Ever wondered how Homer Simpson would have fared in the economically ruined and morally compromising world of Weimar Republic Berlin? Franz Biberkopf is a dopey big oaf, sensual and mediocre, but with some sort of basic decency. The precise nature of this decency is not always easy to locate: he has after all done time for killing his girlfriend in a rage. This violent scene is replayed countless times in flashback throughout the series, which begins with Franz leaving Tegel prison. He hesitates on the threshold, deafened by the roar of the city, before trying to dive back into the relative security of incarceration. As he stands with his hands over his ears in close-up, the first chapter heading appears: ‘the punishment begins’. This is in line with Alfred Döblin’s novel, which from the word go makes no secret that Franz is its plaything, and that he will be allowed a little fun before being squashed like a fly. Fassbinder’s adaptation is likewise punctuated by storyboard intervals of pointedly didactic narration brutally denying any idea of free will, and forestalling any possibility of a happy ending. Its indulgence towards Franz’s wife-beating rages may say as much about the 1970s as anything, but it is certainly not out of keeping with the novel’s vision of a harsh world that poisons the sweetest sentiments and the best intentions. In other words, Berlin Alexanderplatz is not everyone’s idea of fun. It has an enormous reputation as a pioneering piece of television, and as Fassbinder’s masterpiece, but has barely been seen since its early 1980s release. Digitally restored, thanks to recent technological advances fascinatingly detailed on the bonus disc, it stands as a reminder of time when art was ‘grimly compelling’.
The fact that Alexanderplatz offers considerably more than historical interest has a lot to do with the intensity of many of the performances. Günter Lamprecht brilliantly conveys Biberkopf’s insane swings from puppyish optimism to baffled rage as he lurches from one dead-end job to another, flirts cluelessly with Nazism, and struggles to go straight in a pervasively criminal economy. The hysterical edge to his gaping smile is caught by the golden glow of the cinematography, which at once produces the idea of an idyll and perversely highlights the grubbiness and tattiness of the surfaces it covers. And we are periodically reminded that this is only light after all: when things go really wrong, there is darkness broken by the lurid pulse of neon from the street. Then things turn really hysterical. Hysteria, of course, is what Fassbinder does: in all times and in all places, Fassbinder’s creations just are hysterical, because that’s the way he likes them. To a certain extent this is something his films reflect on as well as act out: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) in particular is a study in hysteria. To maintain control over the script of her life, Petra needs someone like the pliant, essentially indifferent, Karin. Her theatre is unsustainably brittle from the start, but when Karin’s indifference becomes active it shatters utterly. The only Petra von Kant figure in Berlin Alexanderplatz is Fassbinder himself, and you can see why he was drawn to DÃÂ¶blin’s novel: in its Weimar Republic, everyone is a marionette. In desperate times, we are driven on all the more uncomprehendingly by our own obscure compulsions, just because satisfying them is such a brutal struggle. The aesthetic upshot of this in novel and screen adaptation alike is directorial tyranny tinged with pity.
In the Fassbinder series, this also manifests itself in a noticeably theatrical mise en scène. Alexanderplatz is sometimes puffed as an extremely long film about the bustle of the modern city and so forth, and so is written up into the pantheon of late twentieth-century art cinema. It is questionable how accurate this is. Firstly, though it has been screened as a film, Alexanderplatz is shot on 16mm, is over 15 hours long, and breaks down neatly into episodes. In other words, it’s a TV series! Perhaps even more critically, the vaunted scenes of city life are surprisingly few, and are vastly outnumbered by quite stagey scenes in a fairly small number of interior sets. The (excellent) making-of film on the bonus disc makes a great deal out of the city street set as exemplifying scale and ambition. This is partly a matter of money: such scenes graphically advertise the budget of the project (though the set itself was economically filched from Bergman). But they also stage the film director as heroic commander of a vast technical effort. When Fassbinder is being, rather than playing, the director, he is much more given to theatrical blocking in claustrophobic settings. Dialogue in Alexanderplatz is routinely conducted, not face to face, but with both characters staring into ‘the audience’, one mid-stage, the other with their nose pressed against the fourth wall. To a certain extent, this is about alienation: what determines the characters is not so much their relationship with each other, as the inscrutable force of a whole situation that engulfs them all. But the technique comes, as does Fassbinder himself, and indeed many of his actors, out of the theatre, and the effect can be a little dated.
Not as dated, however, as Fassbinder’s ostentatiously art-cinema epilogue. Here Biberkopf wanders through a sort of underworld fugue on the themes of the series. Accompanied by two ‘angels’ outfitted in the manner of Wagnerian hard rock of the period, Franz meets dead characters who comment helpfully on their roles. Swastikaed brown shirts march past and tussle with communist workers. There’s a Nativity with Franz’s head pasted onto the body of the infant Christ. An atom bomb explodes, providing the obligatory mushroom cloud. Anyone who has come to cultural consciousness in the late 70s and early 80s will recognise the iconic status of such images, and understand the signal that politically-informed film is taking place. What is striking at this distance is how gestural all this was, and how little it adds up to a thought-out critical portrait of the threat of totalitarianism and so forth. With the current blossoming of German cinema dealing with WWII and its fallout, it might seem there has never been a better time to revisit Alexanderplatz. And this is true, but its take on the politics of the 1920s is rather more oblique than one might be led to expect. On the bonus disc, the generally thoughtful Hanna Schygulla suggests that Mieze’s plan for Eva to have a child by Franz shows the threesome briefly and idyllically putting aside the scrabble for possessions in favour of a sort of 1968 idealism. But again this seems rather a plausible appeal to a reflex notion of leftism rather than a reflection on the complexities of the series.
Fassbinder’s artistic and political interests, leftist or not, lie elsewhere. One of the most compelling characters and performances is Gottfried John’s Reinhold. He embodies someone for whom the moral compromises of a chaotic and desperate social milieu present no problem. He initially hooks up with Franz as someone who can take his girlfriends off his hands when he grows bored with them, which routinely happens after a month or so. Franz’s willingness to oblige, while it does not exactly make him a moral figure, is not condemned and seems to reflect the same sort of dim and misdirected generosity of spirit that sees him briefly don a swastika armband in the cause of order, whilst having nothing personal against Jews. Heartiness and a good appetite, it seems, are ultimately good, even if they lead to some dubious choices. John’s Reinhold, who is in fact one of these dubious choices, is all the more menacing and repugnant because he is spineless, stammering and effete. He represents a notion of evil not as strength, but as resentful weakness with opportunity. He is indebted to Franz for a capacity for pleasure he does not himself possess, and thus also hates him for it, and happily betrays him at every turn. Yet, even when Franz realises this, it is Reinhold, rather than the fundamentally decent working-man-turned-criminal Meck, that he considers his friend. Franz’s bewildering trust precipitates the final catastrophe when Reinhold tries to carry on their old triangular arrangement with Franz’s own girlfriend Mieze. The epilogue somewhat spells out a thesis on this in a scene where Reinhold finds true love with his cellmate in prison. In the series proper, scenes between Franz and Reinhold crackle with obscure and unspoken motivation. The final showdown between Reinhold and Mieze in an artificially lit nightmare fairy-tale wood is one of the most brilliant and shocking things in the whole series.
Overall, watching Berlin Alexanderplatz is a queasy experience. That its hero is at all sympathetic is a tribute to Lamprecht’s performance, but also to the sheer nastiness of the world Biberkopf inhabits. Its strength lies in its ability to make us care about grubby lives doomed from the start. It has a far more uneasy conscience than most cinema or TV today. This can make it hard going, but in a time of well-meaning but simplistic tales such as Sophie Scholl, it is fascinating to peer into a less affluent, less attractive time when moral choices did not seem so clear-cut. And I don’t just mean the 1970s.