Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz (parts III-IV)

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

My viewing of Fassbinder's 15-hour miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz is still going strong, with two more episodes tonight. I'm starting to wish I had the time to just sit down and watch the whole thing in one marathon session, or at least two eight-hour blocs, because it's a truly absorbing work, built on the accumulation of detail and nuance. Already, over four hours in, Fassbinder has explored enough material to make up several entire films, and the leisurely pace allows for a depth of characterization hardly seen anywhere outside of the novel.

It's also become clear that, though in some ways Fassbinder always intended this to be a theatrical film first and foremost, he did take advantage of the episodic nature of the television series in structuring this material. The third episode begins with the shot that the second one ended on, Franz clutching Lina after his aborted encounter with some Communists at a local bar. Fassbinder's fondness for mirroring has him end the episode with a similar shot, except that by the end of the episode, Lina is with Franz's friend Meck instead. The episode thus provides a self-contained mini-narrative within the larger context of the film, tracing Franz's path away from the makeshift social order he'd managed to arrange with Lina and Meck.

The agent of change in Franz's life at this point is Lina's "uncle" Otto (venerable Fassbinder character actor Hark Bohm), a friend of her father's who Lina thinks might be able to help them with their troubles. When they call on Otto, though, he's as poor as they, unemployed for the last two years and engaged in the same daily grind of odd jobs as Franz. However, unlike Franz, he has found relative stability in one dependable moneymaker, selling shoelaces door to door, and he allows Franz to join in on this low-key business. Franz is as unsuccessful as ever with the new job, but is still grateful to the seemingly pleasant Otto, until one day when Franz is seduced by (or seduces) a lonely widow, sleeping with her and getting 20 marks for his trouble. When he tells Otto about it, though, the kindly uncle goes to see the woman himself, berating her for being a slut even as he subtly threatens her and then robs her apartment. This act of betrayal sets Franz loose from his comfortably established life, causing him to abandon Lina without a word and go into hiding. Franz's worldview seems remarkably unstable, subject to complete destruction with the slightest quiver, and the revelation of Otto's nasty, deceitful inner core is enough to shatter many of Franz's illusions about his quest to remain honest and pure.

Otto's character is important for more than his narrative function, though. He also introduces religion into the film in a decisive way, and especially religious hypocrisy. When Lina and Franz first go to his apartment, they find a Christian newspaper there, with inspirational poems about Jesus on its front page, and this would seem to link Otto with these religious sentiments. The first two episodes of the film established the political and social facets of Berlin life in the late 1920s, and here Fassbinder provides the first glimpse at religious life in the Weimar era. It's not a pretty picture. Otto is a model hypocrite, moralizing against the widow for sleeping with Franz even as he robs, insults, and threatens her — his moral fervor extends to his condemnation of sexuality, but not to his own acts of robbery and brutality.

The treachery of Otto sends Franz fleeing, now more unsure than ever that he can ever forge a decent life for himself amidst all this ugliness and criminality. Meck and Lina, trying to track down their missing friend, figure out that Otto betrayed him somehow, and enlist him to find Franz, which he does at a rundown motel. But after a tense showdown in which Franz again successfully resists doing violence to those who taunt and attack him, Otto leaves, and Franz disappears, leaving behind instructions that no one should follow him. The episode ends with Meck and Lina embracing, forming a new bond to protect each other in Franz's absence.

If the third episode drives forward the narrative of Franz's journey of self-discovery and pushes him in a new direction, the fourth episode is, in contrast, more of an introspective and static character study. Already a pattern is forming with these four episodes, wherein every other episode further develops the narrative in decisive sequences of events (the first and third) while in between are more ruminative episodes in which not much happens but the characters are explored more fully (the second and fourth). It's still too soon, obviously, to tell how this pattern will fit in with the work as a whole as it continues to take shape. What is obvious at this point is that the great length of Berlin Alexanderplatz allowed Fassbinder to explore new possibilities for pacing and structure.

Throughout the fourth episode, Franz Biberkopf remains in a crippling stasis, living in a lonely apartment and drinking massive amounts of beer every day, his only contact with his neighbor Baumann (Gerhard Zwerenz) and the beer distributors in the building's basement. This is a maudlin, elegiac segment, sinking deep into the depths of Franz's depression and aimlessness. While Franz lounges around his apartment and staggers through the streets in a drunken stupor, Fassbinder intrudes on the narrative with greater and greater frequency, inserting intertitles and voiceovers taken from the Döblin novel. There's also a mid-episode break in which Fassbinder compares the treatment of the lower classes to the slaughter of a bull, in a scene very much reminiscent of the infamous slaughterhouse sequence from In a Year of 13 Moons. In this less bloody but still potent version of that scene, Fassbinder inserts a series of documentary photographs from a slaughterhouse, while the narration dispassionately describes the methodical process of killing and eviscerating animals. This documentary sequence is then matched by a vivid and unexplained dreamlike image of an old man, naked except for some patches of animal skins, who drags a sheep to a bench and slits its throat. This absurd, non-diegetic intrusion simply passes by without comment, presumably a manifestation of Franz's subconscious, a recognition by him of his own equal status with the beasts, as acknowledged by one of the intertitles: "Man's fate is like that of the beasts."

Not too much happens in terms of actual events in this fourth episode, but it does advance a great deal of thematic material, especially of a religious nature. Franz hardly goes through any kind of religious awakening in this segment, but in a subtle way his suffering and slow waking up to reality is nevertheless couched in religious terms. Baumann calls Franz Job, the poor Biblical figure who God robs of his land and family and subjects to an escalating series of punishments and persecutions as a test of his faith. To underscore the point, much of this episode is set to soaring choral music, haunting voices moaning to the heavens in the background as Franz staggers through his bottom-feeding existence. He's given a brief reprieve in the form of a visit from Eva (Hanna Schygulla), his former lover and a prostitute, who had appeared sporadically in the earlier episodes but here finally makes clear the nature of her relationship with Franz. She offers him unconditional love and the security of her home, but Franz cannot accept — he no longer wants to live off the work of another, especially one who walks the streets for him.

Franz's time in this self-imposed purgatory comes to an end by the time the episode is over, as he pushes himself out of his stupor and returns to society once again. This episode is about those who oppression has isolated and crushed — its title is "A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence" — and Franz spends time among them before recovering some sense of his stability. This is possibly the finest individual episode so far, its poetic tone and experimentation with formal structures representing a new development in the film's aesthetic arsenal. But more importantly, this episode advances Franz's character development in very interesting ways, and fits neatly into the expanding chronicle of his life. Fassbinder is delving deeper and deeper into the novelistic exploration of his main character's psychological foundations, moving ever closer to the roots of Franz Biberkopf and the time and place that made him who he is.


DavidEhrenstein said...

The character of Otto undersocres a key theme of the work --betrayal. Franz is a "hail fellow well met" -- even though a psychopath. He tries over and over again in any number of ways to set thign s aright , but they always fail. And he's always beaten down and betrayed.

Clearly Berlin Alexanderplatz was a major influence on The Sopranos

Ed Howard said...

It's funny, I've been thinking right along that Günter Lamprecht reminds me quite a bit of James Gandolfini -- especially when he does that little sideways smirk he has sometimes.