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October 24, 2005

Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1980

alexanderplatz1.gif How does anyone begin to encapsulate the audacious, manic, insightful, resonant, humane, and allegorically loaded tone of the epic work - the quintessential "anarchy of the imagination" - that is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's adaptation of Alfred Döblin's thirteen chapter, Weimer Republic-era German Expressionist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz? Told from the perspective of an unemployed, hard-drinking, low-level pimp and convicted killer, Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the film begins with the ominous chapter title, The Punishment Begins as he is paroled from a correctional institution after serving four years for accidentally strangling his lover and prostitute Ida (Barbara Valentin) during a drunken rage over her decision to leave him. By the conclusion of the last chapter, it is inevitable that Franz would again be placed into some form of involuntary state institution, bringing the story, not to a narrative full circle (as indicated by the juxtaposition of end and beginning in the chapter title) but rather, to a coaligned point of precession within a receded and collapsing spiral as Franz, now an unemployable "half man" is again alone and without a devoted, self-sacrificing woman who will dutifully provide for him.

This dysfunctional cycle of systematic erosion also reflects the film's recurring theme of converging human economics where emotion and desire serve as real, transactional currency: from Franz's history of exploitive relationships with a succession of lover/prostitutes, to Reinhold (Gottfried John) alexanderplatz2.gif unloading his unwanted mistresses onto the obliging Franz (unwittingly carrying their own payoff bribes from Reinhold to their new lover/pimp - a pair of boots or a fur collar for a winter coat - as pre-arranged errands to set up their introductory encounter), to Eva's (Hanna Schygulla) "gift" of her protégée Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) to Franz after he is crippled during a burglary getaway automobile "accident". This pattern of commodified intimacy is also revealed in Franz's impulsive decision to offer money to a lonely widow one afternoon after a chance sexual encounter at her apartment while selling shoelaces door-to-door, his actions revealing his instinctual equation of affection with money. In this respect, the liberation of the (sexual) body (a theme explored through the post World War I photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's Remembrance of Things to Come) juxtaposed against Franz's increasingly lopsided economic and emotional dependence on the women in his life represents a broader national allegory for the Weimar Republic's ever-worsening national debt and hyperinflation (caused by payment obligations for war reparations), reflecting an irresolvable social equation - an inescapable, behaviorally entrenched bankruptcy - that cannot be set right. In essence, Franz's seemingly surreal black market world of stolen fruits, open door brothels, and handed down lovers is a reflection of the inconcrete (and ephemeral) basis that underlies the broader, national economy itself. Like Franz's retaliatory, sacrificed limb, it is an unsustainable economic cycle of national disarticulation.

With Franz's life and reality fractured, Fassbinder's addition of a thematically opaque, dream sequence montage provides a break in narrative tone as (perhaps intentionally) severe and wildly incongruent as the epilogue of F.W Murnau's Weimar-era film, The Last Laugh. Weaving through Fassbinder's voluptuous, expressionistic, stream of (sub)consciousness metaphoric imagery (something like a chronicle of Querelle foretold) of Kenneth Anger-like Bacchanalian ritual, transfiguration, erotic fantasy, curative masochism, and nuclear holocaust, the film converges towards a more conventional - and consequently, more absurd - alternate "happy ending". Set against an eclectic soundtrack of Kraftwerk's Radioactivity and the liebestod, Mild und leise, wie er lächelt from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - a sublime piece that articulates the transfiguration of love into rapture through the necessary process of death - the inspired design behind Fassbinder's jarring and idiosyncratic epilogue begins to cohere as an abstract elegy of twentieth century world history as seen through the inwardly focused lens of repercussive consequence resulting from Germany's political transformation from Weimar Republic to the Third Reich: the cold and rude awakening that signaled the death of the illusory dream of eternal halcyon days that once seemed possible with the end of the Great War to end all wars.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 24, 2005 | | Filed under 2005


a) Doblin's novel is in 9 "Books"
b) The widow gives Franz money not the other way around, hence Luders finding out taking advantage and robbing her.
c) Most importantly, the epilogue consists largely, I would say nearly entirely, of text and events from the novel. There seems to be a widespread belief that Fassbinder wrote it himself which is not true. Granted the viewpoint from which he films and filters it is later in the 20th century but nearly all the dialogue, event, text, is from the end of the book (just filmed with allusions, depictions, stagings that acknowledge a different position in time when made). The angels who walk besides Franz at the beginning, the biblical passages, the doctor's discussions of tratment, the discussion/depiction of death (the dialogue taken verbatim), etc etc. up to Franz's "death" and re-emergence in the world.

Posted by: greg on Apr 17, 2007 5:31 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the clarifications, Greg, the epilogue seemed so disconnected from the preceding chapters that it seemed to be tacked on. But then again, it does make sense that both Dobbin's novel and the Last Laugh are both Weimar era, they both have a cynical streak to them, and Fassbinder really tapped into that and turned it into something that's really his own vision.

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 17, 2007 6:51 PM | Permalink

no problem. Posting on a 1 1/2 year old post as I just saw the film at MoMA. Sorry if it seemed snipey at first there, just irritating as the general coments/reviews/etc. (of which I've read many recently) always seem to point out Fassbinder's "additional" epilogue whereas it is mainly the ninth "book" of the novel. Of course, Fassbinder films it in his own way and through the filter or lens of the years that have passed, and in a style that varies greatly from the body of the film, thus it's easily understandable how the dominant thought is just that, just feeling finicky about a common false statement.
I think upon an additional viewing one would notice many of the seeds of the epilogue in the first 13 chapters. Though not as prominent as in the novel many of the themes/texts/imagery in the epilogue are established in the film, largely through the voice-overs, on-screen texts and the more allegorical/observational dialogue of the characters. All of the on-screen text and narration is from the novel verbatim, pretty much, including in the epilogue. It is quite interesting the way Fassbinder throughout the film includes the digressions and textual variety Doblin uses(newspaper quotes, allegorical descriptions, etc).

Posted by: greg on Apr 17, 2007 7:23 PM | Permalink

I'm curious about the large piece of machinery in the middle of Biberkopf's apartment near the kitchen table. It is never mentioned and seems to play no obvious symbolic role in the film, but it sits there almost in the middle of the stage. Is it a derelict printing press? Or is it a reference to Biberkopf's former work? Can anyone suggest a plausible interpretation of its significance? I thought the film was superb in almost every respect.

Posted by: Stanley Goodman on Sep 22, 2008 11:59 PM | Permalink

Hmm...I'll have to check the DVD(s) when I get home. I thought you were referring to the suitcase/sample case he was lugging around at first, or maybe a phonograph, but those wouldn't look too exotic. :)

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Sep 23, 2008 11:05 AM | Permalink

Okay, if it's the object to the right of Biberkopf in this picture, that looks like a typewriter to me. My guess is that it was something like a status symbol back then, in the same way that it was statusful to have a piano or a set of encyclopedia in the house - it reflected a certain level of culturedness, education, and disposable income if you had these in your home. So if that's the case, it would also reflect on his downward spiral, because his social status keeps getting eroded.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Sep 23, 2008 8:50 PM | Permalink

The picture you refer to only shows a small part of the large piece of machinery that occupies most of the space in the center of the room. That small section of it does suggest a typewriter shape, but other shots reveal much more of a large object occupying significant floor space. The characters often walk around both sides of it. The mystery continues for me, but thanks very much for your effort and response.

Posted by: Stanley Goodman on Sep 24, 2008 2:02 AM | Permalink

I believe the large piece of machinery in the apt. Franz rented from Frau Bast is a printing press. Numerous shots are taken through it, with the press obscuring the foreground -- it's impossible to miss. The whole apt., as a matter of fact, is an old print shop converted into living quarters.

Posted by: borrisbatanov on Jul 18, 2009 7:33 PM | Permalink

Ah, true, I also vaguely remember one of his early jobs was distributing leaflets from an underground press or something. Maybe they were related.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Jul 19, 2009 1:51 AM | Permalink

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