Your next box set? Philip Concannon spends a weekend with Fassbinder’s epic television masterpiece.
In Robert Katz’s biography Love Is Colder Than Death, Michael Fengler recalls seeing the young Rainer Werner Fassbinder walking the streets of Munich with a book in his constant possession. That well-thumbed novel was Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, a book that Fassbinder had discovered as a teenager and one that had an enormous impact on his life; a book that penetrated “my head, my flesh, my whole body and my soul,” as he described it. After re-reading the novel some years later, he said that “it became clearer and clearer that an enormous part of myself, my behaviour and reactions, almost all of what I had thought was me, the me-ness of my existence, was nothing more than what Döblin had described in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Without realising it, I had, quite simply, made Döblin’s fantasy my life.”
In 1978, Fassbinder was offered the chance to bring Döblin’s fantasy to life in a television adaptation of his beloved novel. He was 33 years old, and had been directing films for barely a decade, but he already had almost forty credits – consisting of shorts, features, TV-movies and serials – to his name. His astonishing work rate was fuelled by a seemingly insatiable artistic hunger and whatever drugs he could get his hands on, and now he was approaching the apex of his career. When he found himself with a few months free before production on Berlin Alexanderplatz could begin, he decided to squeeze in a “quickie,” The Marriage of Maria Braun, which turned out to be his greatest commercial success. He was now being handed an enormous budget (the biggest in the history of German television, at the time), 15½ hours of broadcasting and unlimited freedom to present a deeply personal take on Döblin’s work. The wunderkind of German cinema was about to make his magnum opus.
Berlin Alexanderplatz certainly is an epic undertaking, but in a very unusual way. Alfred Döblin’s book has been compared to contemporaneous works such as Ulysses and U.S.A. for its sense of stylistic experimentation. Döblin uses multiple narrators, newspaper extracts, musical interludes and other eclectic devices to create an authentic and immersive portrait of Berlin at a particular point in time. When the idea of a television adaptation was originally pitched to Fassbinder, it was as a six-episode series, but the director insisted that he needed 14 episodes to tell this story (this may have had something to do with the fact that he was to be paid per episode). Having been given his desired 14 episodes, however, Fassbinder didn’t expand his take on the novel, instead deciding to narrow his focus. Instead of multiple narrators all offering their own perspectives, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is largely devoted to the study of a single character.
The series opens with the release of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) from prison, having served four years for the manslaughter of his wife, an incident Fassbinder revisits several times throughout the series. Reluctant to re-enter the world, Franz begins the film by covering his ears and screaming as the noise of the city streets hits him for the first time, with the episode title The Punishment Begins appearing over this vision of a haunted man. Franz is walking into a Berlin that is rife with poverty, unemployment and crime, and Berlin Alexanderplatz follows his doomed attempts to live a normal life, and to avoid being sucked back into the city’s criminal underworld. Franz has affairs with number of women, tries his hand at various jobs, gets drunk, falls in with the wrong crowd and suffers some calamitous setbacks – and that’s pretty much all the narrative that there is for Fassbinder to spread across Berlin Alexanderplatz‘s 900-odd minutes. Instead of relying on the forward thrust of a plot to hold the viewers’ attention, Fassbinder turns Berlin Alexanderplatz into a story that draws us into its world through the gradual accumulation of details. He uses the length and space afforded to him to spend time on incidents and encounters that would have been fleetingly dealt with or even excised completely in a more conventional adaptation, but which are all aimed at adding nuance to our understanding of the central character.
This approach can make Berlin Alexanderplatz hard to get to grips with at first. The first couple of hours feel oddly shapeless, tonally inconsistent and prone to arbitrary narrative switches. Eventually, some kind of shape begins to assert itself through the key relationships in Franz’s life. The most important figure that Franz comes up against is the stammering, rat-like crook Reinhold (Gottfried John), who emerges as his nemesis when the pair become involved in a fateful tussle over Franz’s beloved Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), an innocent young prostitute. Mieze’s entry into the film prompts a literal brightening of the mood, with lush sunlight bathing her romantic woodland dates and jaunts on a boating lake with Franz. After so much of the film has taken place in dingy apartments or the seedier corners of the city (such as the memorably bacchanalian red light district), these scenes breathe fresh life into the story, but we know that such happiness can’t last long. This strand of the narrative culminates in one of the most extraordinary scenes in the entire series; an unbearably tense sequence set in the same woods that was the backdrop to Franz and Mieze’s moment of bliss, with the location now being marked by a ghostly, fatalistic atmosphere.
That sequence is also one of the few long passages in the film that doesn’t feature Franz Biberkopf. In the lead role, Günter Lamprecht has to play a character who is both a proletariat everyman and a figure of great allegorical weight, and he responds with one of the most astonishing and sustained pieces of acting you will ever see. Franz is a simple man in many ways; resolutely apolitical, keen to help others, and someone who desires nothing more than a steady job, a woman, and a few drinks. Lamprecht isn’t afraid to be broad in his performance, but he also is capable of finding moments of devastating subtlety that cut right through to the heart of this simultaneously comic and tragic figure. Berlin Alexanderplatz is, in general, a feast of wonderful character acting, with Fassbinder’s theatrical background evident in the way he gives his actors the room to play things out in extended, unbroken takes, and allows the emotional temperature of each scene to rise and fall in a way that feels unhurried and organic. There’s a remarkable sequence at the end of Episode 10 (Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls) in which Franz and Mieze giddily get drunk together, rolling around on the floor as Fassbinder’s camera slowly circles them from a distance, before the mood instantly changes as Mieze’s rich client appears to take her away from the crestfallen Franz. Fassbinder handles such moments throughout the second half of Berlin Alexanderplatz with the skills of a master dramatist.
When Berlin Alexanderplatz was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1980 it received a rapturous reception from the critics in attendance, but it was a different story when the series made its debut on German television, where it was screened on consecutive nights. Many viewers complained about the dark images being too murky to see on their small TV sets, and the truth is that Fassbinder clearly didn’t give a great deal of thought to home viewing conditions as he made Berlin Alexanderplatz. This is most definitely a work of cinema, and it is a particularly beautiful work of cinema at that. The craft on display is stunning, with Fassbinder’s clear spatial awareness and imaginative staging, combined with Xaver Schwarzenberger’s elegant camerawork, ensuring that every scene feels visually fresh, no matter how many times we return to the same handful of locations. Another key contributor is Peer Raben, whose tonally adroit score accompanies so much of the series, brilliantly enhancing and underscoring the drama. This is an astounding piece of filmmaking on every level, and one that transcends the limitations of television to actually benefit from being seen on the biggest screen possible.
And then there’s the epilogue. Fassbinder presents his version of Berlin Alexanderplatz as “Thirteen Episodes and an Epilogue,” and the final instalment certainly feels like something that stands apart from what has gone before. After over 13 hours of relatively straightforward storytelling with occasional surreal touches (such as the inexplicable naked old man slaughtering a sheep, or the spider crawling across dead bodies), Fassbinder cuts loose with his epilogue, retreating into the cracked psyche of his protagonist and presenting his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Döblin’s text. Entitled Rainer Werner Fassbinder: My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, this feature-length climax is a phantasmagorical collection of disturbing, incongruous, anachronistic imagery. As Franz languishes in a mental asylum, the epilogue explores his relationship with Reinhold, teasing out their repressed homosexuality through scenes of them cross-dressing and taking each other on in a tiny boxing ring. Fassbinder utilises fascist and holocaust-related images before climaxing with a crucifixion and a nuclear explosion – all to a soundtrack of Kraftwerk, The Velvet Underground and Janis Joplin – with the director himself appearing on screen to act as a silent witness to the proceedings. In truth, it’s all rather bewildering and overwhelming, and it would take more than one viewing to unpick such a dense assault of allusions and ideas, but watching it is an exhilarating, unique experience.
During the shooting of The Marriage of Maria Braun Rainer Werner Fassbinder had suffered a terrifying drug-related collapse, but for a while that seemed to mark a change in attitudes from the director. He resolved to remain sober throughout the making of Berlin Alexanderplatz, sensibly realising that taking on this monumental task while under the influence would be beyond even his capabilities, and when he reflected on the project afterwards he seemed reinvigorated by the experience. “A week before the shooting had started, I wanted to commit suicide. I’m not kidding. I really thought about it seriously. I felt that I wouldn’t make it,” he admitted, “But when the film ended, I was able to say to myself that now I could face anything. Yes, I’d needed all that time before I could honestly say, now I know my job, now I feel secure.” Of course, this new perspective couldn’t last. Fassbinder slipped back into his old ways and was dead within two years. A feature-film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz, starring Gérard Depardieu as Biberkopf, was just one of many unrealised projects.
Berlin Alexanderplatz screens again at the ICA London on November 16th and 17th.