Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, based on the novel of the same title by Alfred Döblin, first published in 1928
Starring: Karin Baal, Günter Lamprecht, Franz Buchrieser, Peter Kollek, Mechthild Grossmann, Hans Zander, Yaak Karsunke, Claus Holm, Margit Carstensen, Barbara Valentin, Gottfried John, Brigitte Mira, Elisabeth Trissenaar
Running time: 902 minutes
BBFC Certification: 18
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour odyssey Berlin Alexanderplatz makes its Blu-ray debut in limited edition box set thanks to Second Sight.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is a television / film adaptation of the classic German modernist novel of the same title written by Alfred Döblin, first published in 1928. Fassbinder’s film was originally broadcast on German television in 1980, and later shown in cinemas in the USA. It is filmed in 16mm, which now looks interestingly grainy and lo-fidelity in reproduction. This is essentially a film in 14 parts; or rather 14 films to make up one big film.
The drama begins with the central character, Franz Biberkof (Günter Lamprecht), being released from prison after serving a sentence for killing his fiancee during a heated argument; a scene re-lived in Franz’s mind several times through out the entirety of the film.
Upon leaving prison Franz finds himself in the era of the Weimar Republic, a bawdy raucous time; a sexually liberated society. With this liberation comes a high degree of sexual exploitation. The economy is failing, and people will do whatever it takes to make some money. Existence is portrayed as a precarious struggle to survive. The economic failure leads to the emergence of radical political factions, such as the Nazi Party, Communists and the Anarchists. Franz faces an identity crisis, fighting with his ambition to not be dragged back into a life of crime, but also tempted by the life of crime as a means to survive in such desperate times. The central theme being the plight of a person, and the society in which he finds himself, trying to forge a new identity or way of living in a time of collapse and uncertainty.
Franz is often found drinking beer or schnapps, either in bars, or at home. He rents a small apartment from Mrs Bast (Brigitte Mira). She is both landlady and confidant; she is witness to many of the key scenes in the story. Her presence, as with so many of the other central characters, enables a collage of perspectives and narratives. The different parts of the collage blur into each other. To some extent Fassbinder is mimicking the literary style of Alfred Döblin. For me this is one of the success points of the film; it’s a wonderful collection of settings, lighting styles, film textures, characters, and voices. There is also the soundtrack, which is era reminiscent throughout, with accordion, strings, piano and harmonica atmospheres.
Franz is a confident out-going man, he fraternises with a wide range of men and women. He befriends criminal gangs, confidence tricksters, pimps and prostitutes. In one piece of dialogue Franz discusses the basis of free market economics with his oldest friend Meck (Franz Buchrieser), in summary Franz states ‘hard luck for some so that others get the break’, and then cackles with laughter. Another key character is Reinhold (Gottfried John), in some ways Franz’s nemesis. They collude on shady deals, but Reinhold betrays Franz, and then entices him back with offers of money and power. Despite his criminal lifestyle Franz somehow maintains an innocent belief and trust of others, that in turn allows him to get by. Franz has a non-judgmental and all embracing approach to the life, which includes acceptance of the cheating, stealing, criminal society in which he emerges himself and in which he is surrounded.
It is this quality that matches well with Fassbinder approach to film making. Anyone familiar with Fassbinder’s long list of films will know that as a filmmaker his strengths lie in making something out of almost nothing; pushing the ensemble cast to the absolute limit of absurdity to achieve a profound sense of the real.
Each episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz is like a film in itself, where you not only see developments in Franz’s character, but also get introduced to new characters who develop the story and the dynamism of the drama.
In the last third of the drama, having suffered a number of rock bottom moments, Franz meets Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). They become lovers, but he also acts as her pimp. This perhaps the most optimistic phase of the film. Any viewer won’t be surprised to discover this odd romance doesn’t exactly end happily ever after, but none the less the story convincingly evokes the at times fragility of human relationships.
In Berlin Alexanderplatz Fassbinder is really at his peak as a director, confident to steer the ensemble, elicit unique and other worldly performances, enabling a modern take on the production values of cinematic melodrama. He matches a conventional melodramatic style, as found in the films of Douglas Sirk, with more avant-guarde’s tropes; re-evaluating and breaking with cinematic conventions. This odd match of melodrama and and the avant-garde builds towards the final episodes of the film, where tragedy blurs into surreal fantasy. These ending episodes are in some ways a pay off, for what can at times be a gruelling ride.
This boxset is a must for any fan of Fassbinder’s films. There’s no doubt it can be a challenge to watch at times, but it’s worth sticking with. It’s really like no other film or television series I’ve ever seen.
The set includes special features
- Limited edition deluxe box set (2000 copies only)
- ‘Fassbinder: Love Without Demands’ – The acclaimed 2015 feature length documentary by Christian Braad Thomsen
- An appreciation by writer and critic Tony Rayns
- Berlin Alexanderplatz – A Visual Essay by Daniel Bird
- ‘A Mega Movie and it’s Story’ documentary by Juliane Lorenz
- ‘The Restoration’ documentary including ‘before and after’
- The Original Recaps
- Berlinale 2007 trailer
- 60 page perfect bound booklet featuring new essay by Cahiers Du Cinema’s Stephane du Mesnildot and archive material by Wim Wenders, Thomas Elsasser and Christian Braad Thomsen
Second Sight’s Berlin Alexanderplatz Limited Edition Blu-Ray Boxset was released on 23rd July 2018