Monday, January 7, 2008
Berlin Alexanderplatz (parts I-II)
ep. I-II | ep. III-IV | ep. V-VIII | ep. IX-XI | ep. XII-XIII | Epilogue
Berlin Alexanderplatz is the long-unseen magnum opus of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a 15-hour-plus television adaptation of the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin. It's long been something of a Holy Grail for Fassbinder's admirers, and its recent restoration and release on DVD (in the US by the eminent Criterion Collection) have finally brought it into the light of day. I've been delaying my own gratification on this front, waiting to dive into this epic until I'd seen at least most of the earlier Fassbinder films that are available to me. Now that I have a big chunk of Fassbinder's prodigious oeuvre behind me, I'll be watching the miniseries over the course of the next couple of weeks, tackling an episode or two every night. Based on my viewing of the first two parts tonight, it promises to be a typically bracing, confounding, and oddly exhilarating experience.
The first episode opens with the hero, Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) being released from prison. Biberkopf is a large man, a hulking brute with an almost childlike sense of his surroundings his first encounter with freedom after four years of restricted movement is not a pleasant one, and at first he's reluctant even to leave the grounds of the prison. The first episode follows Biberkopf through a series of encounters that slowly introduce him back into society, tracing his progression from withdrawn ex-convict towards a steadily increasing vitality. He first runs into a pair of Orthodox Jews. One of them tells him a story that at first seems traditionally uplifting a man succeeds in the world through sheer cunning and brainpower but turns tragic when the second Jew insists on following the story through to its end, where the man is arrested for fraud and deceit, and winds up killing himself. Curiously, Franz remains disconsolate until the story's ending, which seems to revitalize him. Franz is comfortable with the idea that society represses and controls the individual, and to the extent that this story's cycle of hope and destruction confirms Franz's already existing worldview, it's a comforting tale for him. The story disturbs Franz when he believes it to be a chronicle of success, of a man with superior talents and intelligence, doing things that are clearly well beyond Franz's capacity. The fact that this man fails anyway is thus reassuring, suggesting that no one is better off than anybody else.
This encounter leaves Franz already better equipped to deal with his new freedom, but an unsuccessful rendezvous with a prostitute suggests that the next step in his reintegration into society is to revitalize his sexuality as well. To this end, he returns to his old apartment, rented to him by Frau Bast (Brigitte Mira), where he finds a photograph of a young woman on a table. Photographs have a peculiar power here, as images within the image (mirrors, photos, reflections) always have in Fassbinder's work. Earlier, before Franz went to see the prostitute, he saw a photo of a topless girl in a window, an image that triggers two nostalgic images for him in quick succession: one of passion, kissing the neck of a girl, and one of violence, as he slaps that same girl away from him. Photos are always visible referents for memory, and the photo Franz finds in his apartment has the same totemic power for him. Later, in the second episode, Fassbinder returns to the power of images especially, images of eroticism when Franz takes on a brief stint selling pornographic magazines.
More importantly, Franz associates sex and violence with one another, and he unleashes his rough sexuality on a visit to Minna (Karin Baal), the sister of Ida, the girl Franz loved before his incarceration. He practically rapes Minna, and his joyous reaction afterwards signals the further return of vitality and life to this drained ex-convict. His violent sexual release, with a woman who so resembles his former love, goes a long way towards restoring him to the state he was in before his four years outside of society. For Franz, this rape, this union of violence and lust, is an act of normalizing. It's at this point that the film first makes a departure from its heretofore straightforward narrative structure and identification with its main character. Prior to this, Fassbinder had kept very little distance from Biberkopf, right from the very beginning the second shot of the first episode is an extreme closeup on Franz's profile as he walks towards the prison gates. The narrative firmly entrenched itself in his experiences, in his viewpoint, except in periodic distancing touches that served to disrupt the smoothness of these opening scenes, like the disorienting shot at the Jews' apartment when the camera abruptly switches to a shot from the ceiling, looking down on Franz lying on the floor.
Shots like this are exceptions in the narrative, but after Franz's encounter with Minna, a narrator intrudes to tell the story of how Franz brutally beat and killed Minna's sister Ida during an argument four years prior. This is the murder that got him thrown into prison. Fassbinder steps in as the narrator here, reading presumably verbatim from Döblin's novel (which I haven't read, so I can't be sure). The voiceover has an artificial, distanced quality, pushing away from the shocking brutality of what's happening on screen, as the enraged Biberkopf beats and bloodies Ida, finally mounting her and pounding at her limp body with his giant fists. Throughout all this, the narration is calm, clinical, even scientific, invoking the laws of velocity and force to describe how Ida's ribs are shattered. The narrator even reads aloud when there is an "open parenthesis" and "close parenthesis" in the text, further highlighting the artificial and literary quality of this material, calling attention to the elements of style that can't otherwise be translated into cinema. The execution is reminiscent of Fassbinder's other great self-conscious literary adaptation, Fontane Effi Briest, in which he made the film as much about the actual text and substance of the novel as it is about the story that the novel tells. Finally, when the scene is over, Fassbinder flashes up a pair of intertitles with velocity equations, wryly suggesting that to solve these equations would be to explain the ferocious, bloody murder we've just witnessed. It's a clearly absurd proposition, and an understanding of the physical forces and bodily processes that led to Ida's death is not the same as understanding why Franz killed her this more important understanding is withheld, by Fassbinder, and presumably by his source novel as well.
In any case, with Franz's murderous past and his association with Minna more or less resolved, at least as far as Franz is concerned, he's free to further develop his reintegration into society. After the brief interlude of Ida's murder, the narrator disappears from the episode, allowing Franz's narrative of reintegration to commence without further commentary. Once he leaves Minna's apartment, promising not to return, Franz runs into an old friend, Meck (Franz Buchrieser) and meets the young Polish girl Lina (Elisabeth Trisenaar), who he quickly falls in with and brings back to his apartment. His seemingly smooth path back to society, though, is disrupted by the arrival of a letter from the police that threatens eviction from Berlin and its surrounding areas because his murder conviction marks him out as a "threat to society." He avoids having to leave by registering with a kind of parole board who will monitor him and ensure that he is working, but the first episode nevertheless ends on an ambiguous note, already suggesting that societal and governmental forces are weighing down on Franz, making his return much more difficult.
The second episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz picks up right where the first one left off, taking the elements of encroaching malaise and depression and allowing them to finally overwhelm the central characters of Franz and Lina. The narrative becomes much fuzzier at this point, eschewing the straight A-to-B directionality of Franz's release from prison and gradual process of societal acclimation. Fittingly, Franz has lost that directionality himself, and as his life becomes a loose series of disconnected vignettes with little forward drive, the film follows suit, slackening its pace and allowing the characters to drift aimlessly. The overt social element of the film also begins to come into play much more strenuously in this segment. Fassbinder very much intended his adaptation of Döblin's novel to function as a commentary on Weimar-era Germany, in the era directly preceding the rise of the Nazis. Franz Biberkopf is in this sense a perfect stand-in for the German common man at this time: rootless, economically deprived, struggling to find and hold even a terrible job.
In Fassbinder's project to look back at pre-Nazi Germany, even his color schemes are an integral factor. The film is shot in predominantly dark hues, and especially an array of browns that give the film as a whole a sepia tinge, traditionally the signifier for a nostalgic reminiscence. In some sense, Berlin Alexanderplatz is nostalgia, a retreat into a past era, but it's anything but a fond portrait of this time period, and as such the sepia color palette becomes an ironic commentary on the film's content, suggesting not nostalgia but dirt and decay. The overall darkness and graininess of the film also contributes to the worn, dingy appearance of its Weimar Berlin. Fassbinder shot the film on 16mm for German TV, but always intended to present it theatrically as well, and apparently cared so little for the television presentation that he didn't take into account that large portions of the image would often appear entirely black or gray on the substandard early 80s German TV sets. The film's rugged aesthetic allows for more visibility on the big screen and in its current DVD transfer, but even so shadows often overtake the frame, and darkness descends in bursts and flashes. In each of these two episodes, there is a scene where a lightning storm outside provides the only illumination while Franz sits inside; the screen switches from near-black to briefly lit-up.
Fassbinder also turns with increasing frequency to the distancing effect of direct quotation from Döblin's novel via narration. The first episode limited this technique to the scene of Ida's murder, set in the past, but the second episode steps back from the action in this manner for a couple of scenes set in Franz's present. In both cases, these are scenes in which Franz himself is distant from the action in some sense, whether physically or mentally. In the first such scene, Franz watches from a distance as Lina accosts the newspaperman who had enlisted Franz to sell pornographic books. Franz has stepped back from this event not just by virtue of his physical location he watches, hidden by fog, from around the corner but with a kind of moral distancing. Franz himself had seemed inclined to accept and endorse the sexual freedom promised by these books, and he even reads to Lina an account of a man who had been arrested for his private acts of homosexuality. Franz, in reading this story, seems amazed and somewhat sympathetic to the man's situation, but Lina interprets this as Franz's admission of his own homosexuality, and forces him to either give back the books or lose her. Lina is an embodiment of conservative sexual morality in Weimar Germany, espousing an attitude that would dovetail neatly with both Nazi and religious censure. Franz's brief dalliance with sexual liberalism and egalitarianism suggests the other side of the coin in 1920s Germany, an open-mindedness that would flourish for only a short time before being stamped out by more determined forces of oppression. Franz, by allowing Lina to cow him into dropping his exploration of these issues, is relinquishing his moral free will, allowing her to literally stand in for him and make his decisions for him. When he stands to the side, watching her thrash and verbally abuse the news vendor who gave him the books, he is in some small way allowing fascism to take root.
The other moment when the film steps away from Franz is during a stunning confrontation after he has been roped into selling a Nazi newspaper as his latest job, even donning a swastika armband while he hawks his wares. He winds up in a debate with a Jewish sausage vendor and a passing trio of Communists, one of whom Franz recognizes from prison. Fassbinder allows this tense conversation to occur in fits and starts, as Franz spits out recycled bits of Nazi ideology that he's picked up already, to the astonishment and chagrin of his interlocutors. The conversation periodically pauses, as well, for Fassbinder to execute a series of stunning 360-degree turns around the five characters, as the narration comments on the proceedings with more textual material from the novel. The effect is to highlight the abstract nature of this ideological debate, which on both sides, Communist and fascist, seldom touches on the realities of the economic and social issues facing Weimar Germany, and instead hinges on vague rhetoric. Only the Jewish vendor remains firmly rooted in pragmatic realities, highlighting the anti-Semitism of the right-wingers and the ways in which their ideology is a slim disguise for a politics of hatred.
In the final scene of this episode, Franz once again confronts the Communists, this time in a bar, where they taunt him and are clearly edging towards physical violence against this newly fascist enemy. Fassbinder signals the effect of his fascist conversion on Franz with a wonderful shot in which Franz sings a sampling of patriotic and nationalistic German songs. Franz is slightly off-center to the right in the frame, with an out-of-focus beer stein in the foreground, dividing the frame in half. To the left, there are a pair of fragmentary reflections of Franz, chopped into sections, also singing. This creative use of mirrors creates an irrational image in which a whole Franz is seen sitting side by side with two sliced-up mirror images of himself, suggesting the fragmentation of his personality as he absorbs the rhetoric of fascism. By taking on this anti-human ideology, Franz is literally divided against himself, just as in the previous scene the dizzying camera rotation and third-person narrator signaled Franz's inherent disconnection from the ideology he now espouses. The Communists also gravely misunderstand what's going on, as after Franz leaves, they simply dismiss him, smugly reiterating that the masses are on their side but Franz, in fact, is a part of the proletariat, hungry for law and order, who would swallow whole the grand promises of the Nazis just a few years later.
This is, so far, a powerful, evocative, and sublimely detailed portrait of Germany at a very particular time in its history, at a moment of great upheaval and tension. By placing an essentially unknowing character like Franz Biberkopf at the center of such a historical moment and signaling his ignorance through a number of distancing techniques Fassbinder found perhaps the perfect artistic conduit through which to chart the progress of German attitudes and ideas in the years preceding World War II. This promises to be an incredible film, possibly a creative apex in Fassbinder's prolific but sadly brief career, and I'm greatly looking forward to tomorrow night's installments.