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Berlin Alexanderplatz, a film in 14 parts by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

From:     Eva
Category: Films
Date:     23 March 2008
Time:     11:36 AM


Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s screen adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s book, ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, is
almost fifteen and a half hours long. Döblin’s text is presented chapter by chapter.  Franz
Biberkopf is the anti-hero, released from Tegel prison after four years served for the manslaughter
of his wife Ida during a domestic fight. The death of Ida, mundane and horrific – is replayed
throughout the movie at important times in the character’s life.  Each rendition uses the same
footage differently – the scenes cut shorter, minutely speeded up or slowed down, or with voice-over
passages from the book.  Biberkopf is maladjusted to life outside Tegel, solitary confinement,
regimented prison life and a touch of guilt have marked him - ex-prisoners are recognizable from the
look about them. He swears to stay clean and never go back. What follows is the tale of Franz’s bad
luck. But is it luck or is it naïvety? The main characters are presented as very childish adults.
This is communicated through the actors’ interpretations and strongly guided by the directors’
choices and emphasises. Franz is a blindly trusting person who cannot see that his best friend,
Reinhold, is no good for him.  Throughout the movie the important people who care for Franz implore
him to grow up, at the end of the movie he finally does. Reinhold is experimenting with how far he
can push the people around him, unable to understand that others feel pain. Mieze is the last of
many women in the movie who love and are loved by Franz. She is ’like a little girl’, trusting and
innocent, despite being a ‘prostitute’ (when this word is used to describe her at the end of the
movie it is made to sound wrong, this is not how we see her). It is a source of much grief to Franz
that he effectively becomes Mieze’s pimp when, after a sequence of ‘unlucky’ events that arise from
his naivety, he looses an arm and is unable to find work. 

The film is set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Unemployment is high, people are poor and
desperate – this is a bottom up view. Scenes set in Alexanderplatz itself are filmed in the tiled
corridor of an U-Bahn station.  Here, while Franz is still looking for ‘honest work’, he is given a
job selling the Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the Nazi party. Franz attempts to be
apolitical but this is impossible; the Jewish hot dog salesman reproaches him, passing communist
friends confront him. Reluctant to wear the swastika armband he finds himself nevertheless defending
his position. This job doesn’t last very long but through the newspaper-selling scene Fassbinder
builds up a complex picture of the desperation and mixed motives that led to the rise of fascism in
Germany. This scene is also notable for providing a ‘Matrix’ prototype – the characters freezing and
the camera arching around them. Most scenes take place indoors and the movie has quite a
claustrophobic feel to it. People stare at each other across rooms. The Berlin of the title is
communicated through the characters’ interior lives rather than re-creations of scenes in streets or

Fassbinder’s adaptation was completed in 1980. Within the movie there is much evidence of the
concerns of its time. When Mieze implores Eva to have Franz’s baby, as she can’t have children
herself, there is a ‘crazy hippy love’ feeling to the scene which I associate with the German love
communes of the 1970s.  When Franz is loosing his mind and dreaming/hallucinating, Janis Joplin’s
‘Me and Bobbie McGee’ bizarrely creeps into the soundscape. This final section is the most
experimental and abstract part of the movie but also the most tiring. Here Fassbinder proves that he
is able to create a strange dreamscape with slaughterhouse scenes reminiscent of a Viennese
Actionist performance. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz was not what I was expecting. I imagined it would be closer to Wim Wender’s
‘Wings of Desire’. I even expected (why?) a high contrast black and white, rather than the brownish
yellow studio light that pervades most of the movie.  It’s length is clearly important; characters
are properly established; the complexities of the novel’s plot are not overly simplified. Most
important though in the case of a well-crafted movie such as this one, you get time to think over
repeating themes and to sympathise with the concerns of the characters and the director.

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