Thursday, January 10, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz (parts IX-XI)

Other episodes:
ep. I-II | ep. III-IV | ep. V-VIII | ep. IX-XI | ep. XII-XIII | Epilogue

Tonight's viewing of three more episodes from Berlin Alexanderplatz brings me ever closer to the end of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's grand masterpiece, and the work is starting to take shape as a whole by this point, with "just" four hours left to go. The ninth episode concludes the conversation that Franz and Eva were in the middle of at the end of the previous episode, where Franz learns about Mieze's work as a prostitute. Franz, recovering from his initial anger, goes to Mieze and forgives her, and then he surprisingly goes to see Reinhold, who he hasn't seen since the "accident" in which Reinhold played such a decisive role.

His old friend is initially fearful, but as he realizes that Franz is not there to kill or blackmail him, he reverts into his sneering, hateful posturing. He even expresses his disgust at cripples, and asks to see Franz's injury. Reinhold says that cripples, useless to society as they are, should simply be killed, and Franz sadly agrees. The undercurrent here is an ugly popular reflection of Nazi ideology, with its casual anti-humanism and relegation of certain groups to sub-human status — Hitler was nearly as adamant about eliminating the handicapped as he was about the Jews. Reinhold's easy dismissal of the worth of an entire subset of society is the kind of mentality that allowed the Nazis to rise to power so easily just a few years later.

The killing of Ida is replayed twice more in this episode, each time accompanied by a different voiceover, so that the two iterations of the scene wind up playing out in very different ways. This memory has a pivotal importance in Franz's life. It is both where he came from and where he could yet return to, and it is also the catalyst for everything that happened subsequently in his life, from his prison stint to his vow to go straight to the tragic consequences of this vow that then led him right back to a life of crime. This scene thus means many things to Franz, beyond the shocking violence he commits, which serves to remind the audience that the man they're watching, who is often so sympathetic and emotionally complex, is also capable of truly terrible acts. By repeating the scene so many times, though, Fassbinder allows it to acquire a totemic power beyond the shock value of its brutality, so that the audience might explore the scene's multiple meanings in the way Franz does.

In this episode, the first time it's shown, the murder is accompanied by narrated news updates about political figures, an airplane making a transcontinental flight, and royal romances. This places the murder footage in a purely documentary mode, as another incident worthy to be reported, along with any number of other inanities about daily life in Germany. The film, like Döblin's novel, is concerned with the way that the specificity of Franz's life and milieu fits into the broader picture of the city he lives in, and the country it's situated in. Fassbinder doesn't make any cliché "the personal is political" statement, but he nevertheless situates his protagonist in a broader political context, always through oblique suggestion and multilayered commentary of this sort. The second iteration of Ida's murder scene in this episode makes this even more clear. It's overlaid with an imagined biblical dialogue between Abraham and Isaac, with father and son debating the merits of the proposed sacrifice. Of course, they decide to go through with it, all the while believing that God will step in and call it off, which He does at the last minute, rejoicing because they were obedient. As with the earlier conversation with Reinhold, the Abraham story obliquely suggests fascist anti-humanism, equating Isaac with a ram to be slaughtered, sacrificed for a greater cause. Sacrifice is a recurring theme in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and especially the idea that in capitalism the lower classes sacrifice themselves for the sake of the upper. In this sense, the God of the Abraham story becomes the State, asking for (and receiving) total obedience from its subjects.

In the second half of the episode, this political exploration carries over from the subtext into the narrative when Franz and Willy go to a socialist meeting. The speakers there advocate for much stronger, more decisive action to end oppression than the socialists in the government have achieved. But Franz is hardly interested, and in the midst of the meeting, he daydreams about Mieze. Fassbinder cuts away from the meeting, in a bombed-out room, to a wonderfully dirty closeup shot of Mieze, her tongue licking Franz's hand, her mouth sucking suggestively on his fingers. It's an evocative, nearly obscene moment, like peeking in on some unbearably private fantasy — no one was ever better than Fassbinder at evoking the dirty, sensual awkwardness of desire and fantasy.

Afterwards, Franz argues strenuously against socialism with one of the meeting's attendees, an old worker who is in favor of general strikes and socialist organizations to achieve proletarian solidarity. But then Franz and Willy go to see Eva and Herbert, and Franz argues strongly, albeit with sometimes hesitant language, for socialism, decrying the way the ruling classes use the poor to increase profits, and arguing that the earth and all its lands should be owned by no one. How strange it is, he says at the end of the episode, that one can think about and advocate for contrary positions on the same issue. Franz is the ultimate dumb prole, unable to decide for himself or relate abstractions to reality in any meaningful way — he winds up spitting back nearly undigested fragments of things he's heard, while the capacity to put it all together remains beyond his reach. This is Fassbinder's typically bleak idea of the prospect for real political change, a reminder that the vast majority of people at any time are like Franz, preferring the immediacy of their own lives to the abstractions of large-scale politics, and not really understanding even when they do decide to pay attention.

One strange thing I'm noticing while watching Berlin Alexanderplatz is that Fassbinder was not especially rigorous or consistent in relating Franz's story with the larger context of Weimar Germany. Certain episodes (like the previous one) really lend themselves to rich subtextual analysis, drawing in a wealth of references to political and social realities outside of Franz's immediate story. Other episodes, however, seem rooted much more in the details of Franz's life and character, indulging in Fassbinder's taste for melodrama and rarely engaging in the kinds of distancing techniques and self-conscious literary adaptation that peppers the more formally radical episodes. Part of the benefit of the film's great length is that these stylistic, aesthetic, and thematic shifts work within the context of the whole. The film encompasses the entirety of Franz's life, both his most private dramas, and those moments where his story touches or comments upon the world around him. Episode ten is more of a narrative episode, largely abandoning the political exploration of the previous episode, settling back into the domestic melodrama of Franz's relationship with Mieze.

The episode begins with a conversation between Mieze and Eva, the two most important women in Franz's life. Mieze's character is slowly being defined as someone with an almost overly generous heart, willing to let in whatever love and sentiment is offered to her. Thus, Eva's offhand comment that she'd have a baby with, for example, Franz, is taken entirely seriously by Mieze, who insists that Eva follow through on it. This scene is played out with definite lesbian overtones, as Eva attempts to rebuff what appear to be advances from Mieze, who nevertheless insists that she's not a lesbian. In fact, it seems she's omnivorous when it comes to love, and even willing to accept another's love for Franz. Franz, meanwhile, degenerates further and further into drunkenness, his life cycling back around so that it begins to resemble his time with Ida more and more.

There are two especially crucial scenes in this regard. The first is a fight with Mieze over her prostitution that constantly threatens to escalate into violence, though eventually Mieze is able to defuse Franz's fury. This provides a glimpse of the angry, potentially brutal Franz who beat his girlfriend to death in an uncontrollable fit of rage. Fassbinder pointedly doesn't cut away to the earlier murder scene at this point, although the repeated retreading of that sequence during moments of stress over the course of the last few episodes certainly primed the audience to expect it. It doesn't come, though, and the action remains solidly in the present tense, providing no escape from the tension of the situation.

In the second important scene, Mieze and Franz get drunk together, in an epic drinking bout that goes from silliness to unfettered sexuality, the two of them rolling around on the floor, pawing each other, screaming and laughing. The couple crosses back and forth between lust and violence, emphasizing the thin line between the two in terms of physicality. Fassbinder documents it all from a stoic distance, letting the camera sway and circle around them, but keeping their frolicking always at arm's length. The scene's tone completely changes when Mieze's regular client shows up, asking Mieze to come away with him for a few days. This is, of course, catastrophic for Franz, who weeps as Mieze leaves with her client. It's obvious that Franz's descent into his past is spiraling dangerously close to the well of violence and rage that caused him to kill Ida so many years before. His drinking is intensifying, he's turning back to crime, and he's in a relationship with a girl who inspires complex and contradictory emotions in him: jealousy, impotence, adoration, desire. Franz is at a low point in his life, and it doesn't look like it's likely to improve anytime soon.

Indeed, the eleventh episode chronicles the complete breakdown of everything Franz had been doing to hold himself together since his release from prison — he returns entirely to the unfettered state he was in when he killed Ida. This episode also marks Franz's real reunion with Reinhold, the reinstatement of their friendship, and Franz's renewed association with the Pums gang, this time genuinely helping them out on their crimes. It's at this point that Franz's relationship with Reinhold becomes increasingly ambiguous and tangled, verging on masochistic — after all, Franz is insinuating himself with a man who tried to kill him and wound up horribly maiming him instead. He brings Reinhold to his apartment, planning to introduce his friend to Mieze, but hiding Reinhold under the covers on the bed first, so that he can watch from hiding for a while before revealing himself. The real intent of this maneuver is never apparent, though Franz tells Mieze that he wanted the notorious womanizer Reinhold to witness the way a "decent woman" behaves. Regardless, the coded homosexuality of the scene is glaringly obvious, despite the fact that there has been no previous reference to this kind of relationship between Franz and Reinhold, other than an intertitle which referred to Reinhold and Mieze as the two people who Franz loved.

In fact, throughout this episode, Fassbinder inserts some curious coded references to homosexuality, which in some ways is puzzling from an openly gay director who, when he wanted to include homosexual relationships in his other films, simply did so outright. The suppressed nature of the gay undertones in this case may be an outgrowth of the source material, or a reflection of the conservative social climate in which the story is set, or a comment on the likelihood that neither man really understands the nature of the friendship they feel for each other. The film's gay subtext is coded in much the same way as it often was in so many classical Hollywood films, with subtle references and knowing gestures or words that could be understood as gay by those inclined to read the film in that way. The gay subtext here seems especially obvious, though, and Fassbinder even provides a knowing wink in this direction when he has Eva ask, "Why would he hide a man in the bed?" It's a pointed question with a rather obvious answer, one that neither woman supplies in response.

There are other unsubtle indicators here, suggestions of a gay reading for the relationship between Franz and Reinhold, not least of which is the guilty glance that Reinhold casts around the bar before he walks into the bathroom, following Franz. Moreover, Reinhold tells Mieze that he and Franz once shared "strange things" together, suggesting that there was a lot between the two men that she didn't know about. He is of course referring to the exchange of girlfriends that he talked Franz into, but the vagueness of his wording inevitably conjures up other associations as well. Fassbinder's sudden establishment of a previously unexplored gay subtext for Frank Biberkopf is rather surprising, though it also makes a surprising amount of sense in the context of his ambivalent relationship with Reinhold.

In addition to this newly flowing undercurrent, the episode comes to a head with Franz's complete meltdown at Mieze, while Reinhold watches from hiding. He completely snaps, erupting into frightening physical violence that recalls the murder of Ida in every respect, right down to the room it occurs in, the staging of the sequence, the way the girl's body falls, and the presence of the landlady Frau Bast as a horrified onlooker. Franz stops short of killing Mieze, mainly because Reinhold intervenes to stop him, but in every other way the two scenes mirror each other, and Fassbinder's constant hammering home of the details of the earlier scene through repetition ensures that the similarities are readily apparent. It's a startling and harrowing scene, made even more so by the moment when Mieze, during a break in the violence, spends nearly a full minute standing in the middle of the apartment and shrieking at the top of her lungs, her voice finally cracking and going ever higher the longer she screams. It's an utterly disarming scene, totally erasing any sense of distance that Fassbinder had previously upheld in the film's scenes of violence or physicality. The raw emotional quality of Mieze's screams signals an intense vulnerability and unfettered humanity — this is not a newspaper account of violence, or violence as a metaphor for class oppression, or the mass violence of war. This is violence at an individual human level, pure suffering, and Fassbinder's frayed-nerves presentation of this scene is the very opposite of dehumanizing fascism.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

What you're describing here is not "gay subtext" but the emergence of gay desire in a nominally heterosexual scenario (as all scenarios are "by nature.") Franz and Renhold aren't "onto themseleves" in any number of ways -- sexuality being just one. But it plays a central role in their exchange of women. What's the real goal here? Franz and Reinhold coming together as lovers -- which is of course "impossible" and "unthinkable." Complicating an already complex situation is the fact that Franz is a convicted murderer. Lamprecht is such an attractive performer and Franz's situation is so pathetic that there is always a risk of our forgetting who he really is and what he's really done -- thus the flashbacks to the murder. Where this is all leading is a murder that will be committed for Franz that he truly does not want. Though he DOES want the murderer.