Friday, January 11, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz (parts XII-XIII)

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

Now that Berlin Alexanderplatz is finally wearing down to a close — after tonight's two episodes, I only have the infamously strange two-hour epilogue left — I'm almost sad it's over. I've been so immersed in Franz Biberkopf and his troubled life for the past week that I can hardly believe the end is in sight. It's been an exhausting but edifying experience, and I'm glad I watched it all in such a short time period. In fact, I think whenever I revisit this film someday, I'd like to condense my viewing even more. What Fassbinder has achieved is a work that essentially combines the best aspects of both television (its original medium) and film (for which he reportedly intended it despite the TV commission). From TV, Fassbinder took the measured episode-by-episode pacing, which allows him to not only cram the film with incident and narrative detail — thinking back to the first episode, it's hard to believe just how much happened to poor Franz since then — but also to move organically through a number of stylistic and tonal shifts. Even so, the film as a whole doesn't really play out episodically, but feels like a continuous flow from one moment to the next, so much so that the boundaries between different episodes often blend together. Even the way the opening titles fade into the first image of each episode, which is often the very same image as the last one from the previous episode, heightens the sensation of continuity within the film as a whole. The miniseries flows like a single film, even as its great length and episodic divisions allow Fassbinder to stretch out and do things with his storytelling that he couldn't have achieved in any of his shorter theatrical films.

The twelfth episode begins languidly, quietly, with Franz and Mieze hanging around their apartment, having made up after Franz's explosion in the last episode. This kind of gentle domestic scene has recurred periodically throughout the film, with the couple playfully sparring, hugging and kissing, and generally enjoying the camaraderie of lovers. There is nothing here to indicate that this episode will provide a cataclysmic climax to the film, and to Franz Biberkopf's life. The climax comes about as a result of Mieze's introduction into the previously separate milieu of Franz's criminal associates at Maxie's bar. Franz had purposefully kept Mieze apart from his friends, and especially Reinhold, out of a sense that Mieze's essential innocence and goodness should in some way be isolated from the crudity of his criminal acquaintances. It was, certainly, a good instinct. When he brings her to the bar in order to introduce her to his friends, her appearance only inflames Reinhold's raging and complicated feelings about Franz — a combination of jealousy, desire, and a complete lack of understanding about what makes his "friend" tick. The nervous, stammering, sickly Reinhold seems to be continually set on edge by Franz's self-assured, robust manner and acceptance of whatever life throws him.

It's unclear whether Reinhold envies Franz for having the seemingly unshakable love of Mieze, or whether he's jealous of her for having Franz. In any event, his jealousy drives him to trick Mieze away from Franz, blackmailing Meck to get him to lure her away into the country. What follows is a lengthy back and forth between Mieze and Reinhold, shifting fluidly between threats, flirtation, and manipulation. Throughout their conversation, Mieze is trying to pump Reinhold for information about Franz's past, while Reinhold attempts to seduce the girl, with sometimes successful results. Mieze is sending out decidedly mixed signals here, sometimes acting as though Reinhold is trying to rape her, and pulling violently away from him, but at other points literally throwing herself at him, expressing her love for him. Mieze is a strange, impenetrable character, clearly capable of spreading her love far and wide, but nevertheless possessing her own variety of loyalty to her one true man, Franz. Throughout this scene, the one thing Reinhold can't seem to make her do is denounce Franz — he could have her, for a day or perhaps even for a continuing affair, but he could never make her abandon her Franz.

As this becomes clear, it infuriates him all the more, and his attentions to her become increasingly violent and suffocating, until he finally flings her to the ground and falls on her, choking her and then leaving her limp body behind in the woods as he walks away into a thick fog. Reinhold's jealousy and complex, suppressed feelings about Franz have led to an unthinkable, shocking climax — shocking not so much because Mieze was murdered, but because Franz wasn't the one to do it. Fassbinder obliquely drives home the Reinhold/Franz distinction by filming Mieze's murder from such a distance that the two figures are lost in the composition, dwarfed by the woods all around them. It's an image of isolation very different from the murder of Ida that has recurred throughout the film, which Fassbinder filmed from a much closer vantage point, the camera weaving around the scene to capture the murder's brutality. By the end of the film, Reinhold's cold, strangled emotions have replaced Franz's white-hot ardor and quick temper, and the second murder is not so much a crime of passion as the clinical dispatch of a troublesome distraction.

With this brutal but distanced climax, the film has essentially come full circle — Franz Biberkopf's tale began with one murder, and it more or less ends with another. There is still, of course, the epilogue, but the thirteenth and final episode already functions as an epilogue of sorts, a quiet and pensive denouement in the aftermath of Mieze's death. Curiously, Fassbinder actually diverts the narrative attention away from Mieze's absence for the vast majority of this episode, instead concentrating on Franz and his continued associations with the Pums gang. The episode opens with a devastating shot of Franz, made up in Mieze's lipstick and dressed in her clothes, as though he's trying to become her. Contrary to the initial impression, though, Franz has not learned of Mieze's death, and he is distressed because he believes she's walked out on him.

Although this scene is undeniably moving in its over-the-top melodrama, it also seems like a very self-conscious gesture from Fassbinder, an example of the ways in which he plays with episodic structuring and audience expectations in this film. Franz's behavior here is exactly the kind of maudlin reaction that one would expect following the ending of the last episode, and Fassbinder seems to be briefly holding out the possibility that the series' final proper episode will be an extended wake of sorts for Mieze. The image of Franz in makeup works on at least two other levels though, in terms of the theme of suppressed homosexuality that was hinted at over the last few episodes, and in the idea of Biberkopf as a sad clown, parading his misfortunes for the amusement of others. Moreover, Fassbinder doesn't allow Franz's depression to last too long, and to the extent that this final episode serves as a valedictory for Mieze, it does so in terms of absence, structuring the narrative around the hole where she might have been.

Franz soon pulls himself together, at least enough to go see Pums and Reinhold, and he becomes involved in the gang's latest robbery. Fassbinder dedicates an extraordinary amount of time to a lengthy argument in which the gang members are disputing with Pums over their next job. Several of the men, including Reinhold and Meck, have come up with a plan to rob a safe that's loaded with cash, for one of their biggest robberies yet, and they are trying to convince Pums to go along with this plan. Franz stands off to the side, mostly uncomprehending, and Fassbinder films this scene with his familiar style of fluid camera moves following the weaving patterns of the characters as they cross paths around the room, a choreography of conversation. Throughout this scene, which seemingly has nothing to do with anything that's taken place in the film before, the memory of Mieze's tragic death nevertheless hangs over everything, as it does throughout this episode. Fassbinder seems to intuitively realize that her character has had enough of an impact that he doesn't have to belabor her disappearance — that final shot of her body lying in the woods lingers on unbidden, as does this episode's comic, melancholy image of Franz mourning her absence by donning her wardrobe. Thus, though the bulk of the episode concerns the debate over the robbery and then the (botched) robbery itself, the unspoken subtext of Mieze's death is always present.

The episode, and the series proper, ends with a final scene back at Franz's apartment, when he learns about what really happened to Mieze through a newspaper article, while a distraught Eva and Frau Bast look on. Meck had betrayed Reinhold to the police, revealing that Reinhold had killed her and then buried the body in the woods. Nevertheless, the ending scene suggests that Franz is going to be blamed anyway, and Fassbinder inserts another brief replay from Ida's murder to finally close the circle. The film's last episode ends with Franz facing the violent death of his lover for the second time, and now only the epilogue awaits.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Even so, the film as a whole doesn't really play out episodically, but feels like a continuous flow from one moment to the next, so much so that the boundaries between different episodes often blend together."

Indeed. And in this sense the great precursor to Berlin Alexanderplatz is Out 1