Monday, January 14, 2008
Berlin Alexanderplatz (Epilogue)
ep. I-II | ep. III-IV | ep. V-VIII | ep. IX-XI | ep. XII-XIII | Epilogue
The final stretch of Fassbinder's 15-hour epic Berlin Alexanderplatz is comprised of a two-hour epilogue, which Fassbinder has appropriately titled, "Rainer Werner Fassbinder: My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin." The epilogue is a radical aesthetic break with the preceding 13 hours, a fragmentary collage of dreamlike incidents, imaginings, and visions that reflect the devastated mental landscape of Franz, following Reinhold's murder of Mieze. The film occasionally emerges into the reality of Franz's life at the time he's collapsed, virtually comatose, in a mental institute but the majority of the episode takes place wholly in the scarred surfaces of Franz's mind. Or actually, as the self-referential title of the epilogue reminds us, in Franz's mind as imagined and commented upon by Fassbinder, who himself appears in one scene as a silent witness, his eyes covered in dark glasses, smoking a cigarette, mutely documenting Franz's dreams and hidden obsessions. The epilogue is as much Fassbinder's fantasy as Franz's, a record of the ideas and obsessions that so moved him in Döblin's original novel, which apparently affected him a great deal.
Because of the dreamlike nature of this epilogue, it brings to the surface many of the ideas and images that had remained mainly subtexts in the film proper allowing parts of Franz that he wouldn't even be aware of to run rampant. In particular, this segment of the film is rich in Christian iconography, gay culture (particularly S&M), and Nazi symbols and imagery. Fassbinder delves much deeper into the gay identities of Reinhold and Franz, especially in a touchingly awkward scene between Reinhold and another male prisoner, which clearly references Jean Genet's iconic prison sex film Un chant d'amour. In prison, Reinhold comes to understand his lifelong love/hate relationships with women as the result of his conflicted and suppressed true sexuality an epiphany arrived at too late for anyone concerned. As for Franz, what he could barely articulate or understand in life, he unleashes in his mind in a barrage of homoerotic imagery, often masochistic, like the sequences of Reinhold whipping him, or a sparring match with his rival that ends with a kiss rather than a punch.
Franz's confused ramble through the dreamlike pastiche of his mind brings him into contact, sooner or later, with virtually every cast member who's appeared throughout the series. The major figures in Franz's life are of course all there Reinhold, Mieze, Eva, Meck, Ida, all of Franz's various girlfriends but his dreamscape is also populated with a string of minor figures too, characters who appeared in only one or two episodes earlier in the series, sometimes only briefly, who recur here, recast by the workings of Franz's clouded mind. These characters wander through a world strewn with trash and wreckage, and many of them present themselves to Franz as suicides, suggesting that he's in some kind of purgatorial limbo for lost souls both the gangster boss Pums and Franz's discarded girlfriend Fränze tell him that they've committed suicide. Franz is accompanied through these wanderings by a pair of "angels" dressed in gold armor, who later watch Franz's sufferings, standing by the side of Fassbinder.
The scene they're watching is one of the most richly suggestive in the epilogue, a slaughterhouse sequence that suggests a multitude of different meanings. Franz is laying on top of a pile of naked bodies, as Reinhold and the other members of the gang, armed with axes and hatchets and dressed as butchers, chop at these limp bodies and flay them like animals. This is on one level a literal visualization of a metaphor that Fassbinder employed throughout the film, in comparing the oft-clueless Franz to an animal being led to slaughter by the societal forces around him. In this scene, he is literally strung up, hacked at, his body treated like a piece of meat. It's a scene that also recalls, somewhat inevitably, the Nazi death camps, with the heap of naked bodies and the subhuman conditions surrounding this wholesale murder and butchery. And yet, in a later scene, Franz happens across the same pile of bodies again, only this time they seem to be engaged in a kind of lackluster orgy, which Franz shrugs and joins in on. The subtle shift in meaning across the two scenes, which share similar images, suggests the mutable frontier between sex and violence, pleasure and punishment.
This extended epilogue also represents a change in musical strategies for Fassbinder, as well as visual and narrative ones. Previous episodes were almost exclusively scored by the expressive music of Fassbinder's usual musical collaborator, Peer Raben, with his repetitive patterns and haunting tension between melody and disharmony. In this episode, though, Fassbinder abandons a traditional score, instead stitching together the soundtrack from songs by Kraftwerk, the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and fragments of opera and classical music. He repeats these songs and segments of songs at rhythmic intervals, returning to the same musical and lyrical ideas (Joplin's assertion that "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," Kraftwerk's apocalyptic musings on radioactivity) over and over again. In one particularly powerful scene, Franz appears to Reinhold wearing heavy makeup, looking somewhere between a cross-dresser and a clown, while the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says," an ode to Warhol Factory transvestite Candy Darling, murmurs in the background. These musical undercurrents further divide this two-hour coda from the rest of the film, emphasizing Fassbinder's drastically different aesthetic decisions in this section.
Not that all of these decisions work. The epilogue, unhinged from the solid ground of the narrative, sometimes drags and falters in ways that none of the earlier episodes ever did a few scenes drag on too long with little change, or worse yet with dialogue that seems like mere space-filling, the kind of near-nonsense that is meant to convey a mind out of control. There's also a sense that Fassbinder doesn't push hard enough at the visual possibilities available to him, that he allows too much of the epilogue to inhabit the same brown-and-black visual terrain as the more grounded main narrative. The occasional diversions are all the more powerful for the contrast, though, like the bone-chilling slaughterhouse scenes with their splashes of brilliant red, or the climactic scene where Franz is crucified with an A-bomb exploding behind him, a moment of rebirth for the film's hero. Even so, the visual grandeur of these scenes is missed elsewhere in the epilogue, as too many of the interior scenes seem like more aimless extensions of their narrative counterparts.
These are minor complaints, though, in the context of a two-hour distillation of the film's overarching ideas, as well as a critical extension of some of its subtler subtexts into fully-developed themes. This is a fitting end to Fassbinder's epic achievement, a coda that draws together everything in the preceding work. The epilogue works on both a literal level, as a record of Franz's dreams and hallucinations while he's in the mental institute, and on a secondary level as Fassbinder's own reaction to the novel, a jumbled but evocative expression of the novel's effect on his life. It is, in some ways, an act of literary criticism, drawing out the novel's underlying themes and ideas as Fassbinder sees them. This is probably the first point in the film when Fassbinder takes on a psychological perspective, attempting an analysis of Franz rather than simply an observation he even inserts a lengthy argument between two doctors at the mental hospital, about whether medicine should venture into the psychological dimensions opened by Freud or not. Fassbinder's sympathies are clearly with the Freudian doctor, who advocates for an understanding of the way the mind can make us sick. This emphasis on the mind, coupled with an understanding of society's influence on mental processes, is a key component in Fassbinder's work, brought to its fruition here.
The epilogue concludes a work of staggering ambition, a crowning achievement in Fassbinder's brilliant and prolific career. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a drastically extended character study, with Fassbinder taking full advantage of the large canvas available to him to delve deeper than ever before into his recurring fascination with the way societal factors shape and alter the individual. In Franz's case, this shaping is often literal, physical, as well as mental, and it encompasses political, social, and sexual dimensions. Franz Biberkopf is the ultimate Fassbinder hero, a tragic figure who suffers greatly for not fitting comfortably into the societal roles allotted to him, and who dies and is reborn only when he realizes his own role in accepting the oppressing structures around him. It's an overwhelming film, impossible to summarize here, sweeping in its scope. I readily accept that even the lengthy comments I've recorded here thus far only scratch the surface of this infinitely rich film.