Berlin Alexanderplatz Review

If it’s not Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz - a 15 hour television serial made when the director was producing his best work – is certainly a work of major importance, a key work whose influence can be found in many of the director’s films. The original 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin on which the series is based was a major influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder from the time he first read the book at 14 years of age, opening his eyes to the world, its workings and the history and make-up of the people he would come into contact with every day.

Set in Berlin in the 1920’s years of the Weimar Republic, Berlin Alexanderplatz follows the fortunes of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), just released from prison where he has been held for four years for beating his former lover to death. The new world outside comes as a major shock to the system, Franz leaving behind the ordered world of the prison for the uncertainties of post-WWI Germany. It’s as if he has never seen the world before and he is terrified by the passing cars, finding even the act of people eating meat in a restaurant bizarre. Left alone to fend for himself, and reluctant to fall back into the mistakes of his earlier life, Franz’s first steps out into the world are consequently confused, tentative and misjudged, screaming in the courtyards and raping Minna, the sister of the woman he killed. He doesn’t know what he is doing, only that he must do it. A friend Meck and a Polish girl called Lina help him to find a sense of himself and a purpose. Franz is determined to put the past aside and be honest, finding a humble job and enjoying the simple pleasures of friendship and the love of a woman.

The confused state of the world, the political uncertainty and the social unrest in Berlin however make it difficult for Franz to keep to his promise. Selling newspapers is not as simple as it seems, and when Franz starts selling papers for the National Socialist Party (the Nazis), believing in their promise of bring peace and order to a society in turmoil, he finds himself at odds with many of his friends and workers who are part of the Communist party. Even when he drops the newspaper business to sell shoelaces door-to-door, he finds that people’s motives cannot be trusted. Losing his faith in people, he withdraws from the world again and starts drinking heavily. His life is however most affected when he meets Reinhold. Initially believing that Reinhold is an ex-con like himself, Franz Biberkopf manages to strike up a friendship with the man. It’s an unusual friendship initiated when Franz agrees to take a woman off his hands that Reinhold can’t shake off. Reinhold (superbly played with a nervous intensity by Gottfried John) is however an inveterate womaniser and soon there is a string of women being pushed Franz’s way. It’s another older friend however, Eva (Hanna Schygulla), who introduces Franz to the most important person in his life – Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) – an innocent girl who will work for Franz as a prostitute. Not content with having a woman earn money for both of them, Franz gets into shady activities, and his determination to go straight is pushed to its limit by his relationship - both personal and professional - with Reinhold.

The influence of Berlin Alexanderplatz can be seen in much of Fassbinder’s film work, where the name Franz Biberkopf even turns up on one or two occasions, betrayed and exploited by friends. One even gets the impression that Fassbinder’s early films were in some way just preparation or dress rehearsals for approaching a key work that personally meant a great deal to him – attempting to filter the themes and content of Berlin Alexanderplatz through his own sensibility, initially as a noir or Nouvelle Vague film and later as a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Its influence is most evident in Fassbinder’s early films in the Franz Walsch trilogy, in the love-triangle set-up of his debut film Love Is Colder Than Death, but particularly in Gods of the Plague where at the very start of the film another Franz exits prison, finds himself disillusioned with the world outside and tries to find a way of living in a corrupt society. Franz’s revelation in Berlin Alexanderplatz that “there’s nowt strange as folk” is evident throughout Fassbinder’s films, in the issues of race, class and social conflict and in the exploitative relationships that fill them. In The Merchant of Four Seasons, the protagonist Hans, disillusioned with the world around him is, like Franz, similarly driven to take on a humble job selling fruit in the courtyards of Munich in order to retain his integrity, but circumstances won’t let him and he ends up drinking heavily. It wouldn’t be until The Marriage of Maria Braun however that Fassbinder would find the perfect tone and demonstrate that he was capable of taking on this important work, finding in that film a character and a means of represent the condition of the German people in the post-war years, using layered perspectives and narratives.

Curiously however then, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t have the typical look and feel of a Fassbinder film. Many of his regular actors (Hermann, Carstenen, Kaufmann) are here in one episode or another but, other than Hanna Schygulla, they make little more than a cameo appearance. Sometimes it’s no more than a second or two as an extra - blink and you’ll miss them. The lead role of Franz rather goes to Günter Lamprecht, who previously only had a smaller role in a couple of Fassbinder films, including The Marriage of Maria Braun. It’s a crucial bit of casting and Lamprecht is a formidable presence as Franz Biberkopf. An everyman and at the same time an enigma, he is physically bulky and imposing and capable of standing up for himself, but also easily demoralised, confused and psychologically vulnerable - a complex personality to match the complexities of the unstable world around him. It’s an outstanding performance and, at this length, a rare opportunity to see a character and his relationships - with Eva and Reinhold (Schygulla and John giving equally strong and nuanced performances) - developed so thoroughly.

Despite the thematic similarities to many of Fassbinder’s own films, the one Berlin Alexanderplatz comes closest to resembling is his other classic literary adaptation - Theodore Fontane’s Effi Breist. Both original sources are treated respectfully, using gothic font inserts and a narrator (Fassbinder himself) to read important passages from the works. From the opening titles of each episode of period photographs showing the decadence and social realities of post-WWI Germany with a superimposed running steam train, it would seem that it is the Fassbinder’s intention to preserve what he saw as the essential train-like rhythm of the prose in his adaptation, the camera (working for the first time with director of cinematography Xaver Swarzenburger) flowing much more freely than common in the director’s other films. Peer Raben’s score is also untypical, drawing on emotional undercurrents with a pace and rhythm not necessarily in tune with the action, pervasively and intrusively serving to counterpoint the often dark imagery. Mirroring the cut-up technique of the book moreover, the layering of past, present and the philosophical meditations of the narration all serve to lend the film a peculiar quality of its own.

In one other respect however, Berlin Alexanderplatz is certainly the work of Fassbinder, and that is in the work ethic, producing an enormous piece of work very quickly and relatively cheaply, using sets borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg. Shooting on 16mm, often with only one take – two at the most – and never watching the dailies, the film consequently retains an essential intensity, coherence, consistency and fluidity. Despite its length and certain difficult passages - the scenes with the little innocent Mieze dragging the latter half of the story down into over-cutesiness and melodrama, and Fassbinder’s personal meditation on the themes of the story in the belaboured epilogue of crucifixions and atom bombs - the daily struggle of Franz Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz to comprehend the world and resist the corruption around him creates marvellous drama in each episode. Through the character of Franz and the little people struggling to do what it takes to get by, the series succeeds in depicting, in all its complexity and drama, the lives of German people, the social attitudes and political unrest at a key point in the country’s history, the experience gained and the price that was paid for them.

The entire Berlin Alexanderplatz series is released in the UK as a 6-disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2. The series is in 14 parts or 13 parts with an epilogue. Each of the parts runs to about 59 minutes, the only episodes differing being the opening chapter at 82 minutes and the closing episode at 112 minutes long.

The PAL format would appear to be crucial here and, since the film was shot for television at 25 frames per second, it requires no speed-up when transferred to DVD, as would normally be the case with regular films shot at 24fps. (In order for the film to be shown in NTSC format, Criterion have had to slow the series down by 1 frame per second for the US DVD release.) Shot on 16mm stock often in very dimly lit locations, the quality is consequently not exactly pristine – though a restoration has certainly help to improve the issues. The image is evidently a little soft and grainy, sometimes hazy, blacks flattened out by the brightening of the image, showing no great depth or shadow detail – but realistically this is nothing less than it ought to look under such film stock and lighting conditions. The image occasionally descends into a fuzzy grain, but again, this would seem to be down to how the original stock was treated and only occurs on scenes duplicated to superimpose text such as the opening and closing titles. There are few problems however with marks, damage or the stability of the transfer. Overall, the essential qualities of the film are retained - one that successful conveys a particular mood.

The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and has no noticeable problems.

English subtitles are presented in a clear white font and are optional.

The Making of Berlin Alexanderplatz (43:59)
Made during the shooting of the film, this documentary has wide access to the filming and behind-the-scenes activities. A number of scenes are shown being shot, a narrator explaining what is happening and the background production difficulties. The feature gives a good idea of the challenges faced by Fassbinder to marshal a huge set and numerous extras and keep the studio executives happy.

Berlin Alexanderplatz - A Mega Movie And Its Story (1:05:00)
Juliane Lorenz’s documentary is a comprehensive examination of the mega-production. Recent interviews with Lamprecht, Schygulla, Sukowa and John and many of the technical crew testify to the challenges it placed on them personally, as well as giving their impression of the legacy of Fassbinder and the film.

Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz – The Restoration (31:57)
Another fabulous feature, this looks at the huge challenge of restoring the dark, neglected 16mm negative for the film. With great detail it explains the process by which the reels were digitally scanned, the frame-by-frame process of dirt removal, grain reduction, repair and colour grading of the material for archiving, new prints and DVD production, all overseen by the original director of cinematography Xaver Swarzenburger.

The Restoration – Before and After (7:28)
Some examples are shown of the difference between the original elements and the restored version. Some brightening of the image accounts for the regrettable flatness and tone of the blacks, but the detail revealed is obvious.

The remaining extra features include a Stills and Production Photo Gallery (36); The Original Recaps (4:19) - very brief summaries at the start of each episode relating what has come before; Credits (4:19) for the Cast, Crew and Restoration team, as well as the music used; and a Berlinale 2007 Trailer (6:59), showing a number of additional black-and-white stills and a long montage that shows the richness of the material with all the regular Fassbinder troupe of actors and the quality of the restoration.

The literary, social, historical and philosophical qualities of Berlin Alexanderplatz are quite evident, as are its qualities as an excellent piece of drama. Having referenced the work throughout his career and adapted it to his own personal style and sensibility, Rainer Werner Fassbinder approaches the source material differently, finding its own mood, character and rhythm. What principally differentiates it from Fassbinder’s other work however is – it seems obvious to say – its length. Finding that mood and sustaining it for 15 hours - and it is essentially a 15 hour movie rather than an episodic serial - is a remarkable achievement. Like any work of such intensity, coherence of purpose and consistency of style, it’s an absorbing and fulfilling experience at such a length, and not something any viewer will forget or regret sitting through. The restoration of the film has been overseen by the original director of cinematography, and although the resulting film remains quite murky and grainy in places, the essential qualities of the film have been preserved. The revealing extra features ensure that the effort that has gone into the making of Berlin Alexanderplatz and into the new restoration of the film won’t be taken for granted. The effort of the viewer who sits down to watch the entire 15 hours of this film will find it an equally rewarding experience.

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