August 27, 2008

Reviewed by Peter Debruge

When the Criterion Collection released German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz as an elaborate seven-disc boxed set last November, The New Yorker magazine wasted no time in declaring it “the DVD event of the year,” going on to suggest, “The thirteen richly textured episodes and their epilogue are best savored one at a time.”

Two friends and I took their suggestion, meeting each weekend to “savor” an episode of Fassbinder’s almost-16-hour magnum opus. Some have managed to stomach more than that in one sitting (some arthouse screenings have been known to divide all 940 minutes over two or three nights), but no matter how hard we tried, one-at-a-time was the only way to go. We simply couldn’t muster the stamina to endure two episodes of depressing German cinema in a row, and in some cases, we required several weeks to recover between sessions.

My accomplices, both screenwriters with fairly eclectic tastes (one heads up a tongue-in-cheek Uwe Boll fan club, the other survives largely on a diet of ’80s movies too obscure even for TBS reruns), have each endured their fair share of bad movies. As for me, I consider myself to be something of a “cinemasochist” (as many critics are), suffering through difficult films so my readers don’t have to.

But nothing could have prepared us for the challenge of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Certainly not the rave reviews, which seem to reflect critics’ enthusiasm that Criterion (that bastion of quality art cinema) had undertaken to restore and re-release this obscure grail without giving any sense of the demanding feat of sitting through the film itself. In fact, I’m skeptical whether any of those critics actually watched the 940-minute thing at all. Most are maddeningly nonspecific about what’s so great about it exactly (including this delusional young man, who gushes on YouTube about “possibly the greatest achievement in cinema,” but clearly hasn’t gotten around to watching it yet — boy is he in for a rude awakening).

Five months later, having completed our task, we the survivors have yet to meet anyone else who has seen the entire series (and to those posers who claim otherwise, we offer a simple quiz at the end of this review by which you can easily determine who’s bluffing). A few friends were curious-slash-courageous enough to join in for one or two installments, but the pacing put them off almost immediately.

The sad irony of this titanic undertaking is that it would do quite nicely as a two- or three-hour feature. But Fassbinder, usually so efficient in his storytelling, defies every convention of narrative economy, extending simple scenes into 10- or 15-minute affairs as if deliberately protracting the story to its longest possible running time (to make matters worse, the whole affair gains an additional half hour when adjusted from the European 25 frame-per-second standard to America’s 24fps).

The first episode, aptly titled “The Punishment Begins,” sets the tone for the entire series, a sense of overwhelming despair echoed by the opening sequence (would you believe it took us four or five episodes before we caught the pornographic image embedded in the credits?). The epic character study opens as our hero, Franz Biberkopf (played by Gunter Lamprecht with the tragic force of a broken-spirited Tony Soprano), is released from prison back into a cruel world intent on damning him. Having paid his debt to society after murdering his girlfriend, our working-class hero is instantly overwhelmed by the maddening sounds of Berlin, pressing his hands to his ears and howling in a gesture made famous by Edvard Munch and Macaulay Culkin alike (the latter almost certainly not among its many influences, although traces of Berlin Alexanderplatz can be found in everything from The Velvet Goldmine to Pushing Daisies).

One needn’t have seen another Fassbinder film to intuit that things will not end well for Herr Biberkopf, though chapter titles like A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul and Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls might clue you in. If you do know the director’s other work, then you can appreciate his obsession with Alfred Doblin’s modernist novel (which Time dubbed the “German Ulysses”). As Fassbinder confesses in an essay written near the completion of the project (and included with the DVDs), the book was a seminal inspiration in his life, both artistically and in his development as a person. He first read it in his early teens and promptly swore he would one day attempt “an experiment in documenting, by way of Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, my involvement with this very special literature.”

The impulse surfaces as early as Fassbinder’s first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death, in which he named his lead character after Franz Biberkopf and cast himself in the role (he would repeat the homage with Fox and His Friends five years later). But it was Doblin’s approach that affected him most deeply, centering as it did on an unexceptional non-hero, attempting to capture every sensory aspect of his underworld and respectfully trying to understand the psychology of each and every character (many of them hoodlums, pimps and thieves).

Fassbinder echoes the spirit of Doblin’s novel in the majority of his 35 features, which deal almost exclusively with contemporary subjects. But in adapting Berlin Alexanderplatz for the screen, Fassbinder was also bound to the letter of the book, which demanded an elaborate recreation of late-’20s Germany at Bavaria Studios, demanding 156 days of shooting and hundreds of extras to orchestrate. One of the supplements claims Fassbinder frequently limited himself to a single take, while an on-set documentary shows him demanding take after take of seemingly inconsequential shots. He certainly limited himself by shooting on 16mm, and despite a landmark restoration via Arriscan in 2007, the transfer ranks among the least flattering for hi-def sets (like Kieslowski’s Decalogue, the series was conceived for television).

While it may seem like sacrilege to question Fassbinder’s methods now, German television viewers found it equally tough going at the time (complaining that his artful lighting was too dark, to say nothing of the subject matter). It was not until such critics as Susan Sontag, writing for Vanity Fair in 1983, embraced the project that the film assumed its current mythic status (for some reason, Criterion does not include Sontag’s essay in their companion booklet). Today, film-school students discuss Berlin Alexanderplatz in the same breath as Andy Warhol’s eight-hour Empire or the opening shot of Touch of Evil, appreciating Fassbinder’s achievement more for its audacity than anything else. But would they dare sit through it?

To call our viewing experience “torture” would be unfair. “Taxing” is more like it. And sure enough, as the series wore on, we found ourselves increasingly engrossed by the curious turns in Franz’s fate. Though Fassbinder seems to extend each scene well past its natural limit, even repeating them on occasion (how often must audiences witness Franz murdering his girlfriend to understand the torment these memories exert on him?), he does vary his style from episode to episode. In Chapter VII, for example, the director proves downright playful with the camera angles and blocking. And once you’ve gotten that far, you simply must finish what you started.

If we found the material tedious at times, we weren’t alone. Fassbinder himself confessed that, “the first pages—maybe two hundred—bored me so completely and utterly that I might easily have put the book aside.” In an appreciative essay included with the set, Tom Tykwer volunteers his own defense of the director’s style: “Fassbinder is an epigone of Pina Baush and a precursor of Christoph Marthaler, two theater people who through the repetition and prolongation of social gestures reveal people’s addictive potential for self-destruction.”

Armed with these insights going in, we patiently endured the first four episodes, biding our time until the appearance of the character Fassbinder credits with renewing his interest in the book. Sure enough, in the fifth episode, Reinhold surfaces (played by Gottfried John, later immortalized as an only slightly less treacherous Bond villain in GoldenEye) and radically impacts the dynamic.

Reinhold and Franz form an instant bond, not necessarily sexual but certainly beyond the understanding of their peers. Through their unusual gentleman’s arrangement, Franz consoles Reinhold’s castaway lovers, finding this a far superior alternative to wooing women on his own. As their friendship unfolds (or is it “unravels”?), Franz goes along for an ill-fated heist, stubbornly refusing to believe Reinhold’s multiple betrayals, up to and including his climactic transgression.

Plot descriptions hardly do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice. Who would believe, for instance, that such a bottom-feeder would meet the woman of his dreams and immediately set her to work earning money for him as a prostitute? But sure enough, Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) endures both his affectionate bites and jealous beatings, eventually proving so devoted to his happiness that she even arranges for another woman to bear his children.

Unlike American miniseries, Berlin Alexanderplatz provides little motivation for the near-suicidal viewer to advance from one episode to the next — with the exception of two mind-blowing cliff-hangers. Instead, the slow, fateful march toward Franz’s imminent damnation is marshaled along through ambivalent narration (provided by Fassbinder himself), gothic intertitles and occasional dream sequences (including a slaughterhouse scene reminiscent of Fassbinder’s earlier In a Year With 13 Moons).

But once you reach the end, those earlier hallucinatory touches erupt into a two-hour phantasmagoria as Fassbinder rewards his audience with a surreal, impressionistic epilogue entitled “My Dream of Franz Biberkopf’s Dream by Alfred Doblin.” Suffice it to say, this finale turns every convention of the preceding 13 1/2 hours on its head as intense psychological realism gives way to a feverish reinterpretation of all that has come before. Where the first 13 episodes suggest the modern-society reflections of Doblin or John Dos Passos, the epilogue feels raw and alive, like a Francis Bacon portrait boiling before your eyes.

With his finale, Fassbinder tears away whatever familiar comfort we’d taken in the monotonous march toward Franz’s imminent destruction and plunges us face-first into a Boschian hell (even going so far as to adapt the painter’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” to suit his own purposes). The epilogue doesn’t so much redeem all that had come before as it rewards audiences’ commitment for having endured it by recasting the experience through the deeply personal, extremely twisted lens of Fassbinder’s own psyche. Wrestle with it long enough, and you just might grasp what he saw in the material.

For those who prefer the plot-only version of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Criterion provides an earlier 90-minute version by director Phil Jutzi (an adaptation Fassbinder considered “by no means bad”), but what would be the point? Berlin Alexanderplatz is an all-or-nothing ordeal. As with Ulysses or Infinite Jest, it’s not enough to buy the set and park it proudly on your shelf with every intention of getting around to it one day. And should you encounter anyone brazen enough to assert having watched the whole thing, we offer this simple quiz, consisting of questions instantly recognizable to a true survivor of the series:

1. After leaving jail, Franz Biberkopf tries to go straight by selling:

a. Cigarettes

b. Shoelaces

c. Non-foaming tooth powder

d. Lightning rods

2. What is Pums?

a. Franz’s favorite brand of schnapps

b. The seedy cabaret where he and Gretchen first meet

c. A rare jam that goes missing from Gunther’s stash

d. Leader of a pack of black-market hoodlums

3. Things are looking up for Franz until:

a. He loses an arm

b. He squanders his rent money investing in asbestos

c. He gets evicted for playing his accordion past midnight

d. Trick question — everything ends happily for our hero

If they answer anything other than B-D-A, call ’em out as the liars they are, then politely remind them of The New Yorker’s advice: “The thirteen richly textured episodes and their epilogue are best savored one at a time.” And feel free to add a much-needed “at your own risk” from three guys who made it through alive.

— Peter Debruge is a features editor and film critic for Variety.

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