PRINT March 2003


1980: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

SINCE MANY IN THE ’70s imagined themselves to be living in a disco-inflected version of the Weimar Republic, with all the lurking political apocalypse that implied, there was a voluptuous foreboding in the prospect of a TV miniseries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder chronicling the lower depths of ’20s Berlin. Fassbinder’s cinema of cruelty, with its equal echoes of Brecht, Warhol, and Douglas Sirk, had from the outset provided an infusion of demystifying pessimism in a climate still saturated by late-’60s fever dreams of spiritual transformation. By the time Berlin Alexanderplatz aired in 1980, Fassbinder had moved beyond the deliberately alienating manner of his grotesque spaghetti western Whity (1971) and the noir degree zero The American Soldier (1970) to adopt an approach that was more like infiltration. He wanted to stir up the emotional identification that any old Joan Crawford picture could bring into play, all the better to home in on moments of utter defeat, betrayal, surrender.

For Fassbinder to move beyond art houses to the potentially unlimited world of television was a heady idea, even if Berlin Alexanderplatz was only to be shown here on PBS. TV—not yet balkanized by a thousand cable channels—still seemed like the public square, and the miniseries, a new form, might hold possibilities to which even movies couldn’t aspire. A miniseries had so much more time to explore the narrative intricacies that movies were obliged to compress. It could, in theory, let events unfold in something closer to the cadences of experience.

The form’s possibilities had been well demonstrated by the BBC’s I, Claudius (1976), whose rich detail made even the most ambitious swords-and-sandals epic seem cartoonish by comparison. Two years later the NBC series Holocaust, whatever its dramaturgical shortcomings, had the unexpected effect in Germany of sparking public discussion of its subject on a wider scale than ever before.

It seemed, then, that the long forms with which television was experimenting might evolve into a genre as dense, popular, and aesthetically powerful as those nineteenth-century novels that lent themselves so admirably to the format. The novel that Fassbinder had chosen to adapt was of a different sort: Alfred Döblin’s 1929 epic was a thoroughly modernist work, imbued with a hallucinatory expressionism far removed from the flat, bright certainties of the TV image. For Fassbinder the book was a touchstone: It had transformed him when he read it as a teenager, and the hapless heroes of his films had time and again been named after the novel’s protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, an ex-convict set adrift in post–World War I Berlin.

Berlin Alexanderplatz the TV show turned out to be a belated Expressionist masterpiece, harsh and unforgiving in its delineation of Franz’s inevitable undoing, implacable in its air of nocturnal gloom. Yet Fassbinder had grasped the miniseries aesthetic, if only to frustrate its expectations. From episode to episode, one stayed tuned, as if somehow things were going to turn out all right in the end. As incarnated by the remarkable Günter Lamprecht, the fundamentally good-hearted murderer Biberkopf emerged as Fassbinder’s ultimate sacrificial victim, his life dismantled by the charming, utterly malign Reinhold Hoffmann (Gottfried John). For Fassbinder, the men’s destructive relationship was driven by a sexual desire they were incapable of acknowledging; played out in the episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz, it was like the final unleashing of the demons evoked by the work of Lang and Murnau, of Nolde and Beckmann and Grosz, and more terrifying for the fact that it was all happening on television.

For all its promise, Fassbinder’s miniseries was less the beginning than the end of something. He died eighteen months after it first aired, and the kind of uncompromising auteurist television that Berlin Alexanderplatz seemed to announce was to remain a rarity. For better or worse, television would prove more receptive to a thoroughly collaborative model of creation, and decidedly unreceptive to the kind of unrelieved bad dream that Berlin Alexanderplatz projected into the public square.

Geoffrey O’Brien is editor in chief of the Library of America.