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.

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