by James Pate on Dec.12, 2012
For years, I’ve been meaning to watch Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and I finally got around to it last summer. Quite a few critics have called it one of the best films ever made, and I agree, though it does have an unfair advantage, being more than fourteen hours long. Should it even be called a film, and not a TV show? It was produced for German television, after all.
It’s a debate that goes back since it was first produced. Sontag was adamant that is was a film, not a TV series. She even argued it should be seen in one viewing if possible — which would be quiet a feat. Others have been as adamant in the other direction.
I think it’s best comparable to Eisenstein’s gloriously weird Ivan the Terrible, with its two separate but adjoining halves. Both are histories with a deliberately staged quality, both bring together elements of “high art” (artistic shots, for example) with “low art” (both are dramatic as hell), and both films are incredibly stylistically diverse (the epilogue in Fassbinder’s film seems to almost have been made by a different filmmaker).
Susan Sontag in her famous review of the film said that it had achieved something in cinema that had never been done before: because of its extreme length, it has, she argued, the elasticity of a novel, with some scenes and scenarios being drawn out almost to the breaking point, and others snapping closed in only a few minutes.
I like the idea of a film that works like a novel, just as I like the idea of a short story that works like a poem, or a poem that works like a film (as many of Bolaño’s do). Many of Godard’s films seem like novels to me. Made in USA, one of my favorite Godard films, seems to be a dime store crime novel as written by a disgruntled philosophy student. But I think Sontag, though she never says it explicitly, probably means Berlin Alexanderplatz reminds her of one of the 19th century novels she loved so much. The Idiot. Anna Karenina.
And the film is like that. It’s cavernous and roomy and full of echoes and a dizzying amount of characters wander through it. I like the idea of a 20th century art form making a 19th century film. Usually, there’s so much pressure to “make it new.” It’s interesting when a director says, no, I’ll make it old. (Guy Maddin comes to mind.)
The story is simple, based on the novel by Alfred Doblin. A former pimp gets out of prison. His name is Franz Biberkopf. He can’t find a job. This is Germany in the 20s. He goes to his favorite bar. He takes up with one woman, and then another. He has a mental breakdown in which he imagines himself speaking with God, and where he is cast in the role of Job.
He wanders around with vomit on his shirt. He gets himself back together. He does this job. He does that job. He flirts with Nazism. He flirts with communism. He is not really a political animal. And then he meets a man in a bar. A strange looking guy named Reinhold. He looks like John Lurie.
They circle one another. When Reinhold breaks up with a woman, Franz starts to date her. But then Reinhold does something horrible to Franz. Franz ends up mutilated. And yet he still circles Reinhold. Eventually, Franz begins to date a woman named Mieze. He also becomes her pimp.
Reinhold hangs out at the edges of various scenes. He can’t leave Franz alone and he doesn’t know why. He wants to hurt Franz and he doesn’t understand why. And then Reinhold decides to act, to do something that will bring the whole world tumbling down around them.
Franz goes insane. He speaks to glamorous angels who look like they could have stepped out of Studio 54. He hears Lou Reed and Janis Joplin and Kraftwerk. He is caught Fassbinder’s fever dream about the novel. His obsessions and fears and hatreds have become Fassbinder’s, until he is crucified, with nuclear light glowing behind him.
Fassbinder had been haunted by the novel long before he made the film. He read it when he was a teenager, and one of his first films, the brilliant Love Is Colder than Death, includes a pimp by the name of Franz. Fox and His Friends even has a character with the name “Franz Biberkopf.” It’s not hard to see why he liked the book. Fassbinder had immense sympathy with the outsiders of German society: the working class, the destitute, prostitutes, pimps, criminals, pornographers, foreigners. And the book is very much of that world. Everyone is selling something under the table, everyone is scrambling to find some way to not fall down the rabbit hole.
The film doesn’t strive for historical authenticity. It doesn’t try to make us feel like we are in Germany in the 20s. It does have an immense amount of historical detail: fashions, hats, cars, haircuts. But Fassbinder’s voice frequently breaks in, telling us the birth and death statistics in Berlin in a given year, or giving us an extended philosophical soliloquy about Job, or the notion of sacrifice. (A kind of voiceover appears in the novel too.)
And then there’s the looping, the repetition. Certain scenes we have seen before suddenly break on to the screen. They play quickly, or very slowly. Time gets caught, the days get rewound.
Franz’s story is no longer “his story.” Rather, it becomes a ghost text, with his “I” flickering through time and space. The looping and repetition keeps us aware of the ghosts, the crowd that is “Franz Biberkopf.” Sometimes he’s a monster, spewing at the mouth; at others, he’s the victim, crushed and mumbling eloquently about how the world is the cruelest of jokes.
And the epilogue. Some critics don’t like it, finding it too much, too over the top, too stylistically different from the rest of the film. Others love it and consider it one of Fassbinder’s greatest achievements. I’m definitely with that second camp. Not only is it one of the best things Fassbinder did, I think — it’s one of the most intense, moving, and overwhelming pieces of film I’ve scene in the last few years.
We enter the mad zone with two angels, and, as Deleuze might say, the triangles collapse. The political and sexual and social and economic fall into one another. An orgy turns into a slaughter-house only to turn into an orgy again. A boxing match ends with a kiss. Franz dreams with Fassbinder’s songs in his head, Lou Reeds “Candy Says,” Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Ceilings are too low. The night is clearly staged, as is the rain, and the lightning. The corpses keep showing up with different names and different wounds. Scenes of S&M are carried out like business meetings.
Fassbinder appears to watch Franz be hacked apart. He wears huge sunglasses and a fedora and a scarf and smiles during the process. The two angels watch with him. Reinhold appears as a suave Euro-trash devil, but also Christ, with an immense crown of thorns.
In the end, Franz is reborn. He recovers his senses just enough to get a menial job and live a menial life. And yet Fassbinder reminds us that even here, with Franz a smaller but wiser man, history is waiting right around the corner to fuck everything up, to make his slaughter-house fever dream a reality. The film ends on the verge of the 30s.