Berlin Alexanderplatz

July 27, 2011

Gunther Lamprecht and friends

For a lot of perfectly sensible reasons, the prospect of tackling 15 hours’ worth of a TV miniseries—and paying to see it in a movie theater, no less—is not merely daunting, but downright repulsive. Especially when you consider the quality of current network “novels for television,” as the high-falutin’ ads refer to them.

But Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is about to be shown locally for only the second time, is no ordinary TV series. It’s nothing less than the most remarkable project in contemporary cinema.

Typically, it came from the mind of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the young German filmmaker who carved out a unique place in film history for himself in the span of his madly paced 36 years. (He died in 1982.)

Fassbinder had long been fascinated and inspired by Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which detailed the peculiar career of one man through the chaotic Germany of the 1920s. In 1980, Fassbinder got the chance to adapt the book for German television—which meant that, with 15 hours at his disposal, he could allow the narrative to unfold with unprecedented leisure and detail—for once, a true “novel for television.”

That’s exactly how Fassbinder filmed it. Characters move, and speak, and lapse into silence, with novelistic disregard for briskness. That may sound like a 15-hour drag, but Fassbinder’s seductive rhythms establish themselves at the outset, and before long you’re barely aware of watching the film at all—it’s almost more like living through a lifetime, as it is happening.

That lifetime, which belongs to Franz Biberkopf (played superbly by Gunther Lamprecht), forms a strange arc across the backdrop of a nation violently re-forming itself. As the film begins, Biberkopf is being released from prison, and he vows to never get himself in trouble again—taking a noncommittal stance that transforms him into something of a tabula rasa.

Franz wanders through this inferno, but can’t avoid sliding into the criminal world. He also can’t avoid women, most of whom seem wildly attracted to him. This is dubious at first, since Franz—physically and intellectually—resembles a big, likable, graceful camel. But the actor’s presence is persuasive enough to carry it off.

The actors—made up largely of the members of Fassbinder’s loyal stock company—have a lot to do with making the film so watchable. Barbara Sukowa (Lola) is tender and fierce as Franz’ true beloved; Elisabeth Trissenaar is lovely as an early flame; and Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun) is stellar in a smaller role. Honors go to Gottfried John, for his disturbing creation of one of the most complete villains in memory.

This mind-boggling work, with its many demands and commensurate rewards, was screened over the course of a single week at the Neptune theater in December 1983. (The faithful who staggered from the theater at the end of that week did so in a truly altered state.) Now the Market theater is bringing it back, in a rather more convenient schedule: a single, two-hour block per week, shown every Saturday at noon (then repeated same time next day) beginning this week, through March 9.

It’s still a sizable chunk of time, and quite a commitment. But a commitment to Berlin Alexanderplatz pays off in various ways—not the least of which for the view it provides into the mind of one of the cinema’s most scintillating creators. This enormous work is Fassbinder’s greatest legacy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986 ?

Not RWF’s greatest film, no, but a big legacy, for sure. I watched it during the Neptune’s weeklong marathon, but not during the Market’s rollout. In a way I’m wrong about the movie resembling a novel; actually it becomes more like a dream, one that can stand still for an hour at a time. A novel must keep words going on a page, but here Fassbinder actually seems to stop time for an interlude, or make it feel like non-movie time. Reading the actual novel is absolutely on my list of things to do.