(20/12/07) – Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) is Fassbinder’s TV film, 15 and a half hours in thirteen episodes plus an epilogue, shot on 16mm. Famous for its length and for being a thematic and stylistic culmination (for good or ill) of Fassbinder’s intense career as a film-maker, it can no longer also now be famous for being an unattainable cult film. Twenty-five years since Fassbinder’s death, a collaboration between various German film organisations has seen the original negative restored; new prints have been shown at festivals and at the art-house; and here it is for home viewing from Second Sight on five discs plus one of bonus materials.
A range of grainy yellow and orange tones; claustrophobic interiors which cut in and out of similarly space-less exterior locations; shadows which seem to enclose everything like an unbreakable glass surround; a red-tinged light flicking on and off. In the middle of all this is Franz Biberkopf and his loves. He is a struggling man or ‘under-goer’ (der untergeher), trying whatever comes – violent, striving, tender, a naïve believer in others, a petty criminal, a pimp. . . He is continually turning his face to a new situation, and we don’t know what he’ll do next as the light flickers on and off (a neon sign outside his window).
Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, is a modernist city collage of voices sounded through the ‘story of Franz Biberkopf’ – from his prison release (he killed his girlfriend) and on through schemes, mishaps, duels, and sinkings into drunken despair, all in the Berlin contemporary to Döblin. He then massively condensed his work – which had gained him international notice – into a screenplay, which became an 88-minute film directed by Phil Jutzi in 1931. Post-war, exploring a world of petty criminals, a love ‘colder than death’, the small and the great orderings of fear, these would also go on to be the constant factors in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s city cinema as it changed and developed.
He loved Döblin’s book, writing that it ‘saved my life’. It seems that he found in Biberkopf’s progress a semi-autobiography already written, supporting a verbal and visual allegorising set of figures with multiple points of view and a pared down set of reference points (the city sounded rather than represented). The director as Biberkopf, an undergoer crashing through his different styles, the wild and ‘greasy boar’ (Herzog’s estimation as to cinema’s loss when Fassbinder died). Elements of the book can be found throughout his films – the opportunity afforded by TV to create a vast film of the work was perhaps an invitation to indulgence: luckily indulgence seems to have had a focusing and driving effect for Fassbinder.
Each of the thirteen episodes is an hour long; some seem structured to work as units, others require the bigger swirl of threads and atmospheres to plug into. The epilogue, however, is two hours, and is ‘My dream from the dream of Franz Biberkopf’. It breaks from the dream-realism of what preceded it: Biberkopf, restrained in an asylum, now wanders through a phantasmagoria, with all the characters returning, some changed. Angels attend. The slaughterhouse, familiar from the slightly earlier In a Year of 13 Moons (1979), makes a reappearance. There is a constant music like a soundtrack album remixed. This epilogue is variously thought of as a flaw, a diversion, a hammed up mash of weak symbolism (mostly Biblical), a monstrous addition, the pulling of a cinematic rug from under the diligent work and dramatic accretions of the preceding episodes. Personally I thought this dream of a dream finally made the whole of Berlin Alexanderplatz crackle alive, running its energy back through the series, changing and realigning them such that Döblin’s collage technique returns to the TV project retrospectively from the epilogue’s vantage. Before the dream, those kinds of interruptions were only present in the interposed prose cards and with the narrator who often speaks of something else occurring in Berlin, or of an aggregate process (an average abattoir through-put, for example), while an emotional scene plays out before us.
The restoration of this work has been extensive, clearing the colours, de-flickering, removing tears and dirt spots in the digitisation process from the 16mm stock. This Second Sight set presents the fruits, along with a disc of extras. These include one of those casual on-set documentaries, filming the filming, in which we see Fassbinder in hat and scarf jumping up and down and explaining when the car should stop and when it should go. We can also see the TV executives dropping in to assess how things are going, and a reveal of the street-set, bought after it was constructed for Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977). Then there’s a documentary on the restoration itself, which is full of detail, unlike the third doc here, ‘A Mega-Movie And Its Story’, mostly interviews with vague, awe-struck cast members, though interesting for its insights into the German tabloid attacks on the piece as trash-art sensationalism when it was in production and then when it was aired.
The film is a line between two murders, each event thick with the preservation of itself as an emblem even as it remains terrifying in its choreography. It’s a form of carceral cinema, a map of punishment which is also, in Biberkopf’s own bear-like lumbering in search of something good, somehow buoyant, perhaps in great part due to Gunter Lamprecht’s portrayal of him, particularly the irrepressible facial expressions which are child-like in that there is no mask there, one thinks, only the flame of a life.
The Berlin Alexanderplatz DVD is out now on Second Sight Films. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.