The Reeler


April 10, 2007

The Berlin Marathon

Fassbinder's restored epic Berlin Alexanderplatz kicks off long week at MoMA

Barbara Sukowa and Günter Lamprecht in Berlin Alexanderplatz, screening this week at MoMA (Photos: Bavaria Film)

For a certain breed of hard-assed cinephile, interest in viewing a film will rise in direct proportion to its length and/or rarity. Commencing tonight, MoMA's six-day run of Berlin Alexanderplatz -- Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-1/2 hour behemoth from 1980 -- acts as the capstone to an unofficial trilogy of New York marathon screenings ongoing since last year (preceded by repeated screenings of Bela Tarr's 7-1/2 hour Sátántangó and Jacques Rivette's 12-1/2 hour Out 1). The three films have nothing in common, though they make a lot of the same demands: a serious dedication to and interest in a given filmmaker, a fetish for relative obscurity, and being OK with the knowledge that film -- normally compartmentalized into a small block of a day -- will take over your life in unignorable ways for a while. You are giving up very real, non-negligible parts of your day, and the commensurate reward had better be proportionate.

Alexanderplatz, like Out 1, could initially afford to sprawl out because it was made for TV as a mini-series. Since then, though -- despite sporadic airings on PBS and Bravo and a few rounds on the festival circuit -- the film largely disappeared from sight, consigned to an oblivion of bootleg VHS and increasingly bad prints even as it paradoxically became widely accepted as the longest film ever made (Warhol marathons and a super-obscure Peter Watkins item, The Journey, aside). The fault lay with owner Bavaria Film, explained Juliane Lorenz -- once Rainer Werner Fassbinder's editor, now responsible for Alexanderplatz's restoration. "They thought, 'It's a TV series. What should it do on a screen,' " she told The Reeler in a recent interview. "It was shown on TV on the 10th anniversary of Rainer's death, and then it vanished. That's the reason why I bought it back. That was my work. I bought the rights and cared for it and we made it available."

In brief: Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz -- a film in 13 episodes with an epilogue, as the opening credits remind you at the start of every segment -- is a brilliant pain in the ass, a mostly rewarding slog. Episode One is titled, appropriately enough, "The Punishment Begins"; for viewers, it's a canny meta-reflection of dread at embarking on this quest. For Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), though, it's a real threat. Released from jail after serving four years for beating his mistress to death, Biberkopf is completely unprepared for Weimar Berlin, or indeed for a return to society of any kind. Though he seems to have regained some footing in reality by the end of the first episode, Biberkopf's fate is truly a continual punishment: he's not just a character, he's a walking embodiment of German society's ills. For the duration, Franz will be unemployed, a Nazi newspaper vendor, a low-end gangster working in the fruit black market and a chronic alcoholic throughout.

If it sounds schematic, it's not -- partly because Fassbinder's approach, while not nearly as ironic and lurid as usual, is still decidedly non-naturalistic, and partly because Franz is a coherent character whose societal confusion barely hides a fundamental fear of self and other. In other words, a typical Fassbinder character. (It's no coincidence that "angst" -- fear -- is a keyword in many of Fassbinder's titles, including Episode 13, "The Outside and the Inside and the Secret of Fear of Fear.") Franz's continually shifting position in society allows every episode to be a distinct mini-film. Episode Five, "A Grim Reaper with Powers from Almighty God," is a particular stand-out, detailing a sordid arrangement between Franz and his friend Reinhold (Gottfried John) where Reinhold -- who tires of any relationship longer than two or three weeks -- duplicitously sends his used-up girls over to Franz, who in turn redistributes them to his friends when it's time for a new one to come along, without the women ever catching on. This mesmeric half-hour -- backed by a faux-ambient Eno score, unnatural colors and constantly gliding, menacing cameras -- is possibly the strongest single moment of the film (and, again perhaps non-coincidentally, the most stereotypically Fassbinderian). The exception to the constantly changing tone is the near-deadly stretch of latter-half episodes where Franz and Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) embark on the only affair to last four episodes, engendering a consistency that proves kind of deadly in context.

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (top left) on the set of Berlin Alexanderplatz with DP Xaver Schwarzenberger, Barbara Sukowa (seated) and Gottfried john

Still, all of the episodes are worthy preparation for the Epilogue. A sprawling, bizarre 111-minute feature of its own, "The Death of a Child and the Birth of a Worthwhile Human Being" takes place mostly inside Franz's mind. Now driven to insanity, Franz lies and hallucinates the bulk of the episode. The remarkable thing is that his insanity is built up out of the preceding 13-1/2 hours; the result is like watching a dream where you know what every symbolic element actually means, like doing the analysis beforehand. For some people it ruins everything that's come before, so be forewarned.

Though it might seem laughable to recommend Berlin Alexanderplatz as a starting point to Fassbinder's work, it's worth it if you have the time. "This is the most important film," Lorenz explained. "He knew the book when he was not even adult; when he was 14 he read it, and the book was very important for him. He identified in a way with this main character, and with this time. For him, it was something he wanted to do all his life, and when he was able to do it, he did it." So it's not surprising that many of Fassbinder's films seem to be echoed here, thematically and visually: Biberkopf looks up and spins, seeing the roof frame a dizzying patch of sky when he gets out of jail, echoing a similar shot in 1971's The Merchant of Four Seasons. Similarly, Alexanderplatz is bedeviled by a startling number of lens flares that divide, bisect and colonize the screen in all kinds of ways; this kind of overlighting is found again in 1980's Lili Marleen -- Alexanderplatz's immediate follow-up.

Characteristically, Fassbinder favors long master-take shots: scenes unfold for many minutes at a time without a single cut (one shot appears to run on for 10 minutes). Regarding Alfred Doblin's novel, critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin considered its passages of "petty bourgeois pamphlets, tales of scandal, accidents, sensations of '28, folk songs, advertisements, ... Bible verses, statistics, hit songs" and concluded that what the montage principle was to film Doblin had enacted in his book. For his part, Fassbinder doesn't embrace Eisensteinian montage; instead, he interpolates long passages of readings from newspapers, narrative voice-over bringing up seemingly irrelevant data and all manner of ephemera within his controlled frame, reconciling the two principles.

Blown up from its original 16mm format to a grainy 35 (Fassbinder's long-standing dream, never realized for financing reasons), Berlin Alexanderplatz is finally on the big screen in its ideal format, though it's still not necessarily appointment viewing. You can certainly go -- either spread out across four nights, Tuesday-Friday, of approximately four hours each or in a marathon, two-day weekend viewing session (MoMA film curator Laurence Kardish's recommendation) -- but if you're feeling relatively lazy, Criterion will be putting out an edition sometime this fall. There’s no right way to go about it necessarily, but to answer the basic question: Should you undergo the punishment? The answer, ultimately, is yes.

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