Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz (parts V-VIII)

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

At the beginning of episode five of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf has returned to the familiar pattern of his life before Otto's betrayal and Franz's sudden departure. He's back in his old haunts, hanging around the local bar drinking with Meck, even taking up residence at the old apartment he rents from Frau Bast — where, upon his return, he finds Eva waiting for him. This is an especially active and pivotal episode, in terms of the narrative, as it introduces the crucial new character of Reinhold (Gottfried John) and sets Franz on yet another new path. It appears that Franz's latest experiences had not, after all, cured him of his endemic trustfulness and naiveté. He instantly befriends the slimy, sickly-looking Reinhold, who is employed in some way by the equally shady "boss" Pums (Ivan Desny), a local gangster who says he's in the fruit business.

Franz continues to resist becoming involved in the obvious crimes his new friends are committing, but he does agree to help Reinhold out with the latter's "problem" with women. Reinhold gets sick of his girlfriends after less than a month, and he enlists Franz to take them off his hands once he's finished with them, so that he can move on to someone new. Franz does this first with the plump, homely Fränze (Helen Vita), who is Franz's female counterpart not only in name, but in temperament and appearance, a kindly and pliant woman with a surprising sexual appetite. Franz likes her well enough, but still passes her off to his friend the newspaper vendor when Reinhold decides to get rid of his latest girlfriend, Cilly (Annemarie Düringer). Cilly is a lively, energetic redhead, and Franz instantly takes to her as well. There's a wonderful scene, towards the end of the episode, where Franz comes home to find her dancing to an uptempo 20s jazz record, and he spontaneously joins her, tapping his feet with a big, infectious grin on his face. It's hard to watch without grinning along with him.

Such moments of warmth and humor are sprinkled throughout Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Cilly especially brings a sense of vitality and verve into Franz's brown-hued life. Franz seems to attract a never-ending succession of women with his slanted grin and oddly compelling charm. In this episode, he simply goes with the flow, sleeping with Eva for old time's sake when he finds her at his apartment, letting Fränze drift in and out of his life, and finally settling in with Cilly. Franz is truly adrift by this point, back in his familiar territory, and settling into familiar habits of boozing it up and creating a domestic space with his latest woman.

This is a low-key episode overall, setting things up for the greater tension and conflict that is soon to develop surrounding the character of Reinhold and his interactions with Franz. This episode does drive home to me the extent to which length dictates the form of a film. This episode, starting over four hours into the film as a whole, begins at a point where most ordinary films would probably come in — the ex-convict with a troubled past becomes involved with the machinations of some petty gangsters. This film has a more expansive way of handling narrative, allowing new stories to arise organically from the fabric of the main character's life, rather than dictating the particular moments of interest. The sprawling length and attention to detail in this film allows viewers to determine for themselves what is important in Franz's life, whether it's the day-by-day development of his relationships with women, or the friendships and betrayals that shake his impression of the world. Franz's association with Reinhold, which in a more traditional film would be the sole focus of the narrative, here comes as a new wrinkle in a life that has already seen many changes and experiences, and will doubtless see many more.

In the sixth episode, Franz finally agrees to work with Pums and Reinhold, after infuriating his new friend by refusing to trade in Cilly for Reinhold's latest rejected girlfriend, Trude (Irm Hermann). Franz tries to convince Reinhold that he intends the best for him, that he needs to learn to settle down with one girl, but the refusal changes the nature of the duo's relationship, and the always offputting Reinhold becomes even more withdrawn and taciturn, especially with Franz. Nevertheless, Franz is talked into working with Pums, helping him to pick up some goods one night — he naïvely seems to believe that he's really getting involved in a legitimate business, but when the night comes around, he realizes that he's just being enlisted to stand lookout while the rest of the gang rob a house. Franz is wracked with guilt and fear, but is forced to stay with the gang, and the episode ends with a life-altering "accident" for Franz.

Fassbinder films Franz's guilty recriminations in near-complete darkness, as Franz is shrouded in shadows on the nighttime streets, worrying aloud about his role in these crimes and the path that has led him to this point. The darkness, rather than hiding Franz's guilt, as one would expect, amplifies it, makes it fearsome, with voices coming out of nowhere, the speaker unclear. Franz is surrounded by friends, including Meck and Reinhold, but he is very much alone nonetheless, and Reinhold in particular reveals a prodigious nasty streak that causes him to berate and beat Franz for hampering the robbery with his worrying. This is another betrayal, another case of Franz trusting too much in the wrong people, and this time he won't be getting off as easily as he did with Otto.

This episode also makes extensive use of an aesthetic device that Fassbinder had been periodically using throughout the earlier episodes as well, but here brings to its true fruition. The original Döblin novel apparently includes a great deal of extraneous material not directly related to Franz's story, in order to provide a sense of place and setting for the main narrative. Fassbinder incorporates this material, always in a self-consciously literary way, through the use of newspapers and other textual means of telling stories not directly related to Franz's life. Franz frequently reads from the newspaper aloud, sampling mostly just the headlines, reading in a monotone voice that gives equal weight to sports results, local murders, political machinations, or anything else, great or small. In this way, the outside world enters the hermetic space of Franz Biberkopf, who is always Fassbinder's central point of interest in this story. Berlin, and Weimar Germany as a whole, are reflected and refracted through Franz as though through a prism, but always indirectly, always through words, while the images are reserved for Franz's story itself.

The logical extension of this idea comes in this episode when the narrator recounts a story about a young man and his lover who agree to kill each other because they are too poor to get married. The narrator intones this tragic tale as though it's just another newspaper article, and the whole time, on screen Fassbinder shows Franz and Cilly having wild sex under the covers, laughing and having fun with each other. The obvious contrast between image and narration serves to present two different alternatives for dealing with oppressive conditions — Franz and Cilly are every bit as poor as the young couple in the story, but they are unencumbered by traditional ideas like marriage, and rather than lament the things they don't have, they throw themselves into their lives headfirst. On another level, Fassbinder's use of voiceover here suggests a whole other world outside the boundaries of Franz's circle, a whole city of people every bit as much affected by the societal and economic forces of the era as Franz is. Such moments serve as periodic reminders that Franz's story, though highly specific and individual, is also part of a larger narrative of the pre-war German populace.

The episode ends with the narrator's somewhat hollow assurance that there is "no cause to despair." It seems, at first, a mere platitude, especially in light of what's just happened, but on closer inspection the phrase reveals itself as a much deeper expression of the film's thesis on life in general. It's not just that there is "no cause" in the recent events of the film for despair, which would be a highly specific interpretation of this vague expression. More generally, the narrator seems to suggest that there is never cause for despair, that there is no situation so untenable or terrible that it should entirely crush the human spirit. In the context of such a generally depressing and downtrodden work, it's a bold assertion for human positivism in the face of tragedy and defeat.

Episode seven picks up after this accident, focusing on Franz's recovery period, which he spends staying with Eva and her pimp boyfriend Herbert (Roger Fritz). This is a strange episode, initially having the laidback atmosphere that one would expect for such a recovery narrative, but soon branching off into some of the most extreme stylistic diversions in the film thus far. Fassbinder has always played with shifts in tone in his work, and especially the superimposition of the comedic with the tragic, but Berlin Alexanderplatz thus far has been much more even-keeled, not subject to such wild mood swings until now.

The first hint of this shift comes when Eva and Franz have a shrill, melodramatic standoff with Bruno (the great Volker Spengler), a member of Pums' gang, which is the only scene in the film thus far where I've been hesitant about Fassbinder's choices. He has never been averse to such over-the-top shrillness, especially in films like the acidic comedy Satan's Brew, but this is a truly startling tonal shift coming at pretty much the halfway mark of Berlin Alexanderplatz. It's a ridiculously overacted scene that finally pauses as a static tableau, with Fassbinder holding the shot for an uncomfortably long time once the confrontation has ended. Moreover, Hanna Schygulla is an odd choice to be delivering this angry outburst, since she usually plays more of a quiet, reserved, sensual center in Fassbinder's films, emotionally cool in a white-hot world. She handles the explosion somewhat awkwardly, and the scene is a troubling wrong note in what has otherwise been a dazzlingly executed masterwork. The effect is as startling as though a single fuzzy chord from a toy piano had suddenly been inserted, amplified and reverberating, into the center of a Beethoven sonata. I have to think, though, that to some extent this was Fassbinder's intention, and there's no doubt that my mind keeps returning to this scene. Its awkwardness, its exaggerated acting, its tonal disparity to the rest of the film, makes it hit with special force, driving home the extent of Eva and Franz's fear by the absurdity of their reactions.

The rest of the episode is less troubling, but nevertheless more heterogeneous than the first six episodes. Fassbinder also includes one of the film's most heavily stylized scenes thus far, in Franz's brief sojourn into Berlin's decadent equivalent of a Red Light District. He's led through this utterly fantastic street by a kind of carnival barker figure, decked out in a cape and top hat, who leads him past topless women whipping their customers, torches lighting the path, through a shower of golden glitter, all the while promising him a sexual demoness for his enjoyment. Franz declines, though, and instead goes for some beers at a nearby pub.

Lamprecht then provides perhaps the finest sequence in his tour-de-force performance so far, a hilarious and oddly poignant scene in which he holds an imaginary conversation with three mugs of beer and a tiny shot of schnapps. He gives the beers a thick, deep voice, and the schnapps a squeaky childlike yelp, and as he drinks down each in turn, his ventriloquist performance allows him to speak about the way in which alcohol helps to drown out "superfluous thoughts," which, he soon admits, are most thoughts. It's a ridiculous conceit, but Lamprecht pulls it off without the least touch of irony, and infuses this duel of silly voices with a real pathos and sadness. Franz has truly come to a low point in his life, and his genuine struggle with drink links back to the fourth episode's epic drinking binge. Nevertheless, despite the scene's sadder undertones, it's by far the funniest scene in the film to this point, an interlude of true virtuoso comedic acting.

Later, at a nightclub, Franz meets the lowlife gangster Willy (Fritz Schediwy) and sees his former flame Cilly, now a singer, perform a song until she recognizes him in the audience and flees, enraged at Reinhold for not telling her that Franz survived his accident. Franz's encounter with Willy foreshadows his new acceptance of crime and corruption, his realization that his earlier vow to go straight has only brought him great trouble and betrayals from even those he thought were his closest friends. Each new episode so far has at least subtly shifted the direction of Franz's life, and the amount of incident packed into each of these segments is often staggering, but this seems like a decisive break in Franz's life, the abandonment of the orienting ideas which had anchored his worldview before this point.

The eighth episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz opens with Franz returning once more to the bar where he spends so much of his time, and talking with the bartender, who's surprised to see him. Franz reads from a newspaper an account of a man whose wife committed suicide, and he responded by drowning their three children. This scene recalls the earlier use of textual material to suggest the wider world of Berlin, but Franz reacts in this case with hysterical laughter, indicating a shift in his opinions towards the news. In his newspaper reading, Franz usually took on the objective tone of a narrator, never reacting to the headlines he recited, simply presenting them as a sampling of the city's reality from outside his own life. Franz's laughter here prompts the bartender to comment that this is a side of Franz he has not seen before, and the film's audience can only agree; this is a whole new Franz.

This new Franz becomes a second-rate gangster, dealing in stolen goods with Willy, and as a result living a life of comparative luxury for the first time in his life, even decking himself out in a fancy suit. His new direction is cemented with the introduction of Mieze (the radiant Barbara Sukowa), who Eva brings to Franz to be his girlfriend. Franz's relationship with Mieze introduces a brighter, lighter palette of colors, with sunshine streaming in everywhere and colors that expand beyond the miniseries' typical browns and yellows. When Mieze first appears, Fassbinder keeps the camera on Franz's profile while she walks into the room, her footsteps lightly pattering on the soundtrack as the only hint of her presence. The awed, almost worshipful look on Franz's face is deeply moving, suggesting the churning emotions behind his gaze, and signaling the arrival of the full-fledged melodrama that Fassbinder has always prized in his films. He holds the shot of Franz's face long enough to build up the tension about the girl's arrival, and when he finally shows her, standing in the doorway, it's a transcendent moment. She's bathed in light, dressed all in white, so that she seems to glow, standing out from the dull brown surroundings. Her appearance is reminiscent of the way Fassbinder allows light sources to flare in this film, so that any time there's a lamp or a bare bulb anywhere, it looks like a star glistening — Mieze's arrival has exactly that effect.

This is a very happy relationship, filled with love, tenderness, and fun, captured in equal measures through the imagery and the periodic textual intertitles describing Mieze's gentle nature and some small moments between the two. Fassbinder allows his presentation of this romance to verge on cheesiness, shooting in sun-drenched exteriors for the first time, opening up the film's claustrophobic visual aesthetic, especially in a scene where the couple takes out a rowboat and romps in a forest together. The sunny visuals and warm tone of this material is a real departure from the film's gloomy mise en scène, perfectly capturing Franz's ecstatic happiness with his new girl. But even this happiness turns out to be a betrayal of sorts.

By the end of the episode, it is obvious that Mieze is sleeping with other men as a prostitute, in order to support the two of them, so that the situation becomes a mirror of the one that Franz used to have with Eva. When Franz first learns that Mieze might be duplicitous with him, Fassbinder abruptly cuts to a replay of the scene from the first episode in which Franz kills Ida. While the scene plays out again in its familiar way, the voiceover tells tangentially related stories about Franz helping to save a horse that fell into a hole, and men whose wives became prostitutes in order to support them. The scene becomes a multilayered commentary on Franz's complicated feelings at this moment, his anger incarnated by the replay of Ida's murder, which was his response to a much earlier betrayal. The anger is tempered by the dispassionate tone of the narrator, whose objectively presented stories suggest the themes at the heart of the Franz/Mieze relationship. The episode ends with a hint of reconciliation, but already the brief interlude of brightness and innocent love has passed, replaced with a darker and more complicated set of emotions.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Well now you're deep into the thick of it. When I saw the film for the first time the first screening ended with episode six where Franz loses his arm. This is the turning point of the entire project -- both Doblin's novel and Fassbinder's film. Reinhold and Mieze are the other major characters and dominate the film from here on in.

It is Franz's discovery of his love for Reinhold -- a self-abasement beyond the wildest dreams of any leather "bottom" -- that was the vehicle through which the teenage Fassbinder discovered his gayness.

The "over the top"ness of the scenes with Spengler and Schygulla that you cite pop up in Fassbinder's work periodically. They're part of the decor and need not be examined too closely.

Barbara Sukowa is truly amazing, as you will shortly see. You have to go all the way back to Gish in Broken Blossoms and True Heart Suzie to see its like.

Howie said...

I wonder why DavidEhrenstein says that it is Franz's discovery of his love for Reinhold that was the vehicle through which the teenage Fassbinder discovered his gayness. Is this a reference to something Fassbinder reported?

Also, don't you think it's interesting the way Franz's tragic flaw -- his naivity -- is actualy confined to his relationship with other men. He knows exactly how to manipulate women to achieve his own purposes. And he doesn't seem to care too much about their feelings either.

Ed Howard said...

Howie: Yes, Fassbinder himself cited the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz as a major influence in his life, and particularly the Franz/Reinhold relationship had an enormous impact on Fassbinder's understanding of his own sexuality. This is one of the main reasons that, much later in life, he wanted to make the book into a film -- and why, in earlier films, he often used Franz Biberkopf and derivatives of it as pseudonyms and character names.