Criterion released Berlin Alexanderplatz about a year ago or so. When I saw the Netflix description, my eyes popped out of my head. “Here”, I thought, “is something that’s right up my alley”. Here’s the description:
Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed this 16-hour film that follows Franz Biberkopf (Gunter Lamprecht) after his release from prison in 1920s Germany. Although Biberkopf wants to remain straight, the poor economy ultimately drives him back to a life of petty crime and violence. Based on Alfred Doblin’s acclaimed novel, this movie documents a man’s descent into depravity and insanity, and sets the stage for the emergence of the Nazi party.
Unfortunately, when I read the description, I glossed over the “16 hour” bit. Once I discovered it was 16 hours, I ditched it, but with a personal vow that I’d tackle it eventually. In June of 2010, eventually came.
Coming into it, I’d anticipated some sort of sociology experiment- a film ripe with symbolism of the rise of the Nazi party. I’d envisioned it as taking place from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, all in Germany. I was quite a bit off base. There were a lot of preconceived notions that were laid to rest. In fact, the film takes place almost entirely in the span of a handful of years. It starts in the mid 1920’s, if I recall correctly. While there is most definitely some symbolism for the rise of the Nazi party, it’s a lot more subtle than I expected (after the first hour or two). It was based on source literature from 1929, meaning in the very least that the source literature couldn’t have said much about the rise of the Nazi party. Any interpretation of the symbolism there had to have been embedded in the film by Fassbinder. Moreover, I’d gone into it looking at it as “a big-ass film”. In reality, it was a German television series, more akin to Roots than anything else.
I started tentatively, nursing along an episode here, an episode there, and generally taking a week or so to knock out each three episode disc in the collection. But it reached a fever pitch towards the end. It’s comprised of 13 episodes total, with 12 of them coming in at one hour in length. That’s followed by an epilogue that’s just under two hours. I watched the final five episodes (five hours total) plus the two hour epilogue over the weekend. That’s right- seven hours of German symbolism. Mostly, I think it speaks to just how good the home stretch was.
The series follows Franz Biberkopf, a reforming criminal just out of prison. And a handful of themes started to emerge, looming over the series. First and foremost, the series is paced by the women that Biberkopf beds. In many ways, they drive the plot by helping to establish just who this Franz Biberkopf is at that particular point in the series. The incident that sets up the entire series- the incident that happened even before the beginning of the movie- sets this tone and it’s carried on throughout the series. That incident, of course, was Biberkopf’s ruthless beating (and involuntary murder) of his girlfriend Ida, an act which landed him in prison for four years. We catch a replay of this scene over and over again in the series, often with slightly disjointed visuals (I understand that some scenes were filmed by Fassbinder with a woman’s nylon over the lens) and with strange, seemingly unrelated overlapping dialogue played over the beating.
And that’s one of the major themes that looms over everything. In fact, in a nutshell, it’s two of the major themes. The disjointed visuals and the unrelated overlapping dialogue add an air of surrealism, of insanity. And the constant re-hashing of the beating, often paired chronologically with Biberkopf’s relationship with a different woman, places the threat of violence just over the viewer’s shoulder for the duration of the miniseries. For the first 13.5 hours of the series prior to the epilogue, as a viewer, you’re constantly on edge waiting for Biberkopf to lose his marbles, to finally teeter over the edge and fall into depravity, into insanity, into violence. There are most certainly hints of both, but ultimately you have to wait until the end of the series to get your payoff. And my oh my what a payoff it is, but I’ll come back to that later.
The other theme that hangs prominently over the series is Biberkopf’s relationship with a character that is evil incarnate, and (in my interpretation) the embodiment of the rising fascism. That character would be Reinhold, rotten to the core, aiding heavily in both the destruction of Biberkopf’s mind and body, literally leaving him missing an arm, missing his dignity, and ultimately missing his connection to reality. There’s also a very strange latent sexual overtone to the series, specifically as it pertains to Reinhold’s character in relation to Biberkopf’s ladies. Reinhold is constantly in competition with the women for the attention and affections of Biberkopf but obviously with much darker intent. Whereas the Cilly’s and Meitze’s and Eva’s and Lena’s of the world (Biberkopf’s series of female partners) help establish Franz as an oafish, happy go lucky but potentially violent character, Reinhold seeks to undo the good work that these women perform. And in the end, he ultimately wins, bringing me to my final piece about the film.
I mentioned the violence and insanity finally paying off earlier. I’d mentioned that you have to wait for it. It’s only through Reinhold’s pure evil that the film finally falls off the edge into the surreal, into the insane, into the violent. It happens in the epilogue. I enjoyed the first 13 episodes quite a bit. For me, on Netflix, I was looking at 4 stars out of 5, and really more like 4.5 out of 5. Then I watched the epilogue. If I could rank them separately, the epilogue would get 18 stars out of 5 (cue Homer Simpson: “Seven thumbs up!”). It was absolutely mind-blowing. Much of it takes place in Biberkopf’s complete wreck of a brain, with rarely lucid moments of his interpretation of actual events.
Occasionally, you’ll get to see actual events taking place. Chief among these is Reinhold in prison for his crime, having been turned into some guy’s prison bitch as part of a beautiful twist of come-uppance. The epilogue is the payoff you wait for throughout the entirety of the 13 episodes. It grabs you right from the beginning with Biberkopf, dead and in the afterlife, trolling the streets of Berlin looking for his Meitze, accompanied only by two mocking angels. And from there, it descends into chicanery. The scenes that grabbed me the most were the ones that included music from the 60’s and 70’s. After all, this was a series throughout that had held firm and true to it’s place as a period piece, taking place entirely in 1920’s Berlin. Whatever soundtrack that was present was opera, it was music available at the time. It jived and dovetailed nicely with the era. And then the protagonist goes nuttier than squirrel shit and there’s the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says”; there’s Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee”; there’s Donovan’s “Atlantis”. And they overlap pure insanity the likes of which I’ve rarely seen, as artistic and effective, as it was in the epilogue.
By the end, I’d slain the beast, completed the endurance test. And I wasn’t even as insane as our lovable but violent Biberkopf. The long and short of it is that I’d love to recommend it to a lot of people but I’m honestly not sure how many people I know that would enjoy it. It’s very, very good. It’s not quite 5 stars on Netflix good, but there aren’t a lot of things that are, especially when you’re talking about some 16 hours of having to maintain 5 star perfection. At any rate, I’ll leave you with one final photo, from my favorite scene, because it best illustrates the goofy and child-like nature of Biberkopf. Here he is having an imaginary conversation with three beers and his shot of kümmel: