When Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-part miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz aired on German public television in 1980, audiences complained they couldn’t see anything in its murky nocturnal scenes. And when they could make out what was going on, they were even less amused.
“You would go to the pub and people would say, ‘What shit is on TV tonight? Not another episode!’” recalls the veteran German actress Barbara Sukowa, who played the girlish prostitute Mieze in the series – and will be introducing it at screenings during the TIFF Cinematheque’s current Fassbinder retrospective. “You were sad because you wanted it to be a success but, on the other hand, you had done this thing that shook people.”
What was it that so enraged German viewers, some of whom demanded a refund of the licence fees they paid toward public television? First of all, Berlin Alexanderplatz was dark, often too dark to make easy viewing because Fassbinder had shot it quickly on 16 mm film, a cheap and flexible method that would work fine when transferred to 35 mm for cinema screenings but proved dim and murky on the basic German TV sets of the day.
But the problem was not just technical: Based on the 1929 modernist novel by Alfred Doblin, the series is a sprawling yet repetitive picaresque that follows the mishaps of the ex-convict Franz Biberkopf as he tries to find honest work amid the decadence and depression of Weimar Berlin.
It includes both emphatic naturalism and expressionistic performances, both traditional storytelling and flights of avant-garde fancy. There is much languor and repetition in the narrative, which features numerous crimes and few honest characters as well as lots of rapid and rabid coupling. The final episode is a fantastical epilogue with references to Christ, angels and the atomic bomb. Seen at the rate of one episode a week, the series might have appeared crazed and disjointed. In short, Berlin Alexanderplatz did not make good TV.
And yet, it was welcomed by cinephiles from the start and today is often regarded as Fassbinder’s masterwork, one of the controversial director’s last great achievements before his death of a drug overdose in 1982 at age 37. The series’ reputation took hold internationally after it was shown in art houses in the United States in 1983 and is often described by critics as a 15-hour film. Restored in 2006 by the Fassbinder Foundation in a remastering that clears up the lighting problem, it can be seen today – in this so-called golden age of television – in long sittings from which the pattern of its danse macabre becomes clearer.
Whether digested in a few mini-marathons of the kind the TIFF Cinematheque is offering this month or watched at home on Criterion Collection DVDs, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a work that seems to call for binge-watching.
“I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t admit that the whole procedure demanded an enormous amount of patience, curiosity, perseverance, and density of feeling,” wrote the German filmmaker Tom Tykwer in an essay timed to the 2006 restoration – as he celebrated a narrative method that he said simultaneously repulses viewers and suffocates them, drawing you deep underwater to the point where you fear you are drowning.
I know what he means: the first time I tried to watch Berlin Alexanderplatz, I gave up – after three episodes, it turns out, but I only realized how soon I had abandoned my viewing when I began again last month. Somewhere in the fourth episode, where Franz Biberkopf goes on a bender and the film reprises some of the more hallucinatory aspects with which it began when its anti-hero first left jail, the effect becomes hypnotic and repeated motifs and characters now emerge like themes in a symphony. From there, Berlin Alexanderplatz seems to flow with its own rhythm and speak with its own logic – whether you care to follow it or not.
Repetition builds on repetition with dastardly effect. Even as Biberkopf insists he will not pimp for his former lover Eva (the ever-fascinating Hanna Schygulla) she traps him into pimping for the sweet little Meize (that’s the radiant young Sukowa). Within a few scenes of his appearance, the manipulative Reinhold (a masterful performance by the late Gottfried John) persuades Biberkopf to take first one unwanted girlfriend and then another off his hands. Biberkopf, who was jailed for battering a woman to death, stumbles almost childlike through all these encounters with unlooked-for love and undeserved betrayals. Providing a core somehow both solid and mercurial, the remarkable Gunter Lamprecht portrays a compelling mix of animal magnetism, raw violence and bumbling good cheer.
Sometimes we see the grinning Biberkopf in close-up but many times our view of him – and especially the characters who surround him – is partly obscured as Xaver Schwarzenberger, Fassbinder’s new cameraman on the project, repeatedly framed shots from behind furniture and partitions or through doorways and windows. It is as though our knowledge of the world is necessarily partial and compromised; the unpredictable characters we encounter inevitably unknowable or confusing. That’s an effect that must have been mighty irritating to television viewers peering at a small black-and-white TV set; today, on a big flat-screen let alone in the theatre itself, Berlin Alexanderplatz is animated by a cinematography filled with purpose.
Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder continues at TIFF to Dec. 23 with screenings of Berlin Alexanderplatz starting Nov. 12 (tiff.net).Report Typo/Error