For over a year, Berlin Alexanderplatz remained firmly on the top of my soon-to-watch list. Having had an enormous amount of admiration and fascination for Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his films, I was surely intrigued to check out this notorious miniseries in the same way any Rivette enthusiast is intrigued to see Out 1: Noli me tangere. However, the determination to see what many film critics and scholars hail as Fassbinder’s supreme masterpiece was constantly offset by the daunting notion of having to endure his darkly cynical vision of humanity for fifteen hours.
Imagine sitting through The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Beware of a Holy Whore, Effie Briest, and Veronika Voss on one go, back to back. As viscerally engrossing and intellectually sophisticated as they are, these films are apt to disturb, and at times frighten us with Fassbinder’s typically sinister sensibility and the capriciously grotesque human condition he brutally, but at the same time carefully exposes on screen. As with drugs and love, an overdose of Fassbinder can precipitate one into madness—at least, so I feared.
Then, in the past two weeks I finally got around to give Berlin Alexanderplatz a much-overdue watch. An episode per day, in an effort to somewhat simulate how West Germans saw the film when it had its first television run (if I am not mistaken, it was actually one episode per week for the Germans in 1980). I admit that it was not an easy watch in the same way Sátántangó was not easy no matter how much I came to love that film at the end of it. Nevertheless, again like Bela Tarr’s seminal film, those fourteen days with Berlin Alexanderplatz proved to be an extremely rewarding experience. It is a colossal work in every respect: its challenging duration, the scope of Fassbinder’s artistic ambitions, the long-lasting emotional reverberations it leaves the audience with, the number of acting talents involved in the project, etc.
It was reportedly Fassbinder’s lifelong dream to adopt Alfred Döblin’s novel of the same name into a film. I have to say that he had all the good reasons to. For Berlin Alexanderplatz is Fassbinder’s ultimate artistic statement and the culmination of all the highlights from his brief, yet prodigious career. And it is a blessing not just for Fassbinder, but also for cinephiles all over the world that he received an exceptionally generous amount of financial backing from the studio, as well as complete artistic control over the project—an event that was unheard of, at least not since Orson Welles’s directorial debut. One could easily christen this film, out of her cinephilic affection, Citizen Biberkopf.
Among Fassbinder aficionados, it is well known that Franz Biberkopf, the hero of Döblin’s harrowing story, was his designated literary alter ego. This couldn’t possibly be made more self-manifest than Fassbinder himself playing a character named ‘Franz Biberkopf’ in Fox and His Friends; not to mention those self-destructive, lecherous petty criminals in his early features that are more or less variations of the character. However, there was more to Fassbinder’s relationship with Döblin’s novel than his obssessive identification with Franz Biberkopf. It was the entire world of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”—its characters, places, atmospheres, moods, rhythms, attitudes, and everything else—that was inextricably embedded in his flesh and soul. In his own words, “my life would have turned out differently” without Döblin’s modernist prose. The adoptation of such novel inevitably results in, however unorthodox it may seem, autobiography.
And thus, Berlin Alexanderplatz also manages to be Fassbinder’s very own “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I call the film his ultimate artistic statement not merely because it is his most accomplished and most ambitious. It surely is all those. However, what is most remarkable about Fassbinder’s dream project is that it points us to the origin of all the aesthetic and thematic preoccupations that shape his creative world. Men of the underworld, prostitutes, lust, sexuality, the retelling of the 20th century German history, love’s blindness, love as an instrument of social oppression, and fascism. And because it is his autobiography, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the conclusion, as well as genesis of his career. Jean Renoir said: “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.” That one movie for Fassbinder undoubtedly was Berlin Alexanderplatz.
In her conversation with Susan Sontag, Hanna Schygulla reveals an incredibly valuable insight into Berlin Alexanderplatz and the creative mind behind it—that Fassbinder “felt like [Biberkopf, Reinold, and Mieze] in one.” She adds that Fassbinder regarded this seemingly limitless, blinding love demonstrated by Döblin’s characters as his utmost ideal. Biberkopf, already a lost soul on the streets of the Weimar-era Berlin, loses his vision: one eye to Reinold, the other to Mieze. His passions are reciprocated, but in two entirely contrasting modes. With Reinold, the relationship turns out to be exploitive, costing our hero an arm and his significant other. Mieze, the giving tree, is propelled to give anything and everything to those she loves, and proves this by her ultimate act of submission—the resignation of her life. While the differences in the character traits of Biberkopf, Reinold, and Mieze are stark, the relationships that bound these characters together collectively represent the facets of love Fassbinder often explored in his career.
The tormented love between Petra von Kant, Karin Thimm, and Marlene is, albeit with a lesbian and openly sadomasochistic spin, one of the more immediately observable variations on Biberkopf-Reinold-Mieze. Announcing the end of their relationship, Karin cooly tells Petra, “I’m not being mean, I’m telling the truth”; to which Petra desperately responds, “lie to me.” The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a brutal exposé of the extent to which a person is willing to go ‘blind’ for love and the dispiriting fact that love is therefore sustained by deliberate lies. Compared to those of Döblin’s characters, however, the relations between these three women are overtly utilitarian. Exploitations in these relationships concern directly with material gains, as well as sexual gratifications. When love reaches a certain ‘blind spot,’ it can rob a person of everything, from her senses to dignity to material possessions. And in this, Fassbinder must have detected the seed of fascism.
“Love seems to be the best, most sneaky and effective instrument of social oppression,” Fassbinder said. Indeed, the fate of a character in any Fassbinder movie starts to unravel when love becomes a blinding force and subsequently exploitation ensues. Mieze, Biberkopf, Petra von Kant, Maria Braun, and Herr von Bohm, they all come to fatal conclusions because they are blind to the fact that their beloved are cashing in on them. Sometimes, this personal exploitation seems indicative of a malady on a far larger scale: for instance, Germany’s woeful past with Nazism and the downtrodden German working class that facilitated the country’s post-war economic miracle. When Hitler emerged into the political spotlight, those who were utterly disillusioned by the crumbling Weimar state went completely blind for him. It wasn’t military intervention that led to the rise of National Socialism after all, but the feverish ‘love’ with which the public reciprocated to Hitler.
Fassbinder rightfully observed that this particular slice of the Weimar history (which Berlin Alexanderplatz deals with directly) was repeating itself. Only this time, instead of a political figurehead, people were in love with the illusion of a welfare state and national prosperity. Systemically curtailed labor rights in the country were rebranded as strong German work ethics, and the West German working class put up with this for the fragile promises of late capitalism. However, the worst of all this was the nationwide blindness towards the immediate past. While the whole country was head over heels for Wirtschaftswunder, its historical amnesia of the totalitarian nightmare and the Holocaust was rapidly consolidated.
The influence of of Jean-Luc Godard is a constant in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. From the use of jump cuts in his first feature Love is Colder Than Death to his dedicated embrace of Brechtian aesthetics to the prostitutes who inhabit the Fassbinder world, he was Godard’s most loyal, and arguably the most talented disciple. Berlin Alexanderplatz is not an exception to JLG’s influence. One Godardian artifact stands out in particular. A quote that comes straight out of the great Vivre sa vie appears in the very last episode:
“A chicken consists of the outside and the inside. Remove the outside, and the inside remains. Remove the inside, and the soul remains.”
But is it really the soul of Franz Biberkopf that we see after spending fifteen hours plus with this ill-fated man living in an equally ill-fated city? Maybe. Susan Sontag seems to think so. She attributes the success of Berlin Alexanderplatz to its ability to make the viewer sympathize with someone as horrible as Biberkopf, who is a pimp, woman beater, and rapist. “A moral impression,” as she says, which “changed the way [she looks] at people.” When you come across a lunatic or a homeless man on your way to work, now you couldn’t possibly dismiss him with a feeble excuse that you do not know such a person—because he might as well turn out to be a Franz Biberkopf.
Yet still, I cannot decide on whether or not I saw Biberkopf’s soul, but what is absolutely indisputable is that I did glimpse the soul of Fassbinder in the soul of Biberkopf. Perhaps the two are inseparable from one another. After all, Fassbinder’s own epilogue to Döblin’s tale is titled “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin.” What an endearing, intimate touch to an already very personal work of fiction. Perhaps the whole thing works like this: Remove the outside of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Franz Biberkopf remains. Remove Biberkopf, and the soul of Fassbinder remains.