Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Gunter Lamprecht,
Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 940 Minutes
Release Date: February 12, 2019
“I don’t want to go on as before.”
Berlin Alexanderplatz is epic and intimate, broad in scope and minute in detail…contradictions to be sure, but when you have fifteen hours to play around with, there’s room to maneuver.
It’s based on the novel by Alfred Doblin, a book considered by many to be the most significant in modern German literature. I’ve never read it, but given the size of the filmed version crafted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one could only imagine the vision is as complete as one could possibly hope…or want.
Structured for German television and broken up into thirteen separate episodes with an epilogue, the story of Franz Biberkopf (Lamprecht) took time in unfolding. At the beginning, he is getting out of prison where he spent four years for manslaughter after killing his girl in a rage. He is not exactly bright, but well-intentioned, and his goal is to walk a straight and narrow path for the rest of his days.
But the tale takes place in Germany between the two World Wars, and it won’t be easy. The country was in economic and political upheaval. Inflation ran unchecked, jobs were hard to come by, and crime was always an easy avenue out. Over the course of the episodes, the unwitting Franz sells newspapers and knick knacks, flirts with both Communism and Nazism without seemingly having a clear understanding of either, romances a few different women until he meets arguably the most perfect one for him in Mieze (Sukowa), and forms a friendship with a man named Reinhold (John) that threatens to destroy all.
Reinhold is as dark a character as I’ve come across in awhile…he represents everything that Franz is trying to leave behind, so why the attraction and the loyalty? Their friendship seems to begin with Reinhold’s habit of tiring of the women in his life and passing them on to the obliging Franz, until Franz finds one he wants to stay with. Before long, Franz ends up an unwitting lookout when Reinhold’s gang commits a robbery. Franz can only laugh at the absurdity of it all in the back of the getaway vehicle. Reinhold’s response is to push him from the moving car, causing Franz to lose an arm.
Another friend, Eva (Schygulla), the sister of the woman he killed, offers a more positive path and introduces him to Mieze. It could be happy ever after, but Franz’ errant loyalty to Reinhold proves the ultimate undoing, leaving Franz with nothing, including his mind.
The epilogue, the longest segment, is one owing more to Fassbinder than to Doblin, and it’s an exercise in pure disjointed madness as Franz recuperates in a mental hospital and seems to relive his dreams and nightmares in a fit of desperation before finally coming around and bringing an end to the story. The surreal segment puts a bizarre exclamation point on what otherwise might be described as a sobering look at the human condition, as it applied both to pre-Nazi Germany and the Germany of Fassbinder’s own time.
It’s a marathon effort, but it holds together for the duration thanks largely to two factors. One is Gunter Lamprecht’s impeccably realized and heartfelt portrayal of Franz, a character trying to overcome his external circumstances and internal weaknesses without the tools to really accomplish either. This is one of the most memorable performances in film I’ve come across, and his work resonates perfectly from start to finish.
The other is Fassbinder himself, whose vision never flinches for the entire running time. The cinematography is quite astonishing, though many Germans balked at it originally. There is a soft, almost ethereal quality to the images. Some seem to have phantom-like extra exposures, as though we were watching events through a rain soaked window pane. The lights pulsate in Franz’ red light district like a heartbeat in the city. Sometimes there’s just enough light to penetrate the darkness of the settings and the story. The effect is quite striking.
The running time is daunting, but one can easily spread it out over many nights as the original television audience did. The hours I spent with the film were sometimes exhausting but always rewarding. One can only credit Fassbinder for having the audacity to attempt such a complex, complete vision, and then admire his ability to actually pull it off in creating a haunting, thought-provoking portrait of a tragic hero who wants to do good but seems trapped into doing bad.
Fifteen hours is a long time, but Fassbinder has the necessary story to make it worthwhile. Franz Biberkopf is the center of a tale not soon forgotten nor easily dismissed…there’s something in his tragedy that will strike a chord of truth in all who view it, and I’d wager very few would begrudge the time they spent with him or with this film.
This Criterion disc represents a carefully restored version of Fassbinder’s masterpiece…as mentioned, the photography of the film is quite striking, and probably difficult to render for home video. There are some limitations, such as noticeable grain here and there, and others that are more deliberate, like some intentional softness and bleeding. Colors aren’t always natural, but they aren’t meant to be. The dreamlike quality of the images doesn’t lend to realism but something that strives for what lies just beyond.
The German mono audio is functional, with little dynamic range offered or required. As far as I could tell, the dialogue was always cleanly rendered.
The disc with the epilogue contains a recently made retrospective documentary on the film featuring new cast, crew and critical interviews. The remaining features are on the last disc, and they include a 1980 documentary, a look at the restoration of the film, the original 1931 (and much shorter) film version of the novel as directed by Phil Jutzi, a video interview with an author who wrote about the book and the films, plus an extensive booklet filled with interviews and essays.
Seeing Berlin Alexanderplatz in its entirety is an experience I’ll always treasure as a self-professed student of cinema. Kudos to Criterion for making it happen for fans with a terrifically assembled seven disc set that preserves Fassbinder’s epic vision for all future generations.