Friday, April 13, 2012

Film #78: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)



Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Initial Release Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Former thug gets out of jail, tries to go straight, fails miserably, goes crazy, embraces crime, goes crazy again, and then gets well. Sort of.

Extended Summary (Relatively more complete pot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

* This film is reeeeaaaally long, so I’m giving you a very short version of the plot. If you’re really curious about the little details, check out this more complete synopsis at wikipedia.

Berlin, 1928. Germany is in the middle of a horrible economic depression. Franz Biberkopf (Günther Lamprecht) has just been released from prison, where he has spent the past four years for the involuntary manslaughter of his prostitute girlfriend. After an initial period of confusion about how to reintegrate himself into society, Franz decides to leave his criminal past behind him and live a straight life, free of illegal activities.

It doesn’t take long for Franz’s plan to fail. Despite trying to go straight by taking menial jobs selling newspapers and hawking various wares on the streets and going door-to-door, he starts to be taken advantage of. One business partner robs one of Franz’s clients, sending Franz into a manic depressive bout of heavy drinking, away from any friends or associates.

When Franz emerges from his bender, he finds one of his old criminal associates, the kindly Meck, who introduces him to the highly unsavory Reinholt. Franz begins a bizarre scam with Reinholt, who is a compulsive womanizer, to take Reinholt’s girlfriends off of his hands after he inevitably tires of them. Franz eventually ties of these strange deceptions, though he maintains his friendship with the warped Reinholt.

Franz Biberkopf, the man at the middle of this massive, swirling tale.

Franz then takes up with a local crime gang. He is initially taken on a night robbery, without his knowledge, and forced to be the lookout. Franz reluctantly goes along with it, but as the gang is driving away, a car begins to follow them, merely by chance. Reinholt becomes suspicious and soon pushes Franz out of the back of their vehicle. Franz has his arm run over by the following car. The arm is so badly damaged that it must be amputated.

Franz, now without his right arm, rejoins a pair of old friends to recuperate. One is a former prostitute who was under his control in his days as a pimp – Eva, who still has deep affection for Franz. The other his Eva’s lover, Herbert, who is also involved in various petty crimes. The two take in Franz and tend to him carefully, seeing Franz as a decent person who is prone to bad decisions, bad luck, and strange fits of emotion. Eva and Herbert even find a young woman to be Franz’s new lover – the prostitute whom Franz names Mieze. The two instantly fall in love with each other.

Franz and Mieze move in together and they continue to adore each other, though their relationship is not without difficulty. The one-armed Franz begins pulling robberies with the local gang again, and Mieze’s job as a prostitute leads Franz to become severely jealous at times. The worst is when Mieze admits to an unplanned affair with a client’s younger son, whom she claims to have fallen in love with. Franz goes into a rage and beats Mieze bloody, stopping just short of killing her. Despite the brutal attack, the two make up with each other shortly afterwards.

A few days later, Franz brings Mieze to their local bar to introduce her to Meck, Reinholt, and the rest of the gang. The compulsive Reinholt immediately blackmails Meck into setting up a meeting between him and Mieze. Meck does so, and he brings Mieze out to a forest retreat to meet with Reinholt, Mieze hoping to learn more about her beloved Franz from his friends. Instead, when Reinholt brings Mieze out to the woods, he tries to force himself on her repeatedly. Mieze teases some information about Franz out of Reinholt, including the fact that Reinholt was responsible for Franz losing his arm. This disgusts Mieze and she repels Reinholt. Reinholt, in a fit or rage, strangles Mieze to death and leaves her in the woods.

The utterly twisted Reinholt, attempting to seduce his "friend" Franz's girlfriend, Mieze.

Back in the city, Franz grows worried after not hearing from Mieze for several days. Meck, who had helped Reinholt bury Mieze’s body despite not knowing that Reinholt would kill her, decides to inform the police. When Mieze’s death is reported in the newspaper the next day, Franz breaks into a crazed laughter, deliriously happy that Mieze’s absence was due to her death and not due to a willful abandonment of Franz.

Franz goes into a complete daze. We start to see his tale from a bizarre perspective, including two angels following him and commenting on his confused state. Franz walks along in an odd dreamlike realm in which the dead are strewn about. Back in reality, Franz is taken to an asylum, and Reinholt is being held in prison under and mistaken identity. In the asylum, we see inside Franz’s tortured mind. He sees himself interacting with various characters from his life in the past year, both dead and alive. He shifts perspectives with many of them, and even faces off with the specter of Death. Franz seems to see himself as deserving of any punishment he receives, as he and others are butchered in an abattoir.

We snap back to reality, at a court hearing for Reinholt, who is on trial for Mieze’s murder. Franz testifies to Reinholt’s good character, which helps Reinholt receive a relatively lenient sentence of ten years in prison. Franz takes a job as an assistant gatekeeper at a car factory. He is attentive to his work, but seems utterly detached from anything happening in the word around him.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after the viewing, but before any further research.)

Looooooooooooong.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is fifteen and a half hours long. Fifteen. And a half. Hours.

I watched it over the course of about three weeks, and by the end, I was ready for it to be over. Perhaps I would have been better served to spread it out more, but hey, I have nearly 30 more of these reviews to do, and I want to get on with it.

It’s not really the length itself that it a little tough to take. Some people might be able to watch all of this show in a few days, but I would find it rather tough. However, this is not because it is bad in any way. It’s merely that the tone and look can be a tad monotonous.

That said, this is a haunting humanist story. This itself was a bit surprising, as I was expecting a more epic tale that connected one man’s journey into the Third Reich. I expected to see plenty of direct references to the rise of the Nazi party and their growing control of Germany. Such is not the case at all.

This may seem odd, by I couldn’t help but think of Henry Miller’s novel, Tropic of Cancer. That novel was a lightning rod for being so honest and frank about the human experience, including the most sensual (some thought indecent, at the time) elements. The difference is that Tropic of Cancer had a relatively rosier tone and outlook; Berlin Alexanderplatz takes a hard look at the mental degeneration of a man who has slipped right through the cracks of a failing society.

Franz partakes in one of his favorite vices to escape - binge drinking on a level that would would make even a German (maybe even an Irishman) blanch. [note: I'm of Irish descent, so don't get up in arms.]

Berlin Alexanderplatz tells the story of a man who is, in many ways, highly unsavory. And yet, it’s impossible to dismiss Franz Biberkopf as a purely despicable villain. Unlike the titular protagonist of Barry Lyndon, Franz actually has several admirable traits. With his close friends, he has incredible loyalty and enthusiasm. His emotions are on his sleeve for all to see, and he is generally a social creature. His vices are, at root, ones that most people who are honest with themselves can understand – booze and women. Franz is at his most despicable when he is in the throes of passion or rage, or when he is victim to his own mental instability. Not long into the massive film, you start to see him as pitiful as much as anything. This is not unlike another film character that I will be seeing soon on this blog – the very real Jake LaMotta as depicted in Raging Bull. Both can be destructive, though Biberkopf is easier to like.

Most of Franz Biberkopf’s tale is easy enough to follow, in basic terms. He gets out of prison, he tries to go straight, he fails, and he suffers several brutal losses. However, there is a reason that the director chose to use over fifteen hours to tell the story and not two. Franz is complicated, and some of his actions are plainly irrational. To make any sense of them, we need the time to see how his more reasonable friends react to him. This gives us a better compass to navigate with. When characters like Eva, Herbert, and Meck show up to help Franz, we viewers need them just as much as Franz does. When the narrative of Franz’s life loses direction, they give us some semblance of meaning.

During the course of watching this whole thing, I often found myself pondering just what such an environment would be like. I can only imagine what it is like to live in the middle of a true economic depression, and how this affects one’s life choices. It would be hard enough for a person of decent means, but I believe Berlin Alexanderplatz gives a very real and disturbing view of how such a depression affects the already downtrodden. Those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder begin to engage in strange, irrational, short-term gain behaviors. A lot of people will watch this film and find the actions in it too distasteful to stomach, and to be honest, I did at first, as well. However, once I thought about it some more, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a disturbing authenticity to the entire tale. The corrupt actions of the characters reflect the polluted environment they are in, as they do whatever they can to survive and find any sort of solace that they can.

Franz and Mieze, a criminal and a prostitute, find some measure of happiness together. Their relationship may seem perverted to some, but it makes far more sense within their constraints.

There are some rather strange elements to Franz’s tale, though. Some are ones that I found a bit perplexing. Throughout the show, we have a disembodied and unknown narrator offering commentary that sometimes includes observations about the characters, but also Biblical verse, song lyrics, and readings from philosophical treatises. The connections are sometimes clear, but other times simply baffling.

Related to this is the final Epilogue episode, which is right out of surrealist left field. The previous 14 hours of the show are quite straightforward, with only occasional lapses into the aforementioned narration. The final episode, though, goes right into the realm of mind-blowing oddity. At least, that’s how it seems at first. When I thought about what all of the stunning and wild images had to do with Franz, most of them became clear. It didn’t make them any less shocking, though.

Just one of the many dark, disturbing images that we see in the Epilogue. This shows the tattered, tortured state of Franz's mind after losing his beloved Mieze.

Aside from the story itself, the other elements of the film are not ones that I would call spectacular, though they are very strong. The acting is very solid, all around. Günther Lamprecht is outstanding as Franz. Considering the incredible range of emotions and attitudes that he needs to show, it’s remarkable how he pulls them all off naturally – he can be charming, funny, pathetic, crazed, manic, depressed, or meditative at nearly any moment. Among the rest of the cast, there are really no weak links.

The visuals are rather intriguing. There is a somewhat dreamy, soft glow to most of the shots. This also often leads to an unusual halo effect that reminds me of the look of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Beyond that, the several scenes in the forests outside of Berlin, where Mieze is killed, look eerily like the woods used in Miller’s Crossing. Some of the scenes even seem to be set up the same way. I will have to check on whether the Coen Brothers in fact used this show as inspiration.

While the technical merits are all there, this show is really all about where this one singular character, Franz Biberkopf, fits into his own strange sub-society – a sub-society that exists in shadows that most of us don’t want to think about or acknowledge.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Researching this massive film is filled with peaks and valleys. I watched a documentary that got behind the scenes and had a few good interviews, but didn’t add much to my understanding. There is a lack of information in my normal go-to places for this sort of thing, as well.

Then, there is Peter Jelavich. Jelavich is a professor of European history, especially German historical culture. I watched an amazingly concise, 25-minute documentary in which the man clearly answered my every question about Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The novel, by Alfred Döblin, was a masterpiece of its day. Written in 1929, it was one of the very earliest “metropolitan” novels that effectively depicted life in a modern mega-city, such as Berlin. Jelavich likens it to the contemporary novel Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos. I haven’t read that novel, but having read Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, I know exactly what he means. The narrative is an enormous, sometimes dizzying, literary montage of sights, sounds, and images as perceived by an individual living in those days.

A major theme of these works is the rise of mass media. In watching the movie, this was something that confounded me; I did not understand the narrator giving me little snippets of songs, advertisements, articles, political treatises, and so on. Now knowing the intent, it all makes perfect sense. All of these little phrases are the straggling pieces of information that Franz has inadvertently picked up simply by living in Berlin. On top of that, I realize how genius Döblin was, and just how much foresight he had. When I think about my own mental state, and how much information and little, random tidbits flow through my mind on a daily basis, it’s amazing to think that Döblin saw it all coming long before its impacts were fully realized.

The original cover for the novel. It conveys the life Franz Biberkopf, surrounded by an overwhelming amount of text and information.

The other significant thing that Jelavich confirmed for me is just how to take Biberkopf the character. He is, as I felt, meant to be seen as a sympathetic figure. He essentially has a good heart and wants to do the right things, but he is incapable of it. Sometimes this is due to the endless social pressures around him, and sometimes it is because of his own lack of abilities. Either way, you want to see him find some sort of happiness. This makes it more tragic when he fails.

Believe it or not, there was a film version done shortly after the novel, back in 1931. Despite having Döblin himself working as a writer, it was far shorter and had a much sunnier ending. When Fassbinder took on the project in 1979, he was already established as something of an eccentric genius of film. He was given a lot of latitude, and he had been an incredible fan of Alfred Döblin’s novel. Wanting to do it justice, he stayed very close to the source material. The only personal touches he added were some aural references to 1960s and ‘70s pop culture, drawing a parallel between the 1929 novel and his own world in the late 1970s.

There is also a 2007 essay here by Tom Tykwer, which seems very thorough and probing. However, it dives into elements and connections with German culture that fly right over my head, in most cases. For anyone who can get something out of it, though, check it out.

The reception of the film was fairly positive, especially among critics. As you can imagine, some viewers weren’t sure what to make of the gargantuan film. Many complained that the visuals were too dark, but this was really the only common gripe. Overall, people saw it for an amazing piece of work.

That’s a wrap. 78 shows down. 27 to go.

Coming Soon: Raging Bull (1980)


 This is one of my all-time favorites. I love several of Scorsese’s movies, but I think I put this one at the top of the list. Come back and see how I break down the sad but entrancing life of the very real Jake LaMotta.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.