Thursday, August 20, 2009

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin Alexanderplatz should not exist. At no point in the cinematic history of any country should a film like this have been approved for production for national television. How Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of the two mad geniuses of the German New Wave (the other of course being Werner Herzog), convinced not one but three studios to finance this 15-1/2-hour epic and air it on West German broadcasting company WDR boggles my mind, but not nearly as much as the actual product.

Alfred Döblin's novel is, according to a friend (I have not yet read it), a Ulysses for post-WWI Berlin: a rambling, prosaic -- in subject, not execution -- opus that follows the life of an ex-convict as he is inexorably drawn back into the criminal underworld and consumed by fate. One of the most celebrated novels of the century, it became Fassbinder's favorite book, and informed events and even character names in much of his work. For him to helm an adaptation is only the natural outgrowth of his career up to that point, but a love of the source material alone does not guarantee a faithful adaptation, much less a good film.

That's what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz such an oddity, though; I cannot speak for its faithfulness, but if Döbin's novel really drew upon Joyce for inspiration, then Fassbinder has somehow managed to capture the style perfectly. These are the sort of books that are un-readable, much less un-filmable. Shifting points of view, stream-of-consciousness, hyper-literacy; such a style is not made for the cinema. And this aired on television, the soul-crushing boob tube that until only recently rarely offered more than stale proselytizing or escapism.

Fassbinder's epic is a spiritual odyssey, a character's tone poem. The story of Franz Biberkopf is told through gentle takes and repetition. With each repetition he further analyzes his characters' actions, inviting us to note new subtleties in their faces, deliveries, movements. Through them we delve deeper into themes of alienation, despair, love and fate. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a sweeping, orgiastic, tragic fugue, one that encapsulates not only the state of Weimar Germany but vicious cycle of crime in all nations.

At the center of all this stands Biberkopf. A man of nondescript pudginess and carriage, Biberkopf leaves prison to discover a world largely unchanged, albeit perhaps even more indifferent to him than it used to be. Biberkopf enjoys a good pint, perks up whenever a woman -- any woman, it seems -- wanders into his proximity, and rests in a dingy apartment. He is a nobody, and therefore he is everyone. Imprisoned for murdering his lover, Biberkopf swears to change his ways and go straight.

But a simple life's just not in the cards for this ex-con. He returns to that old apartment because he can no longer live in certain districts, and he must maintain employment. Skilled neither at oratory or personal, face-to-face conversation, Franz never lasts long in any vendor position. Without remotely understanding their politics, he takes to handing out copies of a Nazi paper, much to the discomfort of an old Jewish friend. No job pans out, and Franz often wanders through the pubs, the apartments and the streets of his restricted sector.

In these lapses of inactivity, Fassbinder gently pulls us deeper into this world, even as it becomes more repulsive with each frame. The initially remorseful Biberkopf continues to victimize women -- late in the series, he beats his most faithful lover, Meize, so violently I nearly turned off the movie for a break -- and he spends much of his day in an alcoholic stupor. Symptomatic of the Weimar Republic, he has nothing to latch onto after the life-changing event of prison internment. He hocks that Nazi rag, drunkenly sings "The Watch on the Rhine" in response to a group of Marxists giving their own drunken stab at "The International," mumbling something about these young radicals knowing nothing about the world as the cause of his political outburst. Later, he himself preaches half-remembered Communist rhetoric to an uninterested friend.

Faced with a world that is both as cruel as he remembers and too far in the future for him to understand, Franz falls into crime. He meets a pimp, Reinhold (Gottfried John), and strikes up a friendship. Franz gets Reinhold's cast-offs, and Reinhold gets a man just as subservient as any of his women. Now, Fassbinder was openly gay, and sexuality figures prominently in his work, but even he believes that the relationship between the two men is Platonic. When I saw Miyazaki Hayao's recent Ponyo, I remarked that the true love that the film promoted transcended any romance, and a perverse reflection of the same basic sentiment informs the bond between the two men.

Under Reinhold's spell, Franz agrees to help with a robbery, which is botched and costs him an arm. Franz visits his friend as though nothing happened, and Reinhold throws him out because he can't stand to see Franz's stump (there is a hint of deep regret in this cruelty). Reinhold gives Franz his women after a few weeks of using them because he cares for them no longer, but when Franz develops a serious attachment with one of them, Cilly, Reinhold reacts with a jealous distaste. The robbery injury ends that relationship, but eventually Franz finds love with young Mieze. Franz sets up a hidden meeting with Mieze with Reinhold watching, hoping to spite his friend for abandoning him, only for her to profess that she loves another man. In a rage, as much because she embarrassed him in front of Reinhold as her infidelity, he viciously beats her. But the two reconcile, so Reinhold seduces and murders Mieze to end it once and for all.

Through it all, Franz stands as a symbol for Germany on the brink of fascist takeover. Without any guiding light, he drifts through political stances, arguing each with passion without understanding a one. He loses everything but his dignity, and that fades away soon enough as well. His power is cut short with the loss of his arm, just as the German government lost its own arms when the military was forcefully disbanded. Eventually, he latches onto a cruel, abusive man and sticks by him simply because that man emits an inexplicable presence that goes beyond his horrid character. Franz is so crippled by society and so mad from the effect of Reinhold's cult of personality that he can stand in a court in the final moments and testify to the good character of the man who murdered his lover.

By the end, Franz is a pimp and a thief, minus an arm and aware that his best friend strangled the woman he loved. He has lost everything, and he slips into madness. The two-hour epilogue, Franz's hallucinatory fever dream, is considered by some a break from the tone of the preceding 14 hours, but I don't see too much of a change. It's certainly different, yes, but the rest of Berlin Alexanderplatz does not occur exactly in the real world. Fassbinder takes the tiny block of Franz's confinement and stretches it, distorts it, almost imperceptibly. He bends his characters into real people and archetypes, makes his limited number of sets look and feel drastically different. Dialogue, music, even scenes are repeated, stressing themes or simply prolonging our time to think about what's happening to our poor protagonist. Fassbinder films in long takes, which move in and out of close-ups not through camera movement or zooms, but the movement of the characters. Occasionally (and readily throughout the epilogue), he presents staccato montages of Franz's actions and thoughts. Fassbinder's style goes beyond surreality or avant-garde: it's the most daring thing ever put on television.

Fassbinder uses nostalgic gold and black hues to the greatest ironic effect since Gordon Willis' cinematography in The Godfather Part II: Biberkopf's misadventures are emotionally muted, the horrors that he perpetuates and are perpetuated upon him presented through the warm golden tones of the color timing. Günter Lamprecht weathers each of these misadventures beautifully, with exasperation and fatalism yet a certain amount of pluck. I don't know if he captured what Döbin saw in Biberkopf, but he certainly fits Fassbinder's vision like a glove. Franz laughs often at these trials and tribulations, a deep, booming laugh that rallies him like the battle drone of a shofar, steeling him against the darkness. That laughter eventually leads to tears and, ultimately, madness.

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