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.



April 22, 2011

Veronika Voss is as appropriate a final film as one could hope for from the late R.W. Fassbinder. It carries a sense of decisiveness about it, a summing-up quality just right for a last statement; it also contains spooky connections to Fassbinder’s real-life demise, since Veronika Voss is a cinematic illusionist who becomes dependent on drugs, as did, tragically, the director. Everything seems elegiac: the exquisite black-and-white photography, the somber tone of the performances, the bleak absence of hope. The clarity, the restraint, the sadness with which Fassbinder presents the story contribute to the sense of desperate finality; and his own brief physical presence in an early scene (peering over the heroine’s shoulder in a moviehouse) certainly seems, in retrospect, like a calculated farewell to the cinema, and to life.

Leave it to Fassbinder—he would go and make one more movie before he ran out of breath last year, and make it as inappropriate a final statement as Veronika Voss is a fitting one. Querelle is a gaudy adaptation of Genet, with a flaming yellow-orange color scheme and determinedly artificial sets; it has the physical appearance of one of the Arthur Freed-Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave musicals as directed by Vincente Minnelli on hallucinogens.

It’s anchors aweigh as Fassbinder brings the psychosexual tensions of the seaside town into seething life, and puts his odd international cast through close encounters of every kind. Brad Davis’s Querelle (and this problematic actor is much better than his on-set interviews in Wizard of Babylon lead one to expect) is the object of lust from every angle; Jeanne Moreau sings in the bar central to the action; Franco Nero smolders as the ship’s captain who must have Querelle. Much of this remains on a fairly enigmatic level, as least on one viewing, even with the guiding intertitles that flash up every so often. Most of it is rapturously heightened, with Fassbinder stubbornly caring about the goings-on in the tacky costumes and loud lighting. Some of it is superb. Maybe Querelle is the appropriate parting shot from Fassbinder after all: Fassbinder seemed to want nothing so much as to disturb us; in his films, when people start feeling comfortable, they start to fade away. Querelle may make you feel many things, but comfortable isn’t one of them. Querelle rocks the boat.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A zany movie. Can’t imagine watching it again, but I said that about Satan’s Brew too, and darned if it didn’t look better on a second viewing. Maybe Querelle was a new direction for Fassbinder, maybe it was just one of those throwaways he would undertake in the midst of his three-or-four-movies-per-year pace and signifies nothing beyond that. (Except: Each man kills the thing he loves, la-di-da.) In any case, it was rendered with absolute confidence, like every other movie he made.