Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz came out in 1929. Its events occur in 1928, so the book was a dispatch from the front lines. It was also a surprising bestseller for such a long and challenging book. In 1931, Döblin collaborated on a film version directed by Phil Jutzi, which was something of a disappointment. After the Nazis came to power, Döblin fled Germany. As a leftist and a Jew, his works and the man himself were unwelcome in the new regime.
Growing up in postwar Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder came upon the novel when he was 14 or 15. As he later wrote, it changed his life and affected his outlook and his subsequent art — sexually, in his sense of how to live life, in his sense of what art should do. Legend has it that when Fassbinder’s 15-hour miniseries of Berlin Alexanderplatz was broadcast in Germany in 1980, it was too dark optically as well as thematically; people couldn’t very easily make out some of the images. Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger blames this on the quality of the videotape transfer from their 16mm print, noting that 16mm was a poor decision in the first place.
In a daunting project, the serial was shown in some theatres, including in the US. Now, after careful restoration, it’s back where it belongs: on our TVs, one hour at a time. Criterion has put out a US equivalent of the DVD package released in Germany earlier this year. The results are strange, revealing, important, inspiring, and a bit sad.
Döblin wrote a novel about Berlin, about the city’s effect on its inhabitants, about how the consciousness of the modern urbanite is diffused into fragments from all the input of the cityscape: signs, broadcasts, traffic, songs, newspapers, overheard conversations in noisy bars, and the thousand momentary interactions we have on the street with all the people, people, people. To convey this, he adopted a montage technique in which the narrator not only tells us what thoughts and half-thoughts flit through the minds of his characters, but also seemingly unrelated anecdotes, metaphysical passages evoking the Biblical stories of Job and the Whore of Babylon, bits of song and incantatory ephemera. The books with which it’s frequently and reasonably compared are James Joyce’s Ulysses and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer.
And as usual when adopting an avant-garde style, the basic story it tells is simple and clichéd, a gangster melodrama out of a penny dreadful. This gives the reader something familiar and safe to hold onto while navigating an unfamiliar and unsafe style.
The hero is Franz Biberkopf, who has just emerged from four years in prison for the death by battery of his girlfriend. He tries to keep his nose clean with straight jobs selling one thing or another, but every step is a kind of setback. He gets a job selling the Nazi paper, for example, and earns the scorn of former friends. There are various episodes with jobs and women, all tending to show the corruption of the city and the people in it, until something dreadful happens that nearly kills him.
Then he settles into a steady relationship with a young prostitute named Mieze, who supports him. Meanwhile, he also insists on associating with a sinister figure named Reinhold, a thief whose problems with women are evidently borne of his unacknowledged homosexuality. On some level, Franz loves Reinhold and this proves his undoing.
However, the author’s voice has interrupted to warn us against despair. Increasingly, he drops in elements that modern critics call magic realism, such as two angels who walk invisibly by Franz and hold a philosophical discussion on the nature of death and ordinary people. This is very possibly the origin of Wim Wenders’ masterpiece Wings of Desire, about angels over Berlin, so this book has been crucial to at least two German filmmakers.
For make no mistake, it’s crucial to Fassbinder. Critics have long discussed his conversion to melodrama after he saw the films of Douglas Sirk as a young man — film critics have the same relation to Sirk themselves — but even though Fassbinder told us also that Döblin’s book was crucial, perhaps it’s harder for film buffs to get around to perusing this doorstop of modernism, even though it’s not so difficult to read (at least in English translation).
But when we read it, suddenly there is Fassbinder: the sometimes extravagant and senselessly theatrical gestures made by characters who burst operatically into emotional conniptions, the relentless negotiation between people in a dance of mutual exploitation and betrayal, the sexual politics, the mix of in-your-face grittiness with godlike dispassion, a kind of tender alienation.
The Jutzi Film
A sad, ragged print of Phil Jutzi’s 1931 film version is included as a bonus in this set. Döblin is credited as a co-writer, but it’s unclear how much of the 90-minute truncation was his. The already simple story is considerably simplified into a no-frills trajectory of tragedy and redemption, the final twists happening without any dramatic fuss before viewers are sent back into the sun with an inappropriately warm, fuzzy feeling.
There are two remarkable aspects to it, however, that show a debt to the classic montage-documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. The opening montage on the streetcar, a collage of both images and sounds of the city under construction, gives us the subjective viewpoint of Franz just released from prison.
Just as important is Jutzi’s realization, early in the sound era before conventions were hammered into place, that a movie can be something like radio (Döblin had even written an unbroadcast radio version) in that the camera doesn’t have to look at who’s speaking but can wander to other subjects on the street. So there are moments during a monologue or dialogue when the film becomes a documentary, slyly turning to capture the sights and sounds of the Berlin of the day, as the novel had done. This closeness in time to the 1929 novel is what the 1931 film primarily offers.
Fassbinder’s production came 50 years later. By default, it was no longer a contemporary story but a period piece, requiring more sets than streets (the sets built for Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, by the way). It was now a memory, a vision in a mirror, and this is communicated by a fesival of sepia. Ceilings are low and everyone is oppressed by brown. In fact, the whole movie looks like it was shot through the bottom of a beer glass.
Not only are many shots presented in mirrors or through windows, not to mention other obstructive bric-a-brac (for both Fassbinder and Schwarzberger loved Joseph von Sternberg), but artifacts of light glisten as though under mist while everyone has a kind of halo or shadow. In an extra, Schwarzenberger says something about the problems of blowing up from 16mm, but if these aren’t intentional effects, they should be.
What is certainly intentional and delirious is how well Scharzenberger adapted himself to Fassbinder’s florid camera style, as essayed previously by Dietrich Lohmann and Michael Ballhaus. Actors and camera are choreographed in Fassbinder’s favorite visual circles and pans, entrapping and enervating his folk in their aspirational dead ends. A contemporary making-of, which reveals that there doesn’t seem to be any pane of glass in front of the camera, shows an objective view of one scene where the camera glides on rails around and around the actors, who meanwhile turn in their own internal gyres like members of a coven conjuring up the gods of cinema within a charmed circle. Schwarzenberger claims most scenes were done in one take after two rehearsals.
Much must be made of Günter Lamprecht’s devotion to a physically and intellectually gruelling role of Franz Biberkopf, the befuddled, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes touching thug onscreen almost 100 percent of the time.The large cast is Fassbinder’s old-home week, with so many of his film actors turning up, including Hanna Schygulla, Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Brigitte Mira, Günther Kaufmann, Udo Kier, Irm Hermann, Barbara Valentin, Volker Spengler, Adrian Hoven, Margit Carstensen, Hark Bohm, Katrin Schaake, Karin Baal, and future Lola Barbara Sukowa in her Fassbinder debut as the sweet, doomed, airheaded yet mercurial Mieze, who’s just as liable to burst out with screams as kisses.
There must be viewers, conditioned to so-called realism and naturalism, for whom Fassbinder’s stylization of actors is off-putting. He combines the theatrical traditions of melodrama, expressionism and alienation, and this sometimes pushes his performances into an intensity on the verge of the ridiculous. There’s plenty of if here, and it underlines the tone of enervation that leads to hysteria.
Finally, there is the soundtrack. Fassbinder himself narrates large fragments of Döblin’s flights of fancy, newspaper accounts, and miscellaneous digressions, layering them over the image of Franz, often flashing back ritualistically to the scene where he kills his pre-prison girlfriend. The other crucial element in the soundmix, apart from occasional background chatter on the radio or in the street, is Peer Raben’s typically glorious music. Raben’s longstanding collaboration with Fassbinder is as crucial as any between composer and auteur, and it consists of bringing out the melodramatic grandeur of how the characters see themselves, no matter how lumpen these dunderklumpen. No mere invisible underlining, Raben’s music is a counterpoint, an element of tension, and it makes no attempt not to call attention to itself.
Fassbinder has time, lots of time, so he includes at least 90 percent of the book, including digressions. He does combine certain characters and events, rearranging others. Many of his divergences (mostly for the sake of time or sense) occur at the end. In a two-hour “epilogue” that’s as surreal as any final episode since The Prisoner, Fassbinder brings on the angels and other steps in Franz’s final deliquescence in the context of a hallucinatory breakdown. These scenes throw in the knowledge of future events (not to mention songs by Janis Joplin, Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen and others) and are portrayed as a series of tableaus with rear-projections resembling Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film from Germany.
We can understand why some original viewers might have been confounded, but Fassbinder’s death a couple of years later means that out of over 40 works, this becomes by default something of a milestone. We are tempted to judge it as some kind of “ultimate” Fassbinder work, although in its allegiance to a work that had shaped so much of his own, we should rather call it a seminal Fassbinder work. Until most of his works finally became accessible in digital remasterings in the DVD era, it was difficult to get a handle on this prolific man’s output or to recognize his mastery of style.
Now that this landmark serial joins its peers in a watchable form, we can judge that its sheer length prevents it from having the impact of many of his features, which can go down like a sour yet bracing brew, but Berlin Alexanderplatz, both serial and novel, are essential to knowing Fassbinder.