Lorenz and Fassbinder; produced by Peter Märthesheimer; with Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Karin Baal, Annemarie Düringer, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Helen Vita, Barbara Valentin, Brigitte Mira, Roger Fritz, Ivan Desny, Franz Buchrieser, Hark Bohm, Gerhard Zwerenz, Peter Kollek, and Volker Spengler. Seven-disc DVD set, color, 940 minutes, 1980. A Criterion Collection release, www.criterionco.com, distributed by Image Entertainment, www.image-entertainment.com.
Fassbinder on the set
For all the talk in recent years of the revitalization of television, and despite the great achievements of series such as The Sopranos and The Wire, which have indeed taken episodic TV to new heights, the fact remains that only very rarely have great film artists found the inspiration (or the opportunity) to explore the potential, and challenge the conventions, of the small screen. Even these recent shows, which have dramatically raised the bar for serious achievements on TV, represent advances in quality—in intelligence, relevance, and substance—rather than radical reconceptions of the possibilities of the form. It’s a sad testament that so few instances exist of true auteurs engaging with the medium. The rare cases that do exist—masterpieces of long-form, expansive visual narratives like Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love, Peter Watkins’s EdvardMunch, Godard’s unclassifiable documentary experiments, Six Times Two and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants, or even Jacques Rivette’s legendary, open-form Out 1 (planned for French TV, though never actually aired)—are tantalizing glimpses of an alternative history that has never been fully realized, of encounters that transform the medium into something infinitely richer than usual, while allowing the filmmakers to explore new dimensions of their art and vision.
Supreme among these achievements is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fourteen-part, fifteen-hour-plus Berlin Alexanderplatz, newly released by Criterion in a definitive, beautiful seven-disc set whose special features include a documentary by Juliane Lorenz and, best of all, a fascinating 1931 film adapted from the same source material. Fassbinder was of course an artist whose volcanic creative energy could not be contained within the confines of a single medium—the more than thirty-five films he directed in the fifteen-year period of unparalleled productivity preceding his death at the age of thirty-seven were only one component of an artistic career that encompassed two television series (the other was Eight Hours Do Not Make a Day), fourteen plays, four radio plays, numerous acting roles, and more. Fassbinder was clearly comfortable with a great variety of dramatic forms, and the miniseries provided an indispensable means for adapting Alfred Döblin’s dense and expansive 1929 novel, a landmark of modern German literature and a work that Fassbinder had long identified as having played a crucially important, formative role in his artistic (and even personal) development.
Berlin Alexanderplatz, both film and novel, concern the earthly journey of one Franz Biberkopf, a simple, hardheaded, but basically decent everyman struggling to stay afloat in the teeming, corrupt, and unforgiving metropolis that is 1920s Berlin. Opening with Franz’s discharge from Tegel penitentiary, where he has served a four-year sentence for manslaughter after unintentionally killing his lover in a drunken fight, BerlinAlexanderplatz portrays a universe guaranteed to make Franz nostalgic for the relative comfort and protection of prison (immediately upon his release a title forewarns, “The punishment begins”). Both novel and film narrate Franz’s attempts to survive, if possible with his integrity and dignity intact, in this profoundly compromised world, seemingly all of whose inhabitants, including Franz’s friends and lovers, are petty criminals, prostitutes, or worse. Franz himself is perhaps the closest thing to a virtuous figure; despite his background, he is an optimistic soul, with a disarming if misconceived faith in his fellow man, and he begins his new life sincerely determined to go straight. But over the course of the story, this faith is severely tested by a series of betrayals, a succession of traumas, which increasingly reflect a sinister fatefulness. The primary vehicle of Franz’s fate is Reinhold, the sickly, tormented, conscienceless figure who seems bent on destroying him, and the great mystery at the heart of Berlin Alexanderplatz is the connection Franz feels towards this embodiment of death, a (perhaps mutual) attraction that may be a symbol of the urge towards self-destruction, or may be (as Fassbinder has suggested in interviews) the sign of a love so inconceivable to them that neither Franz nor Reinhold know how to recognize or accept it.
Both Döblin’s novel and Fassbinder’s adaptation are paradoxical in several respects, first and foremost in their presentation of Franz’s story as utterly ordinary and yet freighted with great allegorical significance. In Döblin’s text, the story is essentially a framework supporting a remarkable literary edifice, a modernist collage of voice-of-God narration, inner monologs, fleeting impressions, literary and mythic quotations or invocations, tangential observations and stories, and fragments of newspaper headlines, song lyrics, advertisements, radio jingles, and innumerable other bits of urban detritus that justify the book as one of the greatest city novels ever written. Indeed, the texture of the novel is so dense and fragmented, so dominated by the sights, sounds, and other impressions of city life, that at times Franz’s story seems less like the core of the novel, the prism through which everything else is seen, than like an object bobbing to the surface of a great ocean of detail, of endless activity, constantly in danger of being submerged completely. Franz’s story is embedded in a fragmented, cacophonous portrait of a metropolis, with Döblin constantly reminding us that his protagonist is no more than one tiny element in a vast society. And yet simultaneously, Döblin elevates Franz to the status of mythic figure, his fate as preordained as any tragic hero’s, his story couched in the language of religious allegory. The persistent foreshadowing, the perpetual presence of symbols of death or evil, ultimately even the appearance of two angels who oversee Franz’s progress through life—all these elements make of Franz’s story something momentous and monumental, even as he is portrayed as a creature of no great intelligence or ability.
Günter Lamprecht as the lumpen Franz Biberkopf
Fassbinder’s adaptation is consummately faithful to Döblin’s novel in most respects. But the collagelike nature of the text, the status of the city as almost a protagonist in its own right, is present here only in a greatly transfigured form. Fassbinder does integrate Döblin’s collage technique after a fashion—the film is remarkable for its own multiple layers of address, including spoken narration (which variously express Franz’s thoughts, comment on his story, or convey the news reports or statistics that appear so frequently in the novel), on-screen texts, and, most remarkably, a brilliant and aggressive use of music. But the focus is always on Franz, the multiple layers all commenting on or at least intimately intertwined with his story. In an adaptation that takes few overt liberties with the text, one of Fassbinder’s most striking contributions is his repetition of the flashback portraying Franz’s murder of his lover, which becomes a sort of motif, reappearing several times, always unexpectedly but to devastating effect. Each time this scene recurs, the soundtrack is dominated by the narrator who recounts one of the plethora of random narratives, newspaper reports, or anecdotes that suffuse Döblin’s text, creating a counterpoint between image and sound, between the tragic, violent scene (which of course represents a profound turning point in Franz’s life) and the dispassionate, apparently unrelated narration in the aural foreground. Though the elements all belong to the novel, Fassbinder orchestrates them to highly distinctive ends, incorporating Döblin’s diverse fragments, but reorienting them back towards Franz.
Barbara Sukowa as the prostitute Mieze, whom Franz idealizes
The paradox of Fassbinder’s adaptation then is that, given the expanded scope television makes available to him, he chooses not to mimic the impression the novel gives of portraying a whole city at once, but instead to narrow the focus, zeroing in on Franz’s story and limiting himself to a handful of locations. This counterintuitive approach is evident even visually—confronted with the circumscribed, boxed-in visual field of the TV screen, Fassbinder responds by filling nearly every frame with objects and obstructions, by shooting, often from extreme angles, through screens and windows, allowing tables and walls to block out great chunks of the composition. He makes of the small screen a series of frames within frames, a visual density that stands in, perhaps, for the linguistic density of the novel, while certainly mirroring Franz’s oppression and entrapment—crushed by fate, caught in an existential vise.
What Fassbinder does take from the miniseries format is the freedom to reproduce the novel’s unusual structure—instead of proceeding in straightforward fashion, the book follows Franz through several periods in his life, each featuring its own short-lived relationship and culminating in a moment of crisis, which threatens to lay him low. Franz proceeds along his path in fits and starts, his story the pretext for an ambitious attempt to portray the human condition by means of one very ordinary man’s life. The effect of Döblin’s structure is to deemphasize the novel’s plot, calling attention instead to Franz’s struggle, perpetual and repetitive, to progress through life without being destroyed, to gain a measure of wisdom without succumbing to defeat. His is not a linear story, but a series of tests, of betrayals—more important than what specifically happens to him is this sense of an ongoing, never-ending battle. Over the course of fifteen hours, Fassbinder is able to emphasize this journey, the cycle of defeat, renewal, and defeat. And the episodic format allows him to give equal weight to each station in Franz’s journey, to give each chapter its own shape, style, and tone.
Fassbinder takes advantage of the format in another way as well, experimenting with a mode of storytelling that owes much more to a literary than a cinematic conception of duration, that approaches the freedom enjoyed by literature to step inside a moment and explore it without regard to clock time. Of course Fassbinder, with his roots in an experimental, Brechtian-influenced theater practice, had from the beginning rejected a naturalistic approach to filmmaking. And Berlin Alexanderplatz, like all his films, is theatrical and stylized, if more subtly so than usual. But there’s something more than theatricality here—or perhaps his mastery of a Brechtian, distancing, ostensibly artificial idiom allows him to achieve something related but distinct. In any case, throughout Berlin Alexanderplatz, there are moments in which the cinematic, the theatrical, and the literary fuse into one, in which Fassbinder is able, without breaking his spell, to freeze time as the characters experience it and explore their reality in a way generally considered available only to literature, letting a single moment expand to fill several paragraphs or pages, or many feet of film. At its most extreme this entails an extreme theatricality in which the action comes to a halt as the film carries on—when Franz and Eva becomes convinced, for instance, that the thug Bruno is planning to shoot them, Fassbinder prolongs the moment far longer than is realistically plausible. But throughout the film it’s clear that Fassbinder is using the scope that the miniseries provides to dig deeper than he otherwise could into his characters’ states of mind, into their existential condition.
Franz in a mental hospital
Complex as Berlin Alexanderplatz may sound, with its multiple levels of address, its theatricality, and its manipulation of time, it is ultimately one of Fassbinder’s most direct, emotionally transparent films, disarmingly free of irony or affect; even the epilogue, in which Fassbinder departs from the style and mode of the rest of the film to create an experimental, surreal, phantasmagoric meditation on the themes and motifs of the past thirteen hours, is actually a fairly faithful attempt to dramatize the novel’s final, virtually unadaptable couple chapters, with almost every element, even the most outlandish, coming from the text. Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great literary meditations on the human condition; but the film’s success is not simply a function of the greatness of the source material. Fassbinder’s adaptation is far more than an ordinary filmic tribute to an admired work of art. The importance of the novel to his life—he has claimed that had he never read it, “my life would have turned out differently… in many, perhaps more crucial respects that I can even say at this point… from the way it turned out with Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz embedded in my mind, my flesh, my body as a whole, and my soul”—renders the film a perfect fusion between one great artist’s vision and another’s. It is more than simply an adaptation, it is an expression of a profound artistic confluence, and a shared world view, one suffused with despair and pessimism, but also with a great depth of feeling and sense of mystery.
Jared Rapfogel, a Cineaste Associate, is a New York-based film critic.
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