Judge Bill Gibron cannot deny it—flaws and all, this Fassbinder epic is indeed one of cinema's greatest statements.
Human Happenstance on the Largest of Artistic Scales
Certain films earn their reputation the old-fashioned way—via constant revisits and a never-ending stream of critical consensus. While some efforts become classics overnight, others require years of scrutiny and scholarship; even then, some shift under the weight of time, both pro and con. There are those, however, that gain their status on the most ethereal of grounds. Few have seen them, even less understand their ambitions, and yet they become the things of legend. Take Rainer Werner Fassbinder's monumental TV movie Berlin Alexanderplatz. Originally broadcast in 1980 to generally good notices in his native land, a theatrical run crossed art houses around Europe and the United States. Yet except for a couple of showings on PBS and on local Los Angeles cable network The Z Channel, the German legend's 15½-hour experiment is one few have had the chance to experience. Oddly enough, it's still considered a significant cinematic statement—and in some arenas, an outright masterpiece. The question, of course, is how can that be? Without a larger pool of opinions, could it merely be a case of a few flattering notices setting the standards for the discussion? Now, thanks to the astounding efforts of those classicists at Criterion, we have a chance to judge for ourselves. You know what? The consensus is not only fair, it may be too weak in its appreciation of this exceptional work.
Facts of the Case
After spending four years in prison for killing his girlfriend, Franz Biberkopf is finally being released back into society. Sadly, the lumbering man-child is not ready to return. Shocked by what he sees, he immediately finds himself lost. Luckily, some old cohorts take him under their wing. Soon he has met a new gal named Lina, and they live together as Biberkopf looks for work. After failing at selling tie clips, he is taken in by the rising National Socialists and, before long, is hawking Nazi propaganda on the streets. His Communist friends are none too happy about this development. After meeting up with local crime boss Puns and his associate Reinhold, Biberkopf begins an on-again, off-again association with the thugs. They want him to help with a job. The botched robbery costs our hero much more than he bargained for. Between taking ex-girlfriends off Reinhold's hands and trying to commit to the sweet and naïve new love in his life, Mieze, Biberkopf feels entwined by corrupting forces. He wanted to stay honest once he left jail, but it's tough in the Alexanderplatz section of Berlin. The post-war society is crumbling, and it appears that nothing will bring it back. Biberkopf and everyone around him are doomed.
For those who are curious, the individual chapters are subtitled as
Movies don't get much more epic than Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, and we're not just talking from a pragmatic standpoint. What began as a standard made-for-TV miniseries (told in 12 specific "chapters and one final, contradictory coda) sprawls out of the small screen and into cinematic history as one of the greatest artistic statements the medium has to offer. Like the novel on which it was based, the extensive sweeping narrative is told in a myriad of styles, and honestly reflects Fassbinder's lifelong fascination with the source material. Some have even suggested that parts of the book can be seen in almost every movie the director ever created. Themes of young men overcoming social and interpersonal obstacles, failing in love and other human relationships, and watching those desires die out in criminal activity and psychotic streaks of ill-advised behavior have all been part of Fassbinder's subtext. There are even characters named after the book's hero in the director's work. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, he no longer has to hide them. Instead, he can obsess over and revel in them, perhaps explaining the film's length, and its desire to focus on every facet of the Alfred Döblin tome.
As with most films made in Germany since the war, Berlin Alexanderplatz is mainly an allegory on the fall of society and the rise of Nazism. In the main character Franz Biberkopf, we see the corrosion of conformity, the lure of potential power, the need for anger-modifying tenderness, and the corruption that derives from all of them. We also gain insight into the social structure that led to such an easy rise in flagrant fascism. Many artists have used said inexplicable nationalism as the patsy-paved byproduct it really was, and Fassbinder is not beyond making his hero out to be an instrument of wrong. He was in jail for accidentally killing his girlfriend (it's a flashback we go back to over and over again), and is often a dupe for those hoping to work the illegal side of things. So it's clear that, at least in this German's mind, Hitler founded his Reich on the backs of the stupid and the easily influenced. Similar to other efforts in his oeuvre, Fassbinder is dealing with the dregs of a community, the marginalized people on the outside of normalcy looking to create a tether to reality in ways that suggest they don't know where to start. In his mind, only evil of the most structured and political provides the lifeline.
This is also an intensely claustrophobic film. Fassbinder's scope created financial issues for the production and, in the end, much of the movie had to be filmed indoors on studio-created sets. Lighting was kept low, with a noir-like obsession on shadows keeping everything rightly in the realm of fiction. Some have suggested that real streets, actual locations, and natural lighting would have placed the characters in a clearer perspective. Such an authenticating approach would destroy everything that Fassbinder was aiming for. And they may have a point. As with most epics or exaggerated narratives, a dose of realism can be deadly. In the case of Berlin Alexanderplatz, it means the movie might not exist at all. This is not a history lesson per se. Fassbinder wasn't out to retell every element of Doblin's book fairly and honestly. Instead, he hopes to take the simple storyline, craft it onto this own outsized aesthetic, and build something that's a sum greater than its many, vignette-like parts. There are those that suggest that the film doesn't hold together as an example of cinema and remains bound to its episodic small-screen ends.
But they would be missing the main point here. Berlin Alexanderplatz is not really interested in length—it's interested in how said running time is used. It's like the difference between plot and narrative. Plot is what happens in a story. Narrative is how it happens. In this regard, Fassbinder is clearly more concerned with the latter. For all intents and purposes, he wants to focus on Biberkopf's descent into metaphysical madness, to watch his hopes die, his principles perish, and his passions consume him. It's a character study and large-canvas creation. Plot might get in the way of working in all these psychological sidesteps. Understanding this, you can see why Fassbinder made the movie so long. It's meant as more of a meditation than a standard motion picture. Yet many of the director's Hollywood homage quirks (he was obsessed with Douglas Sirk) are present and accounted for. Melodramatics are par for the course here, actor's imbuing their characters with histrionics that surpass even the most stagy silent-era effort. There's also a lushness in the look, a callback to classic Tinseltown filtered through a devotee's determined acumen.
By combining approaches—the movie is at times stark and gritty, while at other instances it feels luxuriant and dreamlike—and tapping directly into his own tortured psyche, Fassbinder made more than his version of a favored novel. He made his autobiography via a metaphoric manipulation of another's ideas. In Biberkopf we see many of the director's own fascinations. In the setting and the surrounding supporting players, we see the various influences (good and bad) that came to underline Fassbinder's entire life (he died two years after this film from a drug overdose at age 37). Granted, it's hard to find a parallel for the life-altering events that occur halfway through, and the director's homosexuality is still repressed in many of the movie's more entendre-laced scenes—especially when Biberkopf meets main villain Reinhold. Yet as an invocation of what inspired him as well as an evocation of his influence on Germany and its art as a whole, Berlin Alexanderplatz soars. It can be considered self-serving and indulgent only because that's exactly what Fassbinder was.
Still, for many, the main problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz is its tacked-on two-hour epilogue. As Fassbinder's greatest extravagance, he uses the added time to re-imagine the movie as a series of his own veiled fantasies. He recreates individual scenes, seeming to suggest that the artifice, not the art, is what's important within the film. He offers oddball musical choices (Lou Reed? Krafwerk?) for a supposed period piece, and his numerous broad-sided explorations are more avant-garde than authentic. There are sequences that suggest madness and a journey through Hell. Characters are butchered like cattle. Our amiable antihero walks through it all like an observer to his own destiny. All of it stands as Fassbinder's reflection on the themes and subtext he's explored over 13 staggering hours. It also reminds us that this is the kind of film to get lost in, to relish over hours of discussion and numerous reruns or revisits. It's important to remember its televised nature. It was meant to be measured out in stages, each one having its import and impact before moving onto the next. Many who saw it originally probably never experienced it the way current audiences do. Only in an age where entire seasons of a broadcast series can be digested in a single sitting does an experiment like Berlin Alexanderplatz resonate as a stand-alone entity.
In the end, this is a fascinating, flawed masterwork. Fassbinder's work confirms his status as an auteur and his marginalization as a maudlin, manipulative underachiever. From its Biblical tendencies (Biberkopf is frequently described as a Teutonic Job) to the moments of mind-bending ennui, from its tragic overtones and darkly comic underpinnings, from the beauty of its cinematic statements to the ugliness of the characters and the events that connect their lives, Berlin Alexanderplatz is far from perfect. But it's also much more than just an elephantine piece of personal self-indulgence. It pulsates with a power that only comes from creative thrust. It stupefies with its excesses and challenges with its intricacies. It operates on levels that require multiple viewings to understand, and yet it plays like a standard cautionary tale—albeit a massive, mesmerizing example of same. From its sensational acting to baffling conclusion, it marks a true test of any post-modern scholar. Like David Lynch manufacturing a version of James Joyce's Ulysses (the novels are often compared) this is the reason movies are magic—not so much for what they actually do, but for suggesting what the medium is capable of. Absorb it all at once or watch it piece by piece, but there's no denying the power in what Fassbinder has done here. Too bad he died so young. The potential present in Berlin Alexanderplatz speaks to a loss unlike many in the language of film.
Shot on 16mm and long unavailable in a decent home-video version, Berlin Alexanderplatz gets a Criterion edition so sumptuous and exciting that it stands as one of the company's greatest creations. Shot mostly in depressed colors and accented with a subtle sepia tone, the 1.33:1 full-frame transfer is just terrific, avoiding the age issues usually associated with television fare while definitely benefiting from the recent 2006 restoration. Certainly, there is some grain here and there, and occasional softness, but when you're dealing with a 27-year-old negative, shot on the cheap and left to degrade over decades, the image on hand is a revelation. Sadly, the sonic situation remains much the same as it did back in 1980. The Dolby Digital mono is definitely cleaned up, losing much of the hiss and distortion such tracks are noted for, but the mix has little life. Indeed, it's flat and less than atmospheric most of the time. Still, the dialogue is easily discernible and the English subtitles are clear and unobtrusive. It makes for a wonderful DVD presentation overall.
With the episodes taking up discs one through six here, Criterion uses the end of the show's final DVD, and one more DVD, to proffer all the added content. On the sixth, we get an hour-long documentary entitled "The Mega Movie and Its Story." It revisits the production, talks to many of the key players, and offers insights into how Fassbinder saved money and time along the way (some of the film was shot on sets constructed for other productions, like Bergman's The Serpent's Egg). The seventh DVD starts off with a discussion of the restoration, followed by a vintage featurette from 1980 offering rare glimpses of the director working with the actors on-set. Finally, there is a wonderful 72-page booklet outlining the influence the film had on young guns like Tom Tykwer (famous for Run, Lola Run).
The biggest bonus though is the original adaptation of the novel, a magnificently streamlined 90-minute telling of Berlin Alexanderplatz by noted filmmaker Phil Jutzi. This version from 1931 makes Biberkopf into a more bumbling, idiotic character. The movie is also lighter in tone and less dour in its denouements. While not on par with Fassbinder's rampant reconfiguration, it's very enjoyable. Unfortunately, the transfer is just passable, and a bonus interview with scholar Peter Jelavich is more erudite than engaging. For such a mammoth project, though, it's a nice collection of context. All of the extras here help bring the oversized scope of Fassbinder's vision into perspective.
It's hard to say how post-millennial audiences will take Berlin Alexanderplatz. After all, sophisticated drama drenched in directorial self-awareness is not necessarily a new thing. Even the similarly styled work of a daredevil like David Lynch wraps up after three incongruous, if great, hours (ala INLAND EMPIRE). No, it's clear that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was determined to make all aspects of Alfred Döblin's novel his own—even the parts that only he could visualize and/or read in to it. The results speak for themselves—940 minutes of uninterrupted directorial determination. Rarely do films this big and this comprehensive come across as so private and personal, but Berlin Alexanderplatz frequently plays like the literary interpretation of its creator's diary entries. Sure, the acidic atmosphere of Weimar-era Germany invades every aspect of the storyline, and we are reminded frequently of the nauseating Nazis just around the corner. Yet for all its period piece trappings, the movie remains a terrific, timeless expression. And why wouldn't it? All great works of art act the same way.
Not guilty. Not too long. Not too weird. Another Criterion triumph
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• "The Mega Movie and Its Story" - New Documentary on the Making of Berlin Alexanderplatz
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