PRINT Summer 2007


Berlin Alexanderplatz

“I DON’T THROW BOMBS. I make films”—or so Rainer Werner Fassbinder proclaimed on posters for The Third Generation, his 1979 spoof on terrorism. Well, tell it to the Kulturminister. And to the rest of the gala crowd that turned up at Berlin’s Admiralspalast last February for the premiere of the restored version of an even more audacious film: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), the director’s fifteen-and-a-half-hour made-for-TV epic. If Fassbinder’s proclamation deliberately reads two ways, it underscores his place in the history of postwar German filmmaking—at once its most consummate craftsman and most terrible enfant. In the fourteen years before his death in 1982, he made more than forty films, and indeed these works were the strategic bombing campaign of the New German Cinema, as lush and ravishing as they were provocative and aggressively topical. A different atmosphere prevailed at the Admiralspalast, as speeches followed cabaret followed speeches, leading up to a screening of the first two of the film’s fourteen episodes. Some two dozen former cast and crew members marveled, with bland dignity, at their quarter-century-younger selves. Though Alexanderplatz may have originally been a bomb (in both senses of the word), the mood in the air now was that of honoring a national treasure. How does Fassbinder, once so fierce, hold up, as he turns the corner to classic?

Written by Alfred Döblin in 1929 and first adapted for the screen in 1931, Berlin Alexanderplatz was already a classic. Perhaps the great German novel of the twentieth century, it is certainly the premier rendition of the metropolis Berlin. Döblin tells the wayward tale of Franz Biberkopf, a former convict, small-time crook, and sometime pimp, drifting amid the strife that we now know was the big and tragic story of Weimar Germany. Critic A. O. Scott perhaps captures him best: “He is a philosophical brute, a sensitive sadist, a lurching fact of life.” In other words, Fassbinder material.

And indeed no one has written more movingly about Berlin Alexanderplatz than Fassbinder himself. Without discovering it “in the midst of a murderous puberty,” he writes, “life would have turned out differently, certainly not as a whole, but in some respects, in many, perhaps more crucial respects than I can even say at this point, differently from the way it turned out with Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz embedded in my mind, my flesh, my body as a whole, and my soul—go ahead and smile.” We can go ahead and find references, countless moments in Fassbinder’s films that allude to themes and characters from the novel. (Fassbinder’s heroes are often named Franz. In Fox and His Friends [1975] the filmmaker himself plays “Franz Biberkopf.”) Moreover, he adds: “Berlin Alexanderplatz didn’t only help me in something like a process of ethical maturation; no, it also provided genuine, naked, concrete life support.” Fassbinder approached the filming not just as a cherished project, but as a deeply necessary one, hewing with remarkable accuracy to the book. By no means Fassbinder’s most concise film, it’s his most loving and thorough—at once difficult, sweet, and humane.

Part of Fassbinder’s genius is the straight shot he takes toward intensity, combined with a surfeit of exquisite interference. Much, if not most, of Alexanderplatz was shot through filters—sometimes simply a silk stocking stretched over the lens. Profiles blur and highlights fl ash out like diamonds. (In other contexts, this could be high kitsch, but Fassbinder built a predatory universe that glistens with such magic.) Smoke machines run unobtrusively, and he even cast handfuls of glitter into the air, so that the atmosphere is awash with gleam. To this add his predilection for fine-tuned reflections and precision tracking shots. Spinning the camera around his actors, shooting through dirty panes of glass, Fassbinder demonstrates a visual inventiveness that is unmatched but also unmasked, constantly revealing the filmmaker’s hand, an attitude that finds happy concurrence in the original book. Döblin may or may not have consciously imitated James Joyce, but somehow he arrived at a similarly fragmented and allusive way of writing, producing a novel whose voice is multivalent: poignant, at times overhanded, essentially urbane. Astoundingly, Fassbinder found a way to carry this into film, using voice-overs (his own voice) and intertitles that focus, ironize, or interrupt the story. Each actor speaks his or her own dialect throughout, so no matter how seamless or naturalistic the story, the discordant muddle of accents carries a metanarrative of difference and of performance. Likewise, Peer Raben’s music trawls almost independently through the film. (In a perfect sequence from the fifth episode, a piano étude plays for more than twenty minutes, through an entire relationship, from the moment Franz [Günter Lamprecht] first kisses Fränze [Helen Vita] until he spurns her and takes up with Cilly [Annemarie Düringer].)

But at the same time, Fassbinder, more than any other filmmaker I can think of, infused his lavish melodrama and pure artificiality with such lifelines to the real that his films never (or rarely) fall into pure style. He was willing to be fresh, to let things lie. In more than nine months of filming Alexanderplatz, he rarely shot a scene more than once, forcing his actors into a kind of high-risk performance. Even mistakes could be a virtue. For example, in the slow, ominous buildup to the climactic murder of Franz’s girlfriend Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), Meck (Franz Buchrieser), the friend who has betrayed her, slams a car door that fails to latch, swinging back open as he walks away, so that he has to go back to close it—an unscriptable moment of naturalness. “Döblin’s novel is too good to permit a person to go under or lose himself in it,” Fassbinder writes, touching on a quality he so faithfully translated into film. “Again and again, I was forced, as any reader is, to return to my own reality, to analyze everybody’s reality.”

When Berlin Alexanderplatz first aired on German television, in the winter of 1980, it was something of a flop. Lambasted by the conservative Springer press, it was denounced for various depravities, real and imagined (Catholics, for instance, protested after false rumors spread of a nude Holy Family). Some critics found it tedious, while others indignantly noted that Alexanderplatz cost more than any television production in German history (on a marks-per-minute basis, however, it was actually astonishingly cheap). Controversial at home, it was no commercial success. On the other hand, its premiere at the Venice Film Festival was a triumph, propelling it on to theaters in New York, where critics were ecstatic. Thus Alexanderplatz settled into a strange double life: as a vaguely disappointing mass-market miniseries in Germany and the holy grail of the (mostly British and American) art-house circuit. It slowly fell out of circulation, while the few prints still around changed color and degraded with time.

Shooting for television, Fassbinder filmed Berlin Alexanderplatz in the more economical 16-mm format. What viewers saw at Berlin’s Volksbühne a few days after the premiere, and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in April, was a brand-new—in fact the very first—35-mm print, lavishly produced under the staunch stewardship of Juliane Lorenz, Fassbinder’s longtime editor and companion, and head of the Fassbinder Foundation. The foundation never had the rights to this film—those stayed with the producing company, Bavaria Media—but understanding that the negatives needed to be preserved or risked being lost, Lorenz brokered a complicated partnership and set in motion the long process of restoration. Over six months, each frame of the weak, original negatives was scanned twice, digitally compared, cleaned, and composited. This pristine data could then be exposed with an ARRI laser to 35 mm, but not before the restorators had the opportunity to open an old can of worms.

The most common early complaint about Alexanderplatz was that it was too dark—too dark, some claimed, even to see. Though something was certainly lost in the translation to television (and Lorenz points out in her notes accompanying the new German DVD set that a huge sector of the audience at the time had only black-and-white televisions), there was an equal dose of provocation. Asked about the darkness “problem” by an interviewer, Fassbinder pushed back: “That’s not quite the way it is. There’s a scene which is, and is supposed to be, very dark . . . that’s supposed to be so dark in fact that you can only make out hands or the outlines of faces, and of course the German television viewer isn’t used to that. . . . They just don’t have the patience. I guess the viewers fiddled with the knobs on their TV sets and tried to make the picture brighter, and of course that didn’t help.”

The restorators, overseen by Alexanderplatz’s cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger, saw things somewhat differently. They felt that the production, filming under rushed circumstances, “on the border of light and dark,” had at times inadvertently gone too far. Whether to reveal more of the film, or to realize an ideal vision that had not been quite achieved at the time, or simply to update the “look” of the material (I’ve heard all three rationales), the restoration team decided to digitally recalibrate the exposure and color, considerably lightening many sections of the film. This does not go unnoticed. Some moments—especially the outdoor scenes—now seem slightly overexposed, almost washed out, like old vacation photos in which colors have faded and a cheap camera has been overwhelmed by the sun. Light coming through windows may once have been part of a lovely, pooled balance of light and dark but is now flooded, otherworldly, and artificial, one step closer to Merchant-Ivory. Oncedeep, Rembrandt-like shadows are now just blushes of sepia. Don’t get me wrong: Alexanderplatz still looks great. And there is a lot more to see. In some sequences—the intentionally dark parlor scene near the opening, for example—actions that once played out in a kind of overcast nonspace can now be seen in a real interior. Rather than characters in a sea of light and dark, we see actors on a stage. With this greater sense of artificiality comes the ability to see more of what Fassbinder does with and around the camera. Likewise, the subway scenes—always among the most socially pitched and claustrophobic—benefit from opening up the architectural drama of their settings.

We even benefit from what the restorators were unable to fix. Transferred to 35 mm, the botched bits and imperfections of Alexanderplatz, which stem from being shot on 16 mm in breakneck conditions, are vital interruptions of the surface, radar blips of raw filmcraft that do not seem at all out of place alongside the voice-overs and intertitles. The space around Biberkopf at times swarms with grain. Two characters are shown talking in close-up, then suddenly Fassbinder cuts to a wide shot, in which they are grainy and ever so slightly out of focus. The film we thought we were watching recedes for a moment, and we see the film we know was restored.

Restored to what? Berlin Alexanderplatz broke the rules of television and challenged the boundaries of film. How should it ideally be seen? One new alternative was proposed by “Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz—An Exhibition” (March 17–May 18, 2007), a show organized by MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach for Berlin’s Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art. (The exhibition travels to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York this fall.) Biesenbach writes of encountering the film as an adolescent in Germany and proposes a subjective, self-directed way of looking, moving through the episodes at will. In KW’s main hall, all fourteen episodes screened in cubicles arranged panoptically around a central space, modeled on a typical Berlin courtyard, and were thus viewable in isolation or at once—a 300-degree wall of images. In the “yard,” the images were seen only on the backs of the screens, reversed. Eyes darted here and there, as movement on one screen or another vied for attention. Viewing inside the cubicles had all the disadvantages of seeing video in museums and, considering that the film is now available on DVD, none of the rareness. The exhibition asked the viewer to do a number of things; watching the film wasn’t one of them.

More richly, the installation foregrounded the notorious final episode—the Epilogue, or, as Fassbinder titles it, “My Dream of Franz Biberkopf’s Dream”—presenting it on a larger screen than the others. In the book, this is Franz’s purgatory: Delirious in an insane asylum, he carries out a long dialogue with Death and runs through the scenes of his life. Was Fassbinder’s version a failure, or, as Biesenbach seems to claim, the jewel in his crown? Encountering it in hour fourteen of a screening is painful (it must have been shocking when it reared its head on German television). The Epilogue is also mildly embarrassing. The drama, which has swollen to a pitch, waltzes off to a different beat (Kraftwerk, mixed with Tristan and Isolde), while actors who have been performing with excruciating intensity now wander like zombies through an overstuffed stage set replete with random debris, light S&M, and fake blood. Biberkopf is crucified and an atomic bomb goes off. At its worst, this is camp with fatal earnestness. Though the Epilogue may not bear repetition, it perhaps bears some scrutiny. Fassbinder takes what is essentially a hallucinatory—and abject—inner monologue from the book and hands it out to all the characters. It reads wonderfully in the script, a brilliant gloss of one artist reading and struggling with another’s work. As film, however, the trappings squander too quickly our hard-earned empathy. I can’t resolve this dilemma: Tacked onto the end of this masterful epic, Fassbinder’s coda suffers from comparison to the previous thirteen episodes, but it is unclear what sense the Epilogue makes when divorced from them. Biesenbach’s installation at KW also featured individual monitors showing clips excised from the film—clips that, for lack of a better description, look like “art”: actors in drag, decapitated mannequins, animals being slaughtered, and so on. All this to propose that Fassbinder has legs—and influence—in contemporary art. It’s true. Few filmmakers were more generous. However, I suspect that Fassbinder’s hand can be felt most persuasively not in some current taste for the surreal and the grotesque but in various contemporary reflections of the way he shot a film and structured it: the visual panache, the varying registers, the moments of disruption, the bursts of campiness and of rage. Berlin Alexanderplatz came at a time when Fassbinder embraced the means of (big-scale, professional) production, which may be equally a strategy and preoccupation of our time. In its intensity and lushness of invention—all within the constraints of a megaproduction—Alexanderplatz offers a simple admonishment to vacuum-packed, big-production artists, the likes of Eve Sussman, Shirin Neshat, and even at times Matthew Barney. If Fassbinder is important for young artists, what is achieved by isolating a four-second shot from the film and looping it like a counterfeit Paul Pfeiffer? The sense missing from the KW exhibition is that what you get from Alexanderplatz is actually much more than what you see—not just the images but how they build in time.

This is why Susan Sontag, among others, argued against Alexanderplatz’s episodic format, in favor of immersion on the big screen (an immersion that does not mean all at once). Though seeing Fassbinder’s epic projected large may be the more profound experience, I suspect the main event here is really the DVD set (currently available in Germany, to be released in the States by Criterion this fall). Alexanderplatz can expand and contract in this format, joining ranks with an increasingly flexible and vital form of filmmaking. (The resemblance between Franz Biberkopf and Tony Soprano is more than passing. How will Fassbinder’s fifteen-plus hours compare to David Chase’s more than eighty?)

Truth is, Fassbinder is already under our skins. The length of Alexanderplatz gives him room to breathe, and what stands out, more than in any other Fassbinder film, is the sense of pure duration—a quality that first seems like a punishment, until it creeps up on you, the characters achieving almost palpable life, above all Günter Lamprecht’s Biberkopf. There is something mysterious about how Fassbinder got him to inhabit the part. It’s a cumulative magic.

A sense of parallel meanings haunts the film in subtle ways. The more unhurried the action seems, the greater the overarching sense of menace and of feelings too dense to unravel. Story mingles with storytelling, the quotidian with the epic, and Berlin Alexanderplatz proves a film that must be at once read, watched, and lived through. In “My Dream of Franz Biberkopf’s Dream,” Fassbinder tried to regress and unpack the entire film. Such a stab at dream therapy is only plausible because we feel that an iceberg of meaning is submerged, unexamined. The film is rich enough to have an unconscious—and it lies both off the screen (Fassbinder’s deep subtext is, of course, German history after Franz’s story) and buried within it.

Try to shake the flashback in which Franz beats his former girlfriend to death. This scene, compulsively repeated, haunts the film, just as it ever haunts Franz Biberkopf, and when we see it for the sixth or even seventh time—essentially the same footage—it doesn’t become any easier; in fact, it only intensifies until it is searing, almost unwatchable. Such an achievement, in any field, is “life support”—genuine, naked, and concrete.

Matt Saunders is a Berlin-based artist.