APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Günter Lamprecht, , , Barbara Sukowa

PLOT: After four years in prison, wife-murderer Franz Bieberkopf is released into Weimar Germany; he tries to go straight, but with no means of employment, he soon returns to the criminal underworld, with tragic results.

Still from Berlin Alexanderplatz (epilogue) (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ve toyed with the idea of considering self-contained TV miniseries as “movies” for classification purposes before; Berlin Alexanderplatz, a celebrated masterpiece of world cinema from an auteur with eccentric tendencies but nothing on the List, makes perhaps the best case for loosening our criteria—especially since the result would be classified as “apocrypha” rather than canon. A miniseries adapting Alfred Döblin’s modernist novel, first broadcast on German television, Alexanderplatz is a fifteen hour dive into an enigmatic character told through a fluid mix of straight drama, melodrama, poetic monologue, and surrealism. The two-hour capstone installment, a frenzied passage dubbed “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue,” could well stand alone as a weird movie classic—but it can’t be appreciated without first seeing the thirteen hours that came before.

COMMENTS: Oddly, it was the second episode that sold me on Berlin Alexanderplatz. The first introduced our protagonist, Franz, newly released from prison after a four year stay, briefly suffering from disabling agoraphobia until a friendly Jew tells him an obscure parable, visiting—and raping—an old acquaintance, and finally swearing an oath to go strait. It was strange stuff, setting up intriguing possibilities, but I was not all-in just yet.

That second episode was, in a way, comparatively ordinary. Desperate for a job, with legitimate employment in 1920s Berlin rare in even for non-felons, Franz agrees to put on a swastika armband—reluctantly—and sell newspapers for the newly-formed Nazi party. This decision causes him trouble when a fellow vendor, who happens to be Jewish, confronts him, followed by an old friend who’s now a dedicated Marxist. Franz, who is proud to be German but has nothing against the Jews (or anyone), eventually quits the job, but not before the gang of Communists accost him in a bar. He almost smooth talks his way out of the confrontation, but can’t resist responding to their taunts by singing a Nationalist song as a response to their chorus of the “Internationale.” Angered, they back him into a corner. In a frightened fury, one man against a gang, he is forced to raise a chair to defend himself.

It was at this point that I realized that I’d gone from simply following Franz’s story to rooting for the poor reprobate. Fassbinder brought me, slowly, to sympathize with a killer, a rapist, a pimp, and a Nazi (who isn’t really a Nazi). He quits his newspaper job; later he will attend a Communist meeting and, in his idiot-savant way, absorb the entire Leftist philosophy, and just as casually reject it. Franz is no political animal; he holds that the color of the band doesn’t effect the taste of the cigar. He’s only searching for a job, dignity, and a woman to share his life. He represents the confused and beleaguered common man on the eve of Fascism, but he’s too complicated, contradictory, and concrete to exist as a mere symbol. He is, at the same time, always the dumbest and the smartest guy in the room, making destructive choices, and then spontaneously spouting folk wisdom. He’s part holy fool, part Everyman, part poet, part monster. Here is a character despicable and sympathetic, portrayed by hulking, gentle Günter Lamprecht in a way that’s completely unbelievable yet undeniably real. He exists in his own poetized reality, which he dominates with his cryptic charisma. Franz makes his way through a depressing, overcrowded city with no job prospects, merely trying to do his best, which isn’t very good.

Most of the above is established before the plot even begins—it isn’t until episode five that the story’s actual antagonist makes his entrance. In the meantime, Franz has played at being not only a Nazi but also a drunk and a fugitive from justice. The movie keeps you off guard with its constant shifts in style: in the middle of a scene a voiceover will suddenly digress into a short fable about (for example) the only bumblebee alive in winter. Franz’s murder of his first wife is replayed multiple times, always with different narration unrelated to the horror on the screen. The film looks dingy, but Fassbinder’s lighting frequently sparks little glinting diamonds of light, often glinting in the characters’ eyes, which become the series’ visual trademark. The music is unnerving and often feels out of touch with what’s going on.

Besides the tonal shifts—which reflect the stream-of-consciousness nature of the original novel, which was full of digressive stories, newspaper clippings, and interior monologues—there are a wealth of oddities to pique your sense of wonder. Franz biting women on the neck for sexual gratification. A sudden scene of an old man with wool pasted on his body killing a sheep while sitting on a bench in a tile-lined room. An open-air brothel where a barker tries to lure in johns with quotes from the Book of Revelation. An animated spider climbing over two corpses, inserted in the middle of a lovemaking scene. And then, of course, there is that controversial epilogue, largely Fassbinder’s own invention, with transvestite angels in bronze breastplates and garter belts;  a gruesome human slaughterhouse; a miniaturized boxing match; Franz Bieberkopf’s crucifixion; and a soundtrack featuring Janis Joplin and the Velvet Underground, music that would not be recorded until four decades after the events referenced here. It’s an epic end to an epic tale of one feeble man lost in a tumultuous time and an uncaring city, and trapped by his own flawed soul.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features the 2006 restoration, which regrades and improves on the source material (in the original television broadcast, some of the night scenes were so murky that the characters could not be made out). It spreads the presentation across four Blu-rays, including one devoted to supplemental features. Among those features is the entire 1931 silent film adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which sticks faithfully to the perfunctory plot, and therefore underwhelms. Three documentaries and an interview with a film historian round out the supplements. Even the accompanying booklet is thicker than usual, featuring an appreciation by fellow filmmaker (who saw the original television broadcast as a young man) and excerpts from older essays, including one from Fassbinder’s “The Anarchy of the Imagination.” Altogether, this is one of the Criterion Collection’s most impressive offerings; it’s pricey, but money well-spent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In conception, the film’s two-hour epilogue is ingenious, a descent into absolute hysteria and madness wherein Biberkopf wanders through a politically and spiritually charged psychosexual dreamscape, complete with anachronistic musical cues from the likes of Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, and Kraftwerk. Yet the experience of watching this intentionally incongruous coda is excruciating, and to no defensible effect beyond a shrug of the shoulders and an acknowledgement that literalizing the metaphysical isn’t Fassbinder’s forte.”–Keith Ulrich & Jake Cole, Slant (Blu-ray)

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