Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 12, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The Book of Job tells the greatest story in the Old Testament, but the protagonist is a bit of a stick in the mud, all virtue and faith and no fun. In his 1929 novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” German author Alfred Doblin created a Job with a little personality and an abundance of character flaws. Released from a four-year prison stint for the murder of his girlfriend, Ida, Franz Biberkopf vows to live honestly, but inevitably falls back into his old patterns, a little petty larceny here, a side of pimping there, and a sound trashing of his new lady love just to complete the circle.

Franz may not be the most sympathetic of protagonists, but his doomed struggle against the forces conspiring against him (call it God, fate, or maybe Berlin itself) carries a universal resonance or, at the very least, an undeniable train-wreck appeal. Surprisingly affable for a violent thug, this unholy fool is just perceptive enough to realize he's being jerked around by powers beyond his control, but neither smart nor self-reflective enough to mount a meaningful resistance against them. He's perfectly designed for suffering, and boy does Franz ever get put through his paces.

You can understand why the project would appeal to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German director first read Doblin's novel as a teenager, and the encounter struck him like a thunderbolt. Fassbinder said, “My life would have turned out differently” if not for Doblin's book, and by the time he began filming his adaptation in 1979, he claimed to know the book by heart. Fassbinder even flaunted his fandom by portraying a character named Franz Biberkopf in his 1975 film, “Fox And His Friends.”

The most notable quality of Fassbinder's adaptation is its epic length, a bit over fifteen hours in total, including thirteen episodes (all but the first an hour long) and a lengthy epilogue. After spending the last week deeply engaged with both, I can attest that the novel takes about half as long to read as the series takes to watch. Doblin's innovative novel was already famous for its loose, rambling approach to narrative, more a flurry of montages and impressions than a single story, and Fassbinder takes great pleasure in lingering on even the most minor moments and locations. The meandering is the point.

Doblin describes Biberkopf as “a coarse, rough man of repulsive appearance” so I'm not sure if actor Gunter Lamprecht was honored to be Fassbinder's choice for the role, but it was an inspired piece of casting. Slump-shouldered, his face sagging but his eyes bright and searching, Lamprecht shuffles his way through the trials and tribulations of Biberkopf, a lumbering hulk and hapless schmuck who, like R.E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, is prone to gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, his sudden eruptions of laughter as violent as his rages. Franz styles himself an independent thinker, but his worldview is shaped by whomever he has spoken to last. Franz can fit in comfortably with the relatively new Nazi party one day, the Communists the next, and then reject all politics as a mug's game the day after before reversing course once more.

Franz wanders from woman to woman too, until settling on his beloved Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), the childlike naif who remains true blue to Franz even while he pimps her out to pay his rent. Franz is blessed with yet another defender in Eva (Hanna Schygulla), an old flame always ready to bail him out of trouble. But life and love get really complicated when Franz stumbles into the shiftless, low-life crook Reinhold (Gottfried John), who appeals to Franz in ways he can't quite articulate (Fassbinder called it a “pure love” but not a homosexual attraction, though numerous viewers would disagree). On their first encounter, Franz confidently sizes up Reinhold as a fellow ex-convict. He's dead wrong in this initial assessment, and will continue to be wrong about Reinhold throughout the film, a fatal error in judgment that costs Franz first his right arm, then his darling Mieze, and finally even his sanity.

Fassbinder amps up the melodrama in his stylized fashion, sometimes directing his actors to perform in grand gestures reminiscent of silent cinema. They burst out screaming and crying, or collapse abruptly, perhaps challenging the naturalistic expectations of some viewers hooked on method. Lamprecht shines in the broadest moments, throwing around his bulk and sheer presence to great effect, but also has fun with some of the quieter scenes including an endearing pub sequence where Franz has an intimate dialogue with the beers he is about to drink (taken almost verbatim from the novel, by the way).

German viewers complained about the shoddy quality of the image when the series was first broadcast on television, but Fassbinder and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger attributed the problem to a subpar transfer from 16 mm film to video. The restored print here (released in theaters in 2006) showcases a lustrous if sometimes hazy image, replete with the numerous reflective surfaces that became so prominent in Fassbinder's later work. The net result is a look simultaneously seedy and mythic, perhaps like Weimar Berlin should look in movies.

Fassbinder's “Berlin Alexanderplatz” can be exhausting to watch, but it's surely meant to be. The sprawling running time provides the director the chance to include much of Doblin's dazzling language in voice-overs as well as in dialogue, but the length is essential to Fassbinder's merciless experiment. This clown, this bully, this dope, this sainted Job named Biberkopf is on the same life journey as the rest of us, just plodding on and on until he finally breaks. And after somebody breaks, he can break still further or perhaps, against all expectations, be stitched back together, albeit in a very different form.

It's not that there's a lesson to learned in the whole experience, just that we might as well acknowledge what's coming. We don't really have a choice, that's our curse. Doblin compares Franz to a pig at one point, noting the latter has a distinct advantage: “At the end of its life, there's the knife... before it notices anything... it's already kaput. Whereas a man, he's got eyes, and there's a lot going on inside him... he's capable of thinking God knows what, and he will think (his head is terrible) about what will happen to him.”

So there's that. Have a great day!

The entire mini-series was restored for a theatrical release a little over a decade ago, and that restoration was the source for Criterion's 2007 DVD release of “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” The same restoration now gets the high-def upgrade for this Blu-ray re-release. The image quality is on the weaker side for a Criterion release. I've seen a few grumblings about Criterion forcing fitting five hours worth of programming onto each of three Blu-ray discs (a fourth disc includes all the extras). I don't know if that's the issue, but there are a few instances where motion looks a bit blurry or blocky, and I couldn't describe this transfer as having the same “sharp image quality” associated with most Criteron Blu-ray releases. It's adequate, but doesn't really provide a significant upgrade over the old DVD release. The series is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

The DTS-HD Master Mono mix provide a solid if unremarkable audio presentation. Peer Raben's score is a prominent creative element that I didn't really get time to discuss, sometimes overwhelming the dialogue, and it sounds fine here. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

All of the extras are included on Disc Four.

“Fassbinder's 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' A Mega-Movie and Its Story” (65 min.) is a 2007 documentary directed by Juliane Lorenz, editor of the film and president of the Fassbinder Foundation. The film returns to the sets and locations of the movie and features interviews with cast and crew members, including Lamprecht, Schygulla, Gottfried John, Sukowa, and others.

“Notes on the Making of 'Berlin Alexanderplatz'” (44 min.) is an on-set behind-the-scenes feature shot by Hans-Dieter Hartl. We get to see a whole lot of Fassbinder in action, directing several different scenes from the series. The Fassbinder presented in this documentary is much more calm and in-control than he is often made out to be.

Criterion has also included a 32-minute feature on the painstaking restoration of the series, featuring Juliane Lorenz and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger.

We also get a 2007 interview (24 min.) with Peter Jelavich, author of a book on the various adaptation of Doblin's novel. Like a few other critics I've read, Jelavich compares “Berlin Alexanderplatz” to James Joyce's “Ulysses” and John Dos Passos's “Manhattan Transfer” for its innovative style, and as an exemplar of 1920's literature. Having read such takes on the book, I was surprised at how direct and accessible I found the novel. It was actually a pretty quick read, though I suspect having just finished watching Fassbinder's series shaped my experience. In any case, this piece offers a lot of interesting details, including the fact that a 1930 radio adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was canceled at the last minute, for fear of the reaction of Nazi officials.

Finally, the disc includes the first film adaptation of the novel, a 1931 film directed by Phil Jutzi and starring Heinrich George as Biberkopf. Running just 84 minutes, it bears only a passing resemblance to the novel (despite Doblin co-writing the screenplay), presenting a more heroic protagonist and an upbeat ending, but some of its scenes of hectic Berlin street life are quite heady.

The thick insert booklet repeats the content of the 2007 DVD release, with essays by filmmaker Tom Tykwer and author Thomas Steinfeld, plus an interview with cinematographer Schwarzberger and a revealing essay by Fassbinder talking about his relationship with the novel.

Final Thoughts:
Trivia: The busybody landlady Frau Bast (played by Brigitte Mira) is one of the film's most memorable supporting characters, but has no equivalent in the novel.

A middling high-def upgrade might not demand a double dip, but “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is one of the crowning achievements of Fassbinder's career, certainly a long journey from his earliest years when he could knock out an entire feature film in just over a week of shooting. I find it compulsively watchable. Your mileage may vary, but it's an essential experience for any devoted cinephile.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Released Jan 13, 2015

(Re-posted because it's Valentine's Day.)

German dynamo Rainer Werner Fassbinder is legendary for his sheer volume of work and the astonishing speed at which he produced it. The mere fact that “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1972), his twelfth feature in just three years, was shot in ten days is therefore not a shock on its own, but the incredible refinement and precision of a film “dashed off” so quickly defies belief.

Granted, Fassbinder had already directed “Petra” as a play and called on Margit Carstensen to reprise the title stage role for the film while filling out most of the rest of the cast with battle-tested members of the Fassbinder troupe who already knew how to meet his stringent demands. In addition, the entire film is set in or just outside Petra's bedroom (more on that in a moment), but don't let that fool you into thinking this was a simple, no-frills shoot.

Petra's lair
For starters, though Fassbinder employs many long master shots of dialogue-intensive scenes, he did not ask cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to just set up for static, functional coverage. Ballhaus's camera prowls the expanses of the main set, the bedroom of successful German fashion designer Petra Von Kant. The ostentatiously-decorated room, Petra's lair really, is filled to overflowing with mannequins, dolls, and other tchotchkes (the shadow of a dachshund figurine looms above Petra's doorway). The chamber is dominated by a wall-sized rendition of Nicolas Poussin's painting “Midas and Bacchus,” providing the only male presence (most notably with Bacchus's prominently dangling ding-dong, a companion wiener to the dachshund) in the otherwise all-female cast. This set-up serves as one of many of the nesting frames within frames that would become a Fassbinder hallmark.

In this gaudy den, the powerful Petra bullies her assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann, brilliant in a completely silent role) while entertaining the handful of guests who wander fly-like into her spider's parlor. Chief among them is young, working-class Karin (RWF superstar Hanna Schygulla), who has recently returned to Germany from years abroad and is looking for a helping hand. Petra, unable to keep either hand off the lovely Karin, eagerly offers her privileged assistance and vows to make “simple” Karin her next great fashion model.

Karin and Petra
I think “Petra Von Kant” is one of the best-acted films I have ever seen, and not just for the impressive delivery of lengthy, emotional dialogue. It is a postural and gestural tour-de-force. Witness the shot where the much-beleaguered Marlene presses her palm against a window and hangs her head for a lengthy beat while eavesdropping on Petra and her cousin (Katrin Schaake) in the next room. Or the way Petra freezes motionless, her head perched menacingly over Karin's shoulder as the young woman relates her tale of woe. The actresses claim that most scenes were shot without rehearsal, and Fassbinder seldom used multiple takes, but each movement, each pose is so finely calibrated it seems it could only be the product of months of relentless practice. Or a few years in the Fassbinder Antiteater (Anti-Theater) troupe.

A bitter tear
Perhaps the most famous of Fassbinder's dictums was his belief that the person in a relationship who cares least wields the most power. Most of his films explored this dynamic to some degree, but never more vividly than here. After wealthy Petra's initial seduction of the seemingly vulnerable Karin, the film jumps ahead in time to show Karin lounging in bed with a glossy magazine while Petra pleads with her for affection (silent Marlene lurks on the periphery, typing away and judging without comment). Petra is so desperate she even begs to be lied to, but Karin is more interested in seeing her picture in the paper. In a simple cut, the potent businesswoman has shriveled in the presence of a partner who does not return her love, yet still commands it.

Fassbinder viewed this as an autobiographical work with Petra as his stand-in and Karin as a fictionalized version of his former lover (and actor) Gunther Kaufmann. You might find his view of romance (passion inevitably linked to debasement) chilling but it is convincingly rendered here. Petra is cruel, childish and indulgent but her pain at being used and abandoned by Karin is eminently palpable. Carstensen's languid, self-conscious poses provide the proper distance for the receptive viewer to feel the all-encompassing despair at a deep level, the depth where tears are the most bitter.

I haven't even mentioned the costumes yet. When given the chance to dress fully for battle, Petra does not disappoint with an outfit straight out of “What's Opera, Doc?” Later she dons a wig and dress to look as much as possible like the departed Karin. Add in one of the very best titles from a director who sure liked a good title (see also “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?” or “Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven”) and you can understand why “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” is viewed by many as one of Fassbinder's masterpieces. Not bad for ten days' work, anyway.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The new digital transfer was supervised by Michael Ballhaus. “Petra” was previously available on a competent SD transfer from Wellspring, but this high-def upgrade is a genuine revelation. Petra's room is an operatic hoarder's playground and the sharp image detail enables the viewer to appreciate every object, every nook and cranny of one of the most vividly-rendered rooms in cinema history. The colors pop with new life as well, making even Petra's subtle (and not so subtle) makeup changes stand out. It's generally understood that Fassbinder's earliest films were rough-and-tumble with his later films becoming more lustrous and ornate, but some of the movie in-between are absolutely gorgeous to behold. “Petra” is at the top of that list and this 1080p image is a real treat.

The linear PCM Mono track is crisp but relatively flat. However, the songs employed strategically throughout (including The Platters' “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “The Great Pretender”) have a pleasing richness. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

It's not quite loaded with extras, but Criterion has included some material that should fascinate Fassbinder fans.

The two best features center on the actresses in “Petra” and many other Fassbinder films.

“Outsiders” (2014, 30 min.) edits together newly conducted interviews with Margit Cartensen, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake and Eva Mattes (who plays Petra's daughter). They are open about the manipulative games the director would play with his inner-circle though Mattes, not really part of the Fassbinder clique, says he was quite kind to her.

We get a more in-depth take on this inside information with another feature. “Role Play: Women on Fassbinder” (1992, 59 min.) is directed by Thomas Honickel and jumps back and forth between four interviews with Fassbinder actresses: Carstensen, Schygulla, Irm Hermann, and Rosel Zech (who didn't appear in “Petra” but was in a few late Fassbinder films, most notably as the title character in “Veronika Voss”). All of the women have plenty to say about working with Fassbinder, but I was most engaged by Irm Hermann's frank discussions about a man who did not always treat her kindly but for whom she clearly felt a great deal. Hermann sometimes gets overshadowed in discussions of “Fassbinder's women” as she played many thankless, less glamorous roles, but she is as crucial to his body of work as any of the other stars. A few of the women also discuss the (near) breaking-points they reached with Fassbinder as their collaborations progressed. This is a great, great feature, one of favorite Criterion extras in some time.

The disc also includes an interview (2014, 7 min.) with the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and an interview with Jane Shattuc (2014, 23 min.), professor of visual and media arts at Emerson college. Shattuc discusses the allure of and challenges posed by “Petra Von Kant,” a film that's difficult for anybody (feminist or otherwise) to really embrace unproblematically. Which is what makes it so damned interesting.

The fold-out insert booklet (I'm not a fan of this new format but it looks like it's here to stay) includes an essay by film critic Peter Matthews.

Film Value:
“Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” is probably my favorite Fassbinder, but “Petra Von Kant” isn't far behind. There's no need to choose of course, now that both are proudly enshrined in the Criterion Collection. The high-def transfer provides a much-deserved upgrade for a beautiful film and is nothing short of a joy to behold. Fassbinder's women get plenty to say on the extras as well. Can a love story be rated as one of the greatest if it is almost completely hopeless from its inception? Why the hell not? Petra and Karin. Ali and Emmi. Fassbinder sure knew how to tell 'em.