Blu-ray Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's directed more films than he lived years. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death, was made in 1969 following three shorts, one of which is lost. His final film, Querelle, was released in 1982, the year of his death at age thirty-seven. His output included work for the stage as well as the cinema, but he didn't neglect the small screen as well. Some of his feature films had television money in them, and others were made for television but released in cinemas outside West Germany. The line between cinema and television features is blurred further by the fact that through much of the 1970s, Fassbinder mostly favoured the old and by then largely obsolete Academy Ratio (1.37:1) for his big-screen films, very close to the 4:3 of television sets then. And then there are the three miniseries he made: Eight Hours Don't Make a Day (five episodes totalling, yes, eight hours - released on Blu-ray by Arrow), the two-part, three-hour excursion into science fiction World on a Wire (on DVD from Second Sight and due to be released by them on Blu-ray in December 2018) and Berlin Alexanderplatz, fifteen hours long, thirteen episodes and an epilogue.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Blu-ray review

The series is based on the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a classic of German literature and in its use of modernist techniques (multiple points of view, extracts from songs, speeches, newspapers) and its emphasis on the life of a city, it's comparable to James Joyce's Ulysses and John Dos Passos's USA trilogy. Set in Berlin in 1928, It tells the story of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht). At the beginning, Franz is released from prison, having served four years for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Ida, whom he beat to death during an argument. He struggles to make a living in a city on the verge of depression. His relationships with the women in his life – Lina (Elisabeth Trissenaar), Cilly (Annemarie Düringer), Eva (Hanna Schygulla) and finally Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) – are fraught and sometimes violent. The men he associates with are often on the wrong side of the law and in the background, the ideology of Nazism is taking hold.

Fassbinder read the novel in his teens and, the product of an unhappy family home, found it a life-changing experience. He said it helped him “not to slip unconsciously into doing something which could be described as living at second hand”. He wasn't the first to detect homoerotic overtones between Franz and Reinhold (Gottfried John) – not acted upon, though a scene in prison reveals that Reinhold is certainly sexually flexible – and this helped him resolve some of his anxieties about his own homosexuality. There had been a 1931 film of the novel, but Fassbinder was determined, not just that he would become a film director himself one day, but that he would make his own version of this particular novel. Then, ten years after he made his first feature film, his intention became reality.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was made for the television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), for whom Fassbinder had made his two previous miniseries and other feature-length television movies, and Italy's RAI. However, Fassbinder regarded it as a film, albeit a very long one split into episodes for convenience. Shot at Bavaria Studios in Munich, with the street scenes on the studio lot, partly repurposing sets built for Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg, Berlin Alexanderplatz took nearly a year to make: 156 shooting days. To put that in perspective, earlier in the decade Fassbinder could and did make four or five separate feature films in a year. After its television broadcast in 1980, Berlin Alexanderplatz did receive cinema showings (including the 1981 London Film Festival and a theatrical release in the USA in 1983), making it at the time the longest film given a commercial cinema release. Fassbinder had the idea to make a parallel version of the story for the cinema, with Gérard Depardieu as Franz, but this never happened.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Blu-ray review

In terms of sheer size, Berlin Alexanderplatz is without doubt Fassbinder's magnum opus. Whether or not it's his greatest work is a matter of opinion. Fassbinder moves away from the Douglas Sirkian use of colour and melodrama of many of his mid-70s films to what looks like straightforward naturalism, a palette dominated by browns and greys in Xaver Schwarzenberger's 16mm cinematography. Yet that's deceptive. Fassbinder uses alienation effects to keep the audience at a critical distance: from time to time, the screen dissolves to black-on-white text caption. We also have a narrator (Fassbinder himself) who occasionally digresses from the on-screen action, even at one point discussing the physics of force and motion during a scene of violence. That may be as well, as while Franz is presented to us as he is, warts and all, those warts may be difficult for some to take, given that he is from the outset not above beating women. Some of those women stay beside him, though Fassbinder – often acutely aware of the power relations between people, often sexual ones – sees that as much to do with their masochism as anything else.

And, after an 82-minute first episode and twelve of just under an hour each, we reach the 112-minute finale, “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, an Epilogue”. We begin with Franz accompanied through the Berlin streets by two angels, and much of this episode is inside Franz's head, his dreams and nightmares, as he meets the many people in his life (and the story so far), a phantasmagoria as it is often described. But note that “My”: these are Fassbinder's dreams and nightmares as much as Franz's, and they involve horrors that had yet to come in Franz's time, including the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. The music on the soundtrack, completely in period up to then, gives way to that of Fassbinder's era, with Janis Joplin's “Me and Bobby McGee”, the Velvet Underground's “Candy Says” and Kraftwerk's “Radio Activity” all making appearances. There are very few hours (or two hours) of television like this, as part of an ongoing serial. Edgar Reitz's Heimat was able to be financed by WDR due to the success of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and maybe there's the influence of this episode in the non-naturalistic final episode of The Second Heimat...and maybe even the now-legendary eighth episode of the 2017 Twin Peaks. Todd Haynes certainly drew on some of its imagery in Velvet Goldmine.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was Fassbinder's final work of television drama, and it's possible to see a culmination of much of what he had done up to that point. But that may be with hindsight as we know that he had just four more cinema features plus a documentary in him. It's still a landmark.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Blu-ray review

THE DISCS

Berlin Alexanderplatz is released on Blu-ray (Region B only) by Second Sight. The set comprises five discs: the fourteen episodes on the first four, the extras on the fifth. Berlin Alexanderplatz has a 15 certificate.

The serial was shot in 16mm in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As mentioned above, the picture is dominated by brown and sepia. Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger made few concessions to the television sets of the day, as interiors are usually undetlit. When Channel 4 in the UK showed Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1985, there were comments from viewers on how dark it was, with the danger of 1980s standard-definition television sets resolving artful chiaroscuro into murk. This Blu-ray transfer derives from the restoration in 2K resolution from the original negative. While the darkly-lit scenes show up as they should in high definition, what there is also is grain. Lots of grain. This is particularly so when optical printers seem to have been involved, such as the shots either side of a dissolve to and from a black-on-white caption as mentioned above, or when episode titles appear or end credits begin. Each episode follows the original end credits with additional restoration credits, which include listings of the music in the serial. Including these, the fourteen episodes' running time totals 902:14. As the serial was shot at twenty-five frames per second for viewing on a PAL television service, the Blu-ray transfers are 1080i50. (Longer quoted running times for Berlin Alexanderplatz derive from showing it at twenty-four frames per second, in cinemas or on NTSC television services, which adds some thirty-six minutes to the running time.)

The soundtrack is the original mono, and is certainly as clear and well-balanced as it should be. English subtitles for this German-language film are non-optional.

The extras begin with Fassbinder: Love Without Demands (107:09), a documentary by Christian Braad Thomsen. He first met Fassbinder at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, where Love is Colder Than Death premiered and was booed by much of the audience. This is a revealing portrait of a man clearly scarred by an unhappy childhood: born just before the end of World War II, he was sent by his parents to live with an uncle in the countryside. When his parents divorced, he, an only child, lived with his mother in Munich, and was often left alone while she worked to support them both. We do hear an archive interview with Fassbinder's mother, Lilo Pempeit (who acted in some of her son's films) and also footage of past Fassbinder interviews. One of them was shot by Thomsen in 1978, with a clearly exhausted Fassbinder with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Fassbinder rejected his parents' generation who had enabled the rise of the Nazis and sought father figures in previous generations, one such being the German-born Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, whom Fassbinder met late in Sirk's life and whose films strongly influenced his own. Fassbinder could be jealous, and reacted badly when Thomsen told him he was about to become a father. We also hear from Andrea Schober, who played child roles in four of Fassbinder's film and television productions and felt, she says, as if she was some kind of surrogate daughter. Thomsen also suggests that Fassbinder's prodigious workrate in part covered an inner emptiness, that Fassbinder felt he only existed when he was working.

Next up is an appreciation of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Tony Rayns (44:26). Rayns is the author of a book on Fassbinder and this is an authoritative piece to camera (with some repetitions along the way) on the man's largest work. Another appreciation is Fassbinder's Phantasmagoria (6:10), a visual essay by Daniel Bird. As usual with Bird's essays, he doesn't appear on camera nor speak in voiceover, instead making use of captions over extracts from the series, unpicking some of the themes and imagery in the final episode.

Berlin Alexanderplatz: A Mega Movie and Its Story (65:20) is a documentary made by Juliane Lorenz, the editor of the series and director of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. This is an account of the making of the series, including interviews with Günter Lamprecht (who had tried and failed to read the novel before being given the part), Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, costume designer Barbara Baum and others. The interviews are in German, though Lorenz's voiceover is in English.

Further material on the making of the serial appears in Observations on Set (43:59), a documentary made by Hans-Dietrich Hartl, comprised of on-set footage with a voiceover (in German this time), detailing the shoot from its start to its wrap.

Notes on the Restoration (31:57) details the process of producing this newly (as of 2006) restored version of Berlin Alexanderplatz, from the cleaning and repair of the 16mm negative, its digital scanning and its frame-by-frame repair and colour grading. From a technical point of view, this happened before digital prints in cinemas became all but ubiquitous: as well as restoring the series digitally, they produced a 35mm negative for striking new film prints. This is followed by examples of the process, before and after (77:28). Finally on the disc are the original broadcast recaps from episodes two to thirteen but not the epilogue (4:19) and the lengthy trailer (6:59) from the 2007 Berlin Film Festival where the restoration was first shown.

Also included in this set is a sixty-page book featuring a new essay by Stéplane du Mesnildot and archival material by Wim Wenders, Thomas Elsasser and Christian Braad Thomsen, but this was not available for review.

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