Mar 28, 2013

Berlin Alexanderplatz

In terms of sheer size, artistic scope, and all-encompassing ambitiousness, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) – a 15 ½ hour film based on the 1929 Alfred Döblin novel of the same name that is considered the longest “cinematic film” ever made and was originally broadcasted on West German television in 14-parts, including 13 single chapters and an experimental two hour epilogue – was indubitably German New Cinema König Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s crowning achievement as, quite arguably, the greatest and most important filmmaker of his disillusioned and revolutionary zeitgeist as an ambivalent child of the post-WWII generation. Originally read by the director when he was only fourteen or fifteen years old, Döblin’s modernist magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) would be described by Fassbinder as a life-changing work of literature that, confessing in a collection of “unorganized thoughts” on the novel that he wrote, he had, “unconsciously turned Döblin’s imaginings into my life. Yet once again it was the novel that helped me to overcome the alarming crisis that resulted and to work at establishing something that could eventually become, I hope, more or less that thing one calls an identity, to the extent that’s even possible with all this screwed-up mess.” And, indeed, traces of Döblin’s crucial influence can be seen scattered throughout Fassbinder’s cinematic oeuvre, including deriving plots for two of his early films (Love Is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague) from Berlin Alexanderplatz and constantly recycling the name “Franz” (the name of the protagonist in the novel) for a number of his films, including his debut-feature Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), Katzelmacher (1969), Gods of the Plague (1970), and The American Soldier (1970), as well as going so far as even taking the protagonist's full-name “Franz Bieberkopf” for his highly personal work Fox and His Friends (1975). By no means a literal filmic adaptation of Döblin’s sometimes seemingly incoherent novel, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is a more naturalistic work that does not wallow in montage nor the modernist Joyce-esque esotericism of its source material and features an epilogue that sums up the director's highly and singularly personalized interpretation of the novel as a filmmaker who had a transcendent talent for synthesizing the personal with the historical and sociopolitical, thus making for a relatively accessible work, even if it infamously enraged West German viewers during its initial TV broadcast, that portrays the rampant wantonness of the rarely working, working-class of Weimar Republic Berlin during the late-1920s within a melancholy microcosm of an ex-con and his mixed-up mind, and the people that make his life all but unbearable and tediously tragic. Centering on a fundamentally flawed anti-hero Franz Biberkopf (played by Günter Lamprecht) – an ex-convict who has just been released from prison after a four year stay for killing his prostitute girlfriend in the heat of the moment – Berlin Alexanderplatz follows a man that, no matter hard he tries, has a difficult time being ‘straight’ and living a live without crime, especially when a Svengali creature of a man named Reinhold (Gottfried John) turns his life – and everyone around him – upside down.

While most prisoners who have not made love to a woman nor lived in a room without bars for a number of years would be nothing less than overjoyed to be released from prison and get on with their personal lives, ex-pimp Franz Biberkopf is not your average fellow, even if he fits the timeless stereotype of a loud, boorish, boastful and belligerent kraut who feeds his bloated belly with beer more than he nurtures his mind with knowledge or even common sense. After being virtually forced off the grounds of Tegel prison after becoming a free man for the first time in four years, Herr Biberkopf is quite overwhelmed with his destitute and degenerate surrounds in what seems to be a moment of temporary insanity, but he is ‘nursed’ back to mental health by two eccentric Orthodox Jews who have a seething Semitic hatred of one another. Not long after, big brazen bastard Biberkopf virtually rapes a woman named Minna (Karin Baal), the sister of the prostitute girlfriend he killed four years before because he correctly believed she was about to leave him. Despite witnessing Biberkopf’s brutal murder of his lover Ida (Barbara Valentin), Frau Bast (Brigitte Mira), a kindly if not pathologically nosy landlady, has maintained the ex-con's studio apartment, so he need not worry about finding a place to stay. Naturally, being a jolly alcoholic who has not had a cold beer in years, Biberkopf soon goes to his favorite bar/hangout owned by his friend Max (Claus Holm) after meeting up with his best friend Meck (Franz Buchrieser) by happenstance on the seedy streets of Berlin. Taking Meck’s advice that Minna is bad news, Biberkopf befriends a new love interest in the form of a young Polish gal named Lina Przybilla (Elisabeth Trissenaar). After a wild session of sex, the ex-con vows to Lina that he will go “straight” and work an honest job as opposing to going back to pimping, but such things are easier said than done in a decidedly damning depression era where even normal men commit robberies and cutesy girls peddle their flesh just to survive.

Determined to live an honorable life, Biberkopf works a number of odd jobs, including peddling tie holders on the streets and, to the dismay of an old Jewish friend, naively selling copies of the National Socialist newspaper Völkischer Beobachter while wearing a swastika armband. A rather desperate fellow with a mostly apolitical political persuasion, Biberkopf finds it all but unavoidable that he will get in a barroom fight with some old communist friends. Seconds away from beating a babyish Bolshevik brute with a chair at Max’s pub, Biberkopf decides to find a new line of work and hooks up with Lina’s ‘uncle’ Otto Lüders (Hark Bohm), a fellow ex-con who, unbeknownst to Franz, never managed to shed his criminal ways, and starts selling shoelaces door-to-door. While on the job, Biberkopf ends up cheating on Lina with a lonely bourgeois widow and Otto later robs the woman after hearing about his partner’s salacious story about the lonely woman with a luxurious mansion apartment. When Biberkopf goes back to the widow’s house for another game of carnal knowledge, the woman closes the door on him, thus leaving him rather distraught, so he runs away to a flophouse, where he will stay indefinitely after realizing it is quite hard to stay 'straight,' especially when working with a dishonest partner with a pathetic proclivity for robbing harmless women. After failing to locate Franz, Lina and Meck end up hooking up and the ex-con goes on a delirious drinking binge for quite a number of days.

After breaking out of his hallucinatory hootch hypnosis, Franz B. hooks up with sexy streetwalker Eva (Hanna Schygulla), who quite inexplicably, is perennially in love with the overweight ex-con as he used to be her pimp, thus holding a special softspot in the hot little harlot's heart. In fact, exquisite Eva is so in love with Herr Biberkopf that she is the one that is responsible for paying the rent at his flat when he was away at prison, thus proving her deep-seated devotion to the ex-con, even if she is a prostitute who sells her pussy to make a living. Franz also meets up with Meck again, who admits his short fling with Lina, which his friend has no problem with, but now he has moved on to much bigger things as a member of a posh fellow named Pum’s criminal crew. While Pums (Ivan Desny) immediately offers Franz a job 'selling fruit,' the ex-con turns him down as he wants to stay straight. Franz also meets a stuttering sadist named Reinhold (Gottfried John), an ex-revolutionary who is part of Pums’ criminal enterprise and who, for better or worse, will inevitably become the most important and influential person in the ex-cons life. Reinhold devises a dubious scheme where he passes old and now undesirable girlfriends onto Franz, which works out quite well for a while, but things go awry when Mr. Biberkopf decides he prefers to keep a cabaret singer/dancer named Cilly (Annemarie Düringer), which infuriates the stuttering girlfriend-swapper, thus inspiring him to seek revenge against what he sees as a 'disloyal' friend. A delightful chap who hates drama, Franz is eventually coerced into committing a robbery with Pums’ gang, but it is not until he is actually involved with carrying out the crime that he realizes the magnitude of what sort of criminal corruption he is involved with, thus causing him to freakout on his compatriots, who don't taken kindly to his hysterics. While driving away with the loot, paranoid Reinhold accuses Franz of being a ‘stool pigeon’ and throws him out of the backdoor of the car into a car behind them. Although everyone believes he is dead, Biberkopf has merely lost his right arm.

Not unsurprisingly, Franz B is nursed back to health by Eva and her seemingly slavish lover Herbert (Roger Fritz) and eventually gets involved with a criminal enterprise after meeting a flamboyant Nietzschean conman named Willy (Fritz Schediwy) at a cabaret.  Through Eva, Biberkopf also meets the love of his life in the form of a sweet and beauteous yet slightly dimwitted prostitute, a character that was apparently partly modeled after the character Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) from Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), that he ‘christens’ "Mieze" (Barbara Sukowa) in a symbolic act of his singular love for her. Although Mieze initially support the one-armed Franz, he gets tired of living off of a woman, so he does the seemingly unthinkable by visiting Reinhold – the Mephistopheles-like man that tried to kill him and will inevitably take him to hell and back – so that he can join up with Pums’ gang again. Franz also introduces Mieze to his criminal compatriots, including Reinhold, who seems to have a rather dubious and even strangely romantic feeling for the man he once tried to exterminate and who becomes immediately jealous of his one-armed friend's seemingly immaculate relationship with the seemingly angelic girl. After learning that Mieze loves a young man and that she wants Eva to have Franz’s baby since she’s infertile, Biberkopf nearly beats her to death, but the two inevitably reconcile their differences and become stronger than ever after taking an amazing trip to a folkish forest in Freienwalde, but a malicious man named Reinhold has pernicious plans for the little lady so as to seek revenge against Herr Biberkopf for falling in love with a woman. After blackmailing Meck into getting Mieze to travel to Freienwalde, a special place where she and Franz originally fell in love, like a little lamb being led to the slaughter, Reinhold commits the most unholy act of lover's revenge by proxy against the intrinsically innocent flesh-peddler. With all that has happened, Franz Biberkopf still cannot seem to get Reinhold out of his heart.

The last two hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a surrealist epilogue entitled “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin,” seems in rather stark contrast to the rest of the film’s naturalism due to its Clive Barker-like sadomasochistic and sexually subversive imagery, not to mention its pseudo-Luciferian essence as if Goethe's Faust were set in the mind of a Weimar era mad man entering metaphysical hell. While Reinhold is in jail and is, quite reluctantly, finally embracing his latent homosexuality, Franz is in a mental institution and in a comatose like state, thus the majority of the epilogue takes place in his haunted mind, which is comprised of seemingly real phantasms of his past and present. Guided by to two rather cynical yet wise and stoic, Super Aryan guardian angels named Terah (Margit Carstensen) and Sarug (Helmut Griem) that look like they came out of a Fidus painting, Franz is reunited with the dead, including Ida – the woman who has haunted his life ever since the day he beat her to death and sent her straight to hell – and Pums, who has apparently committed suicide. In a seemingly Satanic slaughterhouse dream sequence of psychosexual phantasmagoria, Reinhold raises a bloody hatchet as if he is the grim reaper over a pile of naked and immobile bodies belonging to Franz’s former lovers, whom the one-armed wonder later joins after stripping off all his clothes. Franz also has a transsexual moment in preposterous pancake make-up drag where he speaks to "Reinhold Christ," a grotesque Willard-esque scene where he crawls on the floor with an army of rodents, has a surrealist boxing match with old Reinhold in the spirit of the real-life match between German heavyweight champion Max Schmeling and American negro Joe "Brown Bomber" Louis, an attempt by old Pums to literally rip his heart out, and even becoming Jesus Christ the crucified himself in an apocalyptic Hieronymus Bosch-like scenario recalling Germany’s physical and cultural destruction during both World Wars. Mr. Biberkopf also encounters bands of Nazi SA brownshirts fighting communists in scenes that vaguely echo Fassbinder’s enemy Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s cinematic magna opera Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977). Indeed, like Syberberg’s Wagnerian Hitler epic, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a rare example of cinema as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ and the epilogue of Fassbinder’s daunting Döblin adaption, which features Richard Wagner’s "Liebestod" aka “love death” ("Mild und leise wie er lächelt") from the opera Tristan und Isolde, is not only the icy, albeit darkly romantic, icing on the cake of the miniseries, but also the cinematic coda to the filmmaker’s entire life as a lonely man searching for love and an identity, but only really finding both esoterically via cinema.

As Fassbinder wrote regarding the antagonistic yet hopelessly potent relationship between anti-heroes Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold in Berlin Alexanderplatz, “I read it as the story of two men whose little bit of life on this earth is ruined because they don’t have the opportunity to get up the courage even to recognize, let alone admit, that they like each other in an unusual way, love each other somehow, that something mysterious ties them to each other more closely than is generally considered suitable for men.” Indeed, unlike Döblin’s novel, Fassbinder’s adaption of Berlin Alexanderplatz makes no ambiguity of “The love that dare not speak its name” between the two strikingly different men: Franz, being an impulsive and extroverted philistine with a practical mind and a big, yet fragile heart; and Reinhold, a resentful and sadistic introvert with an intimidating intellect but without a shred of common sense who has led a life of repressing his feelings, thus resulting in violent acts sired by his sexual repression. While Berlin Alexanderplatz portrays a type of economic depression, more obvious and important to the film is the decided depression of the soul and collective unconscious of Germany, and as Fassbinder’s celluloid oeuvre demonstrates, the director had incurable cases of melancholia and Weltschmerz, thus acting as the highest expression of his nation's "heart" during the post-WWII era. While Fassbinder always saw Franz Biberkopf as his ‘alter-ego’ of sorts, his actions and behavior demonstrate that he was more like Reinhold, so it should be no surprise that he originally intended to portray the curious character in a feature-length version of Berlin Alexanderplatz starring Gérard Depardieu (as Franz B.) and Jeane Moreau that was ultimately aborted. Just as dullard Franz was always the victim of Reinhold’s psychopathic savagery, so were Fassbinder’s three great true loves – Günther Kaufmann, El Hedi ben Salem, and Armin Meier – victims of the perennially miserable and malicious filmmaker’s calculated cruelty, with the second two of his ill-fated boyfriends inevitably committing suicide as a result of his cruel and contemptible behavior. As contemporary German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior) wrote in 2007 in an essay entitled Berlin Alexanderplatz: He Who Lives in a Human Skin, “Franz’s love of Reinhold is a mystery not only to himself but also to us—and yet we know what he’s talking about. The film touches here on a collective secret knowledge that, rumbling in our subconscious, brings to mind on some strange evening of our life a confusing feeling of deepest tenderness for a person we never really thought played an important role in our life.” Of course, where Döblin’s novel ended on a rather low and anti-climatic note, Fassbinder goes full-force with Berlin Alexanderplatz – an epic celluloid tribute by the director to love and hate, life and death, and the Whore of Babylon and the Grim Reaper in the forsaken Fatherland.

Although a rather unflattering anecdote, apparently Fassbinder went from envisioning Berlin Alexanderplatz as a mere feature film to a fourteen part epic in an attempt to fund an absurdly expensive drug habit, and was described by Michael Fengler, who helped draw up the one-year shooting schedule of the film series, as detailed by Robert Katz in the Fassbinder biography Love Is Colder Than Death (1989): “He was now so heavily into drugs [Fengler recalls] that Harry Baer and I came up with a precise plan on how we would manage the whole thing. We estimated that during the filming he would spend forty thousand marks a month to satisfy his need, about half a million for the whole year. We thought it would be idiotic to leave it all to chance, so we decided to buy all the stuff ourselves in advance and sell it off to him piecemeal, without his knowing that it came from us, of course. The idea was to have some control over his habit by knowing what and how much he was getting.” As early Fassbinder collaborator Peter Berling also revealed regarding the director’s coke-fueled direction of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), which, despite being the most successful film of the auteur filmmaker's career, was squeezed in as a "cheap quickie" before shooting Berlin Alexanderplatz, Whatever combination of drugs he’d concocted, it certainly stimulated output, though once he couldn’t move or be moved for two days…To keep the engine going, Fengler hired three assistants who did nothing but fly all over Europe to get stuff for Rainer, but his thirst for cocaine alone seemed unquenchable. It grew to seven or eight grams a day.”  Quite miraculously, Fassbinder ended up getting off drugs for the majority of shooting of Berlin Alexanderplatz and approached the film with the sort of fanatical professionalism that one would expect from Leni Riefenstahl's prodigal son, only to get coked up again around the time of shooting the particularly phantasmagorical epilogue, which one could argue was to the film's benefit due to its exceptionally ominous, oneiric, and otherworldly essence. Not unsurprisingly, Fassbinder was no different from his fictional ill-fated characters Franz and Reinhold in that regard as all three men more or less adjusted their drug intake according to their needs and, of course, it seems there was always a need as individuals who were always on the brink of existential crisis.  As was probably expected by those who knew him, Fassbinder ultimately succumbed to his deleterious addiction a mere two years after completing Berlin Alexanderplatz – a monolithic magnum opus of a movie that the director probably assumed he would never be able to top. After his death, a policeman apparently told a reporter that, "Even Fassbinder's just a man," and, indeed, it really was only a matter of time before the filmmaker's superhuman, stardust-charged work ethic caught up with him as a man who long ago made a 'Faustian pact' by sacrificing his life for his art.

Over three decades later and Berlin Alexanderplatz still seems like the virtual blueprint for popular premium cable channel shows like Six Feet Under (2001-2005) and Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), albeit Fassbinder’s work is more aesthetically and thematically intricate, morally dubious, and remarkably unforgettable that, not unlike how the German New Cinema master auteur described Döblin’s novels imperative influence on him, is for many viewers, a life-changing work. That being said, Berlin Alexanderplatz is more like an overextended, experimental melodrama recollecting Fassbinder’s entire life work as a filmmaker, and then some, as the epically melodramatic celluloid “romantic anarchist” equivalent to prophet philosopher Oswald Spengler’s final work The Hour of Decision (1934), a best seller that was ultimately banned by the National Socialists that predicted an apocalyptic scenario that involved the defeat of the Third Reich and destruction of Germany by the exact year, as well as the decline of power in the Occidental world and the rise of the Third World. In many ways, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a lovely and luxurious, if not patently pessimistic and prophetic, love-hate elegy for Germania as a lurid libertine melodrama set during the apocalyptic beginning of the end of the Teutonic Fatherland. Franz Biberkopf, a kindhearted, if not clumsy and boorish, man who may have had a much different life had he lived during a much simpler and less criminally inclined zeitgeist, is a symbol of German debasement and original sin, and whose story, as Döblin wrote in the preface of Berlin Alexanderplatz, is important because, “To listen to this, and to meditate on it, will be of benefit to many who, like Franz Biberkopf, live in a human skin, and, like this Franz Biberkopf, ask more of life than a piece of bread and butter.”  As chaos rises and engulfs all of the Occident and its former colonies, one could learn a thing or two about the pathology and metaphysics of tragedy in the post-national/post-Hitler and cosmopolitan technocratic age by watching Fassbinder's masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz – quite arguably the last great work of Gesamtkunstwerk of European history.

-Ty E

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