Fassbinder's Berlin and Franz's Angels

by 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.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. judson hamilton

    i’ve seen some of his films before but never this one – i plan to rectify that immediately. thanks for the edifying review.

  2. Johannes Göransson

    This sounds like an amazing show – whether TV series or film. It also sounds like some of his other movies, as well as some of Herzog’s movies. Getting out of jail and finding oneself in a bewildering “freedeom” seems like a key plot line of a lot of 1970s German films, where as American movies from this period – if I may speak in incredibly generalizations – seems more like about staying out of jail (and then getting killed, I think of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Bonnie & Clyde etc).

    It seems that Sontag – in typical high modernist fashion – tries really hard to not make it into a TV series: by claiming it as a movie, by insisting on watching it in one sitting. What I like about Twin Peaks and other TV series is exactly the way it is interrupted – creating at its best a zone for the viewer, blurring the distinction between life and how. To bring things back to my last post, this seems also the dynamic of “fan fiction” – opening the show up. That’s obviously not what Sontag favors.

    Johannes

  3. Johannes Göransson

    Well, having made those broad generalizations, I now think of a million German movies about death instead of jail, or death in jail….

    J

  4. James Pate

    Johannes,

    You’re right about Sontag. Especially later on, she had very definite ideas of what could constitute high art, and it would be impossible, by definition, for a TV show to produce that (high art). I like parts of her essay — she defends the staginess of the film, which I find interesting — but she does go out of her way to not see Berlin Alexanderplatz as at least in some ways related to the narrative conventions of the mini-series.

    And yeah, there is something really interesting about the film starting where most narratives would end (Franz’s terrible crime, his prison sentence). There’s something very Dostoevsky-ian about both the novel and movie, with both focusing on the aftermath of a crime more than the crime itself. I think in the States, with our sometimes all-too-clear moral divisions between good and evil, these kind of narratives are less frequent (though of course I’m generalizing here). We like to see the bad guy caught, the closing credits as he’s led away. Not what happens to him in jail, what happens when he gets released and tries to get back on his feet again.

    James

  5. Johannes

    I guess I was also thinking about that Werner Herzog movie where the main character gets out of jail and is then terrorized into moving to the US where all hell breaks loose. And I think there is at least one Fassbinder movie that begins after a release from jail (Is that Love is Colder Than Hell?).

    Johannes

  6. James Pate

    That’s Gods of the Plague — which is said to be a sequel to Love is Colder than Death, but I’ve never understood how, since as far as I can tell all the characters are different. But it’s very good, and the main character has a mustache for the ages.