(West Germany 1980 921m) DVD1/2
There is a reaper, he is called Death
p Peter Marthesheimer d/w Rainer Werner Fassbinder novel Alfred Döblin ph Xavier Schwarzenberger ed Jiliane Lorenz m Peer Raben art Harry Baer
Günter Lamprecht (Franz Biberkopf), Hanna Schygulla (Eva), Barbara Sukowa (Mieze), Gottfried John (Reinhold), Franz Buchrieser (Meck), Karin Baal (Minna), Peter Kolleck (Nachum), Elisabeth Trissenaar (Lina), Brigitte Mira (Frau Bast), Hans Zander (Eliser), Margit Carstensen (1st angel), Helmut Griem (2nd angel), Ivan Desny (Pums), Claus Holm (Max), Helen Vita (Franze), Hark Bohm (Lüders), Annemarie Düringer (Cilly), Roger Fritz (Herbert), Barbara Valentin (Ida), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (narrator),
There have been many truly great television drama serials made and many of them have been wonderful adaptations of classic novels (such as Granada’s Brideshead Revisited), yet Berlin Alexanderplatz is so much more than just a magisterial monumental adaptation of a piece of literature, it is the best pictorial and dramatic representation of any city at any given time as has yet been offered. Not that Döblin’s masterpiece is the only book to so capture a time and a place (one thinks of Petronius’ Satyricon for 1st century A.D. Rome and Joyce’s Ulysses for Dublin), but those works have proved rather elusive on screen. Fassbinder not only captured the essence of Döblin’s work, but in some ways improved on it, adding his own perspective, most notably in the phantasmagoric epilogue, which dispenses with plot for the most part, instead presenting a hallucinatory descent into a man’s near fatal madness, mixed with Wagner, Strauss, Glenn Miller, Kraftwerk, Dean Martin, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and sacrilegious imagery. The result is overpowering, egotistical but also essential Fassbinder, and one of the greatest in the German cinema.
In the light of the tapestry of Weimar Berlin that the director weaves, the story seems somehow irrelevant, which follows Franz Biberkopf on his release from prison after four years inside for murder and through attempts at reformation, losing his arm in a motor accident, his insane jealousy over his respective girlfriends (particularly the delicate but very naïve Mieze) and his equally insane loyalty to one of literature’s great scumbags, the cowardly Reinhold. The fact is that the story provides only the lynchpin for the painterly eye with which the director and his D.P. depict the decadence and darker side of life in Berlin at the time, perhaps familiar to those who know their Weill, Wedekind and Isherwood, but nonetheless even more real here. All the vices are in evidence, particularly unemployment; “it seems to be a contagious disease, unemployment…” bemoans Lina early on, but it’s what unemployment and a ruined economy result in – the lower vices and crime – that is really the issue, the symptoms. Women wander around like they’re auditioning for Salon Kitty, but such is as it was, and when Biberkopf wails “I’m nothing but an animal to be slaughtered” he speaks for an entire populace. Yet for all his violent tendencies and childish notions of loyalty, Biberkopf himself is a symptom, a victim, from his release from Tegel prison, singing ‘Watch on the Rhine’ to himself, through selling Nazi paper the “People’s Observer” to being talked into being lookout for a burglary to his final descent into madness and employment as an everyman porter. Dust thou art, we are continually told, and to dust we shall return.
Though Fassbinder’s work couldn’t be more pointed, and the delicate episodic narrative is rather like a house of cards as decayed and fragile as the society it depicts – remove one card and it all falls in – it could not work without its actors and they are all superb; from Fassbinder regulars Schygulla as eternally loyal Eva and Mira as Frau Bast to the truly repulsive John as Reinhold and lovely Sukowa as the doomed Mieze. Yet star of the show is surely Lamprecht, evoking memories of Mike Mazurki’s Moose Molloy and Bernard Hill’s Yosser Hughes, with a touch of Charles Laughton (who would once have made a great Biberkopf) thrown in. The whole thing is masterful and, more than anything else, shows how truly hard life can be on those with bad luck. “I just wanna live, just live” moans Max the bartender. So do we all, Max, so do we all.