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Berlin Alexanderplatz is by far the most ambitious film of all time. It has a very unusual feel to it as it slips between the real world and the mental state of Franz Biberkopf (particularly when he relives again and again the crime which landed him in prison). Of special interest to film addicts who have not seen the movie is the final 90 minutes which evidently was Fassbinder's own filmed fantasy of the entire plot, done with a background picture of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights." A fabulous richly-detailed film, but some may not be able to get past the politics.
Very long (15 hours in all), very worth seeing. Based on Alfred
Doeblin's novel of the same name, "Berlin Alexanderplatz" is set in and
around Berlin during the Weimar Republic era, the decade immediately
preceding the establishment Hitler's Third Reich in 1933.
The workers of '20s Berlin are taking it on the chin. Mass unemployment reigns alongside the greed of the landlord and capitalist classes. People are reacting and acting in various ways to survive. As usual, some of the unemployed turn to crime; others to prostitution. Most of the film's cast will see the dawn of the "thousand year Reich" with their eyes only half way open.
But life must go on and it will go on and it does go on in Berlin during Weimar. It's an exciting time as well, a time when the puritanism of the countryside is being exchanged for a chance to live free and wild in a sleepless city chock full of cabarets and kniepe. Of course, the Nazis didn't like this and neither did their supporters, the conservative majorities of rural Germany.
As the film's director,R.W. Fassbinder put it,Doeblin's novel,BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, "offered a precise characterization of the twenties; for anyone who knows what came of all that, it's fairly easy to recognize the reasons that made the average German capable of embracing his National Socialism."
All this turmoil and potential for explosive change are seen by the audience of "Berlin Alexanderplatz" through the eyes of one guy, Franz Biberkopf. Walk, ride, rob, love, drink and despair with Franz Biberkopf. Best bring along a case or two of good lager while you're immersing yourself in the prelude to "Gotterdamerung".
I think it's a perfect crime that this epic of human behavior has been neglected by German audiences. Even here on IMDb the people commenting on it are from various parts all over the wold but not from Germany. This is mostly due to the fact that "Berlin Alexanderplatz" was aired only once in 1980, under not very becoming conditions (it was a very bad copy of the original 16mm print that was much too dark for once), and then quickly thrown on the garbage heap of television-history. In the US for instance, Berlin Alexanderplatz was shown in cinemas and the association of American film critics at the end of the 80ies placed Günther Lamprecht under the top three actors of it's time, just behind Robert de Niro and Ben Kingsley. Figure that. Still the Germans go on saying that the Americans are mere barbarians when it comes to art. Thanks to "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and the people responsible for the quite expensive restoration-process of the series we now have a DVD and can watch the somnambulic masterpiece in all of it's original glory. It's the spiraling downfall of one man in a big Leviathan of a city, hard to swallow for most who rely on the silver or small screen for escapist entertainment. I just wish that today for every "Lost", "24" or "Profiler/CSI"-series there would at least be one "Berlin Alexanderplatz".
It took me over four months to finish watching Berlin Alexanderplatz
that Criterion released on seven discs. As with the other two my
favorite TV Series (Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" and "Scenes
from the Marriage), Criterion deserves the highest praise for the
quality of the set. I would receive a disc from Netflix, watch without
stopping and then I would need a break - so intense and involving, and
demanding it was. It's been said a lot about Werner Rainer Fassbinder's
most opulent, magnificent, and controversial work based on the novel
"Berlin Alexanderplatz" written by Alfred Döblin in 1929 that
Fassbinder had known by heart and always wanted to adapt. In short,
"Berlin Alexanderplatz" is a story of an ex-convict Franz Biberkopf and
his attempts to lead a good honest life after he was released from the
prison where he had spent four years for accidentally murdering his
girlfriend in the fit of rage. Döblin's book is considered one of the
most important German novels, which used the techniques similar to and
is as influential as James Joyce's "Ulysses" and John Dos Passos'
"Manhattan". As Joyce and Dos Passos, Doblin paints the portrait of the
city that we could recognize and re-build in our imagination even if
Berlin of the 1920s, the most modern city of its time does not exist
anymore. Doblin also had shown how the city affects the life of a
person and tears them apart. There could be many reasons why Fassbinder
felt so strongly about the novel and always dreamt about adapting it to
the screen. He was certainly fascinated by the language of the book and
he took it upon himself to narrate some of the most impressive pages as
the comments to the action on the screen. Perhaps the young filmmaker
was attracted to Doblin's non-judgmental approach in depicting
marginality of criminal life, in accepting homosexuality and
bisexuality as a part of life without neither glorifying nor demonizing
them. The hero of Döblin'/Fassbinder's magnum opus is a deeply flawed
man, a pimp, a thief, a murderer yet childishly naive and sympathetic
who wants to start a new honest life (not pimping or joining the gang
of thieves) but keeps forgetting that "The road to Hell is paved with
good intentions." Fassbinder also could've seen the similarities in the
political situations in Germany of 1970 and 1930.
I realize that 15 1/2 hours long "Berlin Alexanderplatz" can evoke very controversial emotions from the viewers but I believe it is impossible not to admit the brilliance and magnificence of the project and of the final product which is without doubt a truly outstanding event in the history of the medium. Just to think that such enormous work had been finished in the course of 150 days, that Fassbinder took only three months to write the script, and how he'd envisioned the main players even before they could imagine they would participate in the project. It was incredibly interesting to watch the documentary about making BA. I found it symbolic that some parts of the film were shot using the earlier set decorations for Ingmar Bergman's "Serpent's Egg" which I like very much and don't agree that it was Bergman's mistake. I also see the influence Fellini might have had on Fassbinder - the scenes in the Red Light District could've came come from the Italian master's films who knew how to stage the "freak shows" and Barbara Sukowa's confession that she had looked at Fellini's "La Strada" to understand better the character of Mieze. Günter Lamprecht, Hanna Schygulla, and especially Gottfried John (who I believed had given the greatest performance in the film as one of the most mysterious villains ever on screen) all contributed their memories of the time they worked with Fassbinder on Berlin Alexanderplatz. I might have not perhaps "gotten" the whole complexity of the film and the novel it is based on but I feel greatness when I encounter it. Of all amazing 15+ hours, the final part, "My dream from the dream of Franz Biberkopf von Alfred Doeblin: An Epilogue" stands out even for Fassbinder. Rarely have I been so mesmerized and fascinated by what an artist's imagination is capable of as during the two final hours of the incredible film-making. The epilogue made me think that if ever a film director lived who could've adapted to screen successfully "Divine Comedy", "The Book of Revelation", "Ulysses", and Goethe's Faust (the whole poem, not just a Margaret's affair), it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. We lost our chance when he was gone and we would never see the likes of him again. Not often I feel sorry that the film is over and I miss it as soon as I finish watching - it happened after the final scene of "Berlin Alexanderplatz" was over.
The most unique contribution of film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder
to Alfred Döblin's novel "Berlin Alexanderplatz. The story of Franz
Biberkopf" (1929) was his interpretation of the relationship between
Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold as a love story. Therefore, in
Fassbinder's interpretation, Franz Biberkopf's accident is seen as
self-mutilation. In Fassbinder's last movie, Querelle (1982), we will
hear the confession: "To kiss a man is like the confrontation with
one's own face in the mirror". As different as Döblin's
"Alexanderplatz" and Genet's "Querelle" may be, the two novels are
alike because they meet one another like an object and its mirror
image: the first novel deals with the good-guy Franz Biberkopf who is
ruined by his love to humankind, and the other novel with the immoral
murderer Querelle by which those who love him, perish.
Like many of Fassbinder's movies, "Berlin Alexanderplatz", too, shows clear autobiographical traces. Fassbinder said about the three protagonists Franz, Reinhold and Mieze: "All three together supply my chance to survive". As Fassbinder pointed out in his article "The cities of the human and his soul", unlike Döblin in his original novel, Fassbinder is not so much interested in the discovery of the outer reality of Berlin, but concentrates on their inhabitants. "Berlin Alexanderplatz" is a journey into the souls of different people under the conviction that the reign of subjectivity of the inner realities is much bigger than the reign of the objective reality outside. As a matter of fact (as has been pointed out by several commentators), "Berlin Alexanderplatz" with its almost 100 roles gave Fassbinder the possibility to let appear in his movie practically every person who had been crucial in his own life. That he split himself over three persons (Franz, Reinhold, Mieze) is very typical in Fassbinder's work in which many persons have their Alter Egos (e.g., "Despair", 1977). As Fassbinder had pointed out in an interview: "Despair is the only condition of life that I can accept". Consistently, the movie shows the systematic destruction of Franz, since "he is an anarchical figure in a crowd of social beings, and in the end, he perishes because of that". In fifteen and half an hour, we can analyze "the constellations, how a human spoils his life by a certain incapability which he developed by his upbringing" (Fassbinder). The movie shows the shaping of Franz Biberkopf to a mentally destroyed but therefore useful member of society. Every connoisseur of Fassbinder's work will be remembered to the final scene of "Fear of Fear" (1975) in which Margot, after having been "cured" in a psychiatric clinic, types addresses on envelopes like a trained monkey. When Karli brings her the information that their neighbor, the depressive Mr. Bauer, has killed himself, she hardly recognizes this fact anymore telling to Karli that she is feeling fine.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a great film/miniseries. It's the story of a man who gets out of
prison in Germany between the two World Wars. He becomes involved with
pimps, prostitutes, and Nazis. Facing various temptations, he is too
led by others.
While it's not hard to see a political analogy with the whole population of Germany, this main character, Franz, is brilliantly played by Gunter Lamprecht, who gives us one of the most memorable portrayals in film.
In addition to incredible acting, "Berlin Alexanderplatz" features a beautiful score. The series' only fault is the final episode, in which the fairly realistic narrative of life in pre-WWII Germany gets tossed out the window.
Instead we get an hour or so of fantasy involving angels, late-70s liberal German rhetoric, nuclear explosions, etc. This last episode reminded me a bit of "Godfather III" -- not bad, but quite a letdown after the greatness that precedes it.
This mega-movie is an expressionist, modernist masterpiece that
combines the best of Wellesian cinema (expressionistic) with Godardian
cinema (modernist). The (Godardian) voice-over snatches of random news
items and medical health items (referenced in the prior 'review') are
simply being faithful to Dobler's novel, which is a somewhat Germanic
version of Joyce's Ulysses. But instead of the Joycian modernist take
on the travels of Odysseus, Dobler's novel presented us with a
modernist take on the Passion Play.
This film is not for simpletons. Just like a long, great novel there will be stretches that will bore you a bit and other stretches that are riveting and will break your heart.
Two major points:
1) Don't get too caught up with what some people see as a form of homo-eroticism between Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold. Although expressionistic, Fassbinder has presented the material with enough objectivity that different people will come away with different subtexts. Fassbinder has explained the film as a love story between Franz and Reinhold but Fassbinder was bisexual.
Franz is a grown up naive child. One could easily see Franz's 'curiosity' about Reinhold as a longing for an absent father. Eva, the one constant in Franz's life, could represent his longing for an absent/replacement mother/big sister/protector. How else to explain Franz's reluctance to mate with her?
2) The two-hour epilogue contains an extended surrealistic pastiche that upsets 90% of the people who like the previous (more realistic) 13 hours.
Biberkopf's brain snaps like a twig! How better to explain the mixture of chemicals the bad cocktail suddenly coursing through his head? It's brilliant in it's off-puttingness! Bad cocktails don't taste good! Some people don't understand how Lou Reed and Kraftwerk can be on the soundtrack when Franz (in insane delirium) is living in 1928:
People that's what they call 'modernist'. That's what they call 'expressionist'. Were you expecting Robert Flaherty in a Fassbinder film?
Epilogue: See the film. If THE DECALOGUE is the great cinematic short story collection BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ is the great cinematic novel.
Alfred Doeblin's poignant novel must have impressed Fassbinder deeply. In an interview talking about his episodic masterpiece, Fassbinder announces, in a matter-of-fact manner, that writing the script was not difficult because he pretty much knew the book "by heart". And, indeed, we should take his words literally, considering the extent of the work and the cinematic achievement it represents. Berlin Alexanderplatz is not an easy film to watch; not because of some artistic imperfection. On the contrary, because it is a dense and tortuous, but honest, observation of the human condition, its contradictions and dark nature. Fassbinder approached this project with an open heart and a razor-sharp discipline. He knew what he wanted to recreate, and the world he conjured up captures our attention by tearing away any romanticized notion of reality. The story takes place in Berlin around the years of 1926 and 1928: Germany, at the brink of one of the darkest periods of human existence. A universe breathing betrayal at a cellular level. Murder, jealousy, perversity, hatred, maliciousness, innocence, fragility, fear, longing, guilt, embarrassment, lack of hope, evil, passion, lust, doubt, indecision, suffering, pain, sex, death, blood, insecurity, poverty, uncertainty, madness, hell, despair, surrender, shock, chaos, dirt, soul, faith, and a constant flow in a spectacle of the Shadow of the human Psyche and their intrinsic Divinity. The story is told in thirteen parts and an epilogue. It is a long cinematic experience. Mr. Fassbinder acts as a sort of Brechtian observer with a soft spot on his heart. The first part runs around 82 minutes. The next twelve which follow are about an hour-long each. The last is the epilogue that is 112 minutes of an odyssey into madness and surreal visions of the Unconscious. This last part plays like a roller-coaster ride through the past, the present and the future as we exchange empiric data in order to survive. It's a spiral descent into hell. Dante's inferno is revealed in every corner. The main character in this story is Franz Bieberkopf. He re-enters the world after a four-year sentence in the Prison of Tegel. His crime: killing his girlfriend in a fit of anger and despair. He is the anti-hero we make acquaintance with, Nietzsche's Superman in anguish. Our limitations and awe. In times of terror the arrows flow amply. Doeblin's complex narrative and Rainer's impeccable rendition outlive their creative minds. The parallels can be tracked into our times. We can only hope we have learned some lessons. The Weimar Republic was created after WWI in an attempt to establish Germany as a liberal democracy. It failed with the ascent of Adolf Hitler to power, and with the formation of the Nazi party. In 1933, the Third Reich takes over. Doeblin's narrative takes place in the last years of the Weimar Republic. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a phenomenal work of art that needs to be absorbed slowly. Fassbinder's work offers the viewer a similar involvement to reading the book. We get to spend more time with the characters and their settings. I watched one episode per day on average, but there were times I watched two on the same day. I also took breaks over the weekends, accommodating my schedule and my mood. This is undoubtedly a remarkable cinematic experience!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Nothing can be more melodramatic than German melodrama, particularly
that of the beginning of the 20th century. Franz Biberkopf's story is
such a deep, thick and sickening melodrama and Fassbinder makes it so
dense, so heavy that we are totally overwhelmed by this hardening
cast-plaster, a melodrama contained between Biberkopf's release from
the prison where he has spent four years for killing his girlfriend,
Ida, to the end of his life as a concierge in some factory after the
trial in which he is a witness against the accused, his friend Reinhold
who had assassinated Franz's last girl friend Mieze, after he was
released from the mental institution to which he had been committed
after the crime. Biberkopf is the perfect victim who is ready to do
anything he is asked to do by the people he considers his friends at
the moment of the request. He is totally dependent on women and at the
same time reveals he is very particular about them and actually loves
only very few. Eva of course, his permanent love who lives with a rich
Herbert and carries his child for a few months. Ida, who he killed out
of rage one morning. And Wieze who will be killed by Reinhold. The
second characteristic of Franz Biberkopf is that he has the brain of a
beaver, as his name implies. He is not very swift but he is faithful
and he can suffer anything from his friends, though at times he may be
taken, over by a fit of rage that makes him blind and murderous, though
he can easily be stopped. But to survive in Germany in 1928-29 he is
doing what he can, anything he comes across: selling newspapers,
including the Nazi newspaper, selling erotic literature, selling
shoelaces, being part of a gang of thieves, and being a pimp. Then the
whole story is nothing but details of a sad ,life that can only be sad.
Fassbinder makes it so dense, so packed with hefty details and events
that we don't see the thirteen episode flying by. And yet the
masterpiece of this long series is the epiloque. Then Fassbinder
describes what is happening in Biberkopf's mind after his seizure of
insanity when he realizes his Mieze was killed by his supposedly best
friend who had caused him to lose an arm when this Reinhold had tried
to kill him, the infamous Reinhold. In this epilogue, Fassbinder
becomes the most baroque, or even rococo, of all screen artists you can
imagine. He brings Biberkopf down into the deranged world of his
insanity. He is cruder than Bosh, crueler than Goya, and he depicts the
physical dereliction to which Biberkopf is reduced in that mental
institution, the haughty condescending carelessness of doctors and
personnel, and the haunted mind of his. And in this haunted nightmare
he experiences, Fassbinder shows how he is tortured by Reinhold and a
few others who have used him in life, how he is tortured by both his
lubricity and his refusal to acknowledge it, how he is physically
tormented in all kinds of cruel physical punishments repeated ad
eternam, a vision of hell borrowed from Dante of course. The point here
is that Biberkopf will come out of the institution when he reaches some
personal peace in that insanity, in no way the consciousness of his own
victimization, but a dull taming of his inner world into a senseless,
meaningless and emotionless routine that will transform him into a
faithful and reliable concierge looking after cars, lost and abandoned
forever in his blessed solitude of the body and the soul. This epilogue
is luxuriant and so dense that we just wonder how it could go on like
that, over and over again, each situation of victimization opening onto
another as naturally as a door you push open and drop closed behind
you. Sickening and thickening at the same time, so that you feel
totally buried in that grossness and in that cruelty. You are becoming
Biberkopf and at the same time the torturing insanity because Biberkopf
appears to you as deserving his fate, his insanity, hence your scourges
and your violence. It is amazing at this moment to see how Fassbinder
manages to make you be a double voyeur and transport you both into
Biberkopf himself who cannot rebel in spite of you inhabiting him with
the justification to rebel, and thus into the torturing insanity to
punish him for not rebelling or to incite him to rebel. The only
film-maker Fassbinder can compete with in this perverse mediatic
transfer is Clive Barker in his early films or in his Hellraiser
series, except that Fassbinder adds an ancient Greek dimension to that
delirium that is vital since it will lead Biberkopf to surviving in a
mixture of the International, patriotic sings and emerging Nazi
military rites, rituals and marching beating tempos.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines
Saw in theatre on release, and the many-VHS set, and to this day still
it unquestionably among top 10 of all time (even with the sometimes overly
heavy Fassbinder spin).
The duration permits a whole new level of dramatic depth, as well as a story with many small and one big arc. Acting, music, photography, dialog - all a treat. Ending is love-it-or-hate-it (I didn't hate it).
Subtitles are about 75% legible on video, and were about 90% discernible in the theatre. Audio was often very loud - comes out kind of 'harsh' - wasn't as bad in the theatre.
After each several 'episodes' you'll have to go for a walk (equally so for the legs and the psyche)!
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