Thursday, February 28, 2013

#411: Berlin Alexanderplatz

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)

Episode 1: Oh, Jesus, this could be a long trip. We're only 2 hours in and I already know I have to watch 13 more hours of a man who raped one woman (who subsequently decided she liked it like apparently happens in quite a few movies) and murder another by beating her to death with his bare hands. This is the protagonist of a 15-and-a-half hour movie.

Episode 2: It's clear now that this is really more of a season of, say, an HBO show, as the story has a nice arc in this episode similar to the previous one. So I guess really Franz is not so different from Tony Soprano, and he does want to go clean. Obviously it's not Fassbinder's intention to glorify what his character has done - and I doubt all of this is going to end very well for Franz - but this sort of thing is a lot easier in a book (or even a regular-length movie) than in a massive epic which revolves around one protagonist.

Episode 3: I had very little idea what the hell was going on in this episode. In fact, I had to go to Wikipedia to read the synopsis to make sure I had gotten the necessary info - turns out I had understood the broad strokes, it just seemed like there was a lot more going on under the surface than there really was. The whole interaction with the woman in her house was very strange - I couldn't quite understand if he had indeed had sex with her or made it up or what. And then when leaves at the end it seemed like he was making a bigger deal out of it than it was. That other guy was a real sleazeball, though.

Episode 4: What the fuck. This was dull as shit. I'm starting to get really worried that I have to watch ten more hours of this. How is this an hour long?

Episode 5: Lina appears to be gone, which is odd, but this episode was loads better than the previous one - in fact, it might be my favorite up to this point. The story is kind of strange and a little unbelievable - who is to say all these women are going to be attracted to both of these men anyway? Actually, why are they attracted to either one of them at all for that matter? Do women have extremely slim pickings in pre-WWII Germany? Still, it's nice to have an actual plot after the last episode, and I enjoyed Franz's arc and the way he handled everything, even if he is still pretty damn unlikable. I'm six hours into this thing and I have yet to really see why this needs to be so long or what people see in it. It's so intently focused on this guy who is totally nowhere that I wonder if I'm just missing a lot by not knowing much about German history between the World Wars. So far there have been some Nazi references (along with a reference to this guy - I think at the end of episode 4 - who I had never heard of before and I find pretty interesting), but nothing that really stands out.

Episode 6: We seem to be getting into a little more plot here, and it looks like Franz will be heading back into crime if I'm not mistaken. His inadvertent association with a robbery all seemed a little too ridiculous to be entirely behind his back, but I do think he is still trying to stay clean. I will also mention that I had a bit of the same reaction to this episode that I had to episode 3, which was that I was pretty sure I wasn't following what was going on, but looking back I got all the essentials. This is certainly a very dense work that is a reflection of its source materials and its ambition - I just wonder if the surface story is appealing enough to convince most people to take a second and third 16 hour journey.

Episode 7: This felt like a transition episode. Franz has lost an arm, yeah, but all that really means is he'll be slightly fatter on his right side for the rest of the series. Really, this feels like the turning point where Franz tries to hold off from descending back into his previous lifestyle and eventually succumbs in the good old red light district, which is rendered here as a kind of Pirates of the Caribbean meets Douglas Sirk aesthetic (only, you know, more prostitutes). I'm more intrigued than I have been at the end of previous episodes, but I'm not on board yet.

Episode 8: I hate this. Seriously, what am I doing with my life? Why did I watch this? Can someone tell me what happened in this episode that makes it need to exist? Why does anyone like this movie? What is happening?

Episode 9: You know what would be a good idea? They should show the murder that Franz went to jail for more. They should show it over and over. That would be good.

Episode 10: So this one was at least moderately interesting. The dynamic between Franz and Mieze is getting more complex, and the way he handles her new long-term client is engaging and somewhat suspenseful knowing what we know about his ability to inflict damage on his women. But I have a hard time believing anyone would think episodes 8-10 (and I suspect 11, too, since this didn't really end with a clean cut) wouldn't be better condensed into one hour - perhaps even less. It's been a long Criterion journey to get to this film, but through 450-some posts I never once suspected that most people who liked a movie did so out of obligation or pretense. But I am honestly at a loss to explain why this film is so well-liked, or really why anyone would like it. When compared to other Fassbinder, it feels lazy and largely incomplete. I'm certainly going to reserve my final judgement until after the notorious epilogue, but at this point I'm not convinced anything can be worth the hours I've spent on this.

Episode 11: Somewhat better than what's come before in that things actually happened, but the big climactic scene was so horrific and awful to watch that I hate to praise it any more than previous episodes. Perhaps following a character like Franz in a book can be bearable, but once you've seen the things his character does to women, it's hard to care at all about the minutiae of his life. This was also the episode where the homoerotic undertones of Reinhold's and Franz's relationship became most apparent. This is still quite the chore.

Episode 12: The second half of this episode, in which Mieze and Reinold walk through the woods, culminating with her murder, is superb filmmaking of the highest order. It also makes absolutely no sense as a television program in the early 1980s, when broadcast technology must have rendered some of the shots virtually indecipherable. It's the best indication yet of just how poorly this must have come across on the small screen before HD and screen sizes that went beyond 30 inches. I wouldn't say the last 12 hours before this were worth it, but I am glad I watched this scene. Still, the characters' motivations are so unbelievable - I really have a hard time understanding how Mieze could have been so stupid as to think she could use Reinold to get information without him wanting something in return, and I don't understand why she would be attracted to Franz in the first place. Most of the interactions in this movie remain a bit of a mystery to me.

Episode 13: Most of this episode could be cut - I would say this could have easily been five-ten minutes of a typical film. Very little is gained by the increased running time except for more opportunities to have Franz say Mieze is dead over and over. This is a pretty disappointing way to end a 14 hour movie, but it's also quite indicative of the film as a whole - overlong, totally self-indulgent, and depressing in an insignificant way. I've heard a lot of interesting things about the epilogue, so I'm not completely checked out at this point. But I am thankful to have most of this ordeal over and done with. I've started reading just about everything on this film I can find online, and this article most closely approximates my own feelings at this point, both in its headline and its full text. I would love to talk to someone who found this film engrossing, or even worth seeing.

Epilogue: Um. OOOOOOOOOOOOkay. I'm not sure this could have been more German if they had tried. I had no idea what to expect going into this, but it was certainly just as weird as people said it would be. There were definitely some cool parts, especially as it related to pop music. But most of it is pretty indecipherable, and just as overstuffed with ideas as the previous fourteen hours were overkill.

Honestly, I don't get the appeal of this movie. I'm really hoping someone can help me out here. Why does anyone think this approaches Fassbinder's finest work (The Marriage of Maria Braun, World on a Wire, or Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), let alone surpasses them? It's just so long. So very very long, and unnecessarily so. And the idea that anyone would spend 16 hours with this unlikable, unappealing character is a total mystery to me. Has anyone ever watched this a second time? How can that be possible? That is nearly a full day of your life that you never get back.

The way women were treated in the film also really bothered me. I'm not necessarily calling the film itself sexist or misogynistic, but these moments just felt excessive and depressing. I like a lot of Fassbinder, I really do, but I'm just at a loss here. Obviously, at fifteen hours, it's not a film I'll be giving another shot, but I would like to come out of it with a greater understanding of what people see in it. I just don't have that yet. In fact, this is the first time in over six hundred and fifty titles that I've thought to myself "Do people just like this movie to say that they like it?" This is a question that typically repulses me, but here we are.


  1. Watched this film this summer after hearing rave reviews. It's pretty dismal. It's almost as though nobody literally watches the film. They just talk about its (absurd) length.

  2. I've seen quite a bit of movies and as you may know, the central character is commonplace in cinema.. and Berlin Alexanderplatz..WOW. I call this an absolute masterpiece and a high water mark of the motion picture art form. Why? Experiencing Fassbinder's illustration of an individual (and at times himself) in Franz Biberkopf. There is the frequently used phrase of "walking in someone else's shoes", with that I pose a question to you : Have you ever experienced a character, more precisely, an individual to the extent that you experienced (along with all the ambiguities and contradictions) that was those times of Franz Biberkopf's life?

    I know of only one other film in cinema, a film I regard as one of the top 3 or 4 greatest movies I have ever experienced : 8 1/2. In 8 1/2, Fellini made me experience the "walked in some one else's shoes" and truly share FELLINI's inner depths ( I don't and hate to hear people say 8 1/2 is about film making ). I believe that Fellini used the film making world to reveal a part(s) of himself.

    Many, many single/central characters are used with the intent of achieving something similar to these experiences. I put this film firmly above other central character masterpeices as La Dolce Vita, Taxi Driver, some of Bergman's films etc. I have never experienced a character ( part(s) of Fassbinder as a human ) as this movie...I could go on talking about it for a very long time

  3. I honestly don't know that I found out anything about his character other than that he was a terrible person and a loser. I wish I got what you did out of this film considering the time I put into it, but it didn't grab me as a psychological portrait, and its cinematic qualities were lacking. It honestly felt like more of an exercise in literal adaptations.

    I have to strongly disagree about 8 1/2, however. While the movie is clearly a personal psychological exploration, dismissing the film elements as a device to get to other things is not just a mistake, but impossible. Fellini is inextricably tied to his identity as a filmmaker, and the movie's various components point to this connection over and over again. Yes, 8 1/2 is more personal than, say, Day for Night, or something much slighter like Living in Oblivion. But it is still a movie about making movies, because Fellini was a person about making movies.

  4. You misunderstood me on 8 1/2, I'm not dismissing the film elements as a device to get to other things . Let me try to be clearer, though my words here cannot capture what I think about this film, so I may misrepresent myself to some extent again. With Gudio ( Fellini's surrogate ), Fellini showed us some of his views on women in his life and his relationships with those women,his childhood, religion, his career as a film maker ( he has said that did not particularly love making movies and that it paid the bills ), a man facing life and death and yes the film making process.Fellini identified the audience with Gudio in an amazing unprecedented way, we experienced his present environment, his past and inner psyche. Guido was the closest the audience ever came to experiencing the life of another and by extension I experienced some things inside Fellini's mind (which was his intent) via his surrogate Gudio. To say that 8 1/2 was a movie about film making is absurd, myopic and a foolish generalization.

    On Berlin Alexanderplatz : Judging it on how you understood Franz Biberkopf is the wrong way to go. Movies take place pre-dominantly in the fantasy, and yes many of them make direct and indirect assumptions on the audience's behalf do I say this..knowingness by characters of themselves and their actions. In this movie, Fassbinder showed, with Biberkopf, some of the many enigma's of life. Franz Biberkopf is one of the greatest characters. Being very brief (there is allot to talk about with this film): Franz's view and actions in relation to Meck was an enigma. Meck screwed him over once ( to my memory ), lied to him, yet he thought very highly of him, even spoke highly of him to Mieze. So why then did he treat him like crap? This relationship I can relate to, to some extent. Franz's relationship with and actions in relation to Mieze was an enigma. Did he lover her? Did she love him? Why did they, individually get together in the first place? What were their interests in it? AND to me, the greatest on-screen relationship motion picture ever saw, Franz's relationship with Reinhold. Why did he love Reinhold? Why did he make those decisions in his life that stemmed from that friendship? Prison brought out gay tendencies in Reinhold that Franz did not. I strongly believe that they weren't sexually attracted to one another and it was pure friendship. Exceptionally close to an illustration of a real life friendship ( for anyone who has ever had a true friend can relate to on certain levels and varying degrees ), keeping in mind, no two friendships are alike. Franz's friendship with Reinhold I cannot use words to describe or talk about, my few sentences may already give a wrong impression of what I think about it. The illustration of relationships in this movie were extraordinary and unprecedented. Fassbinder used them to augment his painting of a picture of Franz Biberkoph.. a picture that turned out to be a question. Who can understand Franz Biberkopf? Note that Fassbinder made it clear that he did not understand himself.

    I'm glad a name like Bela Tarr voted for this movie in the Sight and Sound's 2012 poll. It'll hopefully bring some more attention to this under watched masterpiece.

  5. * we experience Gudio in his present, his past through memory and inner psyche..Fellini identified us with his mind's near totality.

  6. I believe it is a great character study. You mentioned, at episode 2, a similarity to Tony Soprano. As someone who has seen The Sopranos, and also a lot of TV in general, I believe that many TV series use the medium for characters. It is the appeal in many drama shows, where less emphasis is put on cinematic qualities and more emphasis is put on defining and studying a central character. Berlin Alexanderplatz is episodic in nature and is sort of a prelude for characters like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and Walter White. I believe this was one of the reasons for the 16 hour length. Fassbinder himself talked about the attitude toward the characters when he read the novel. Like the portrayal of singular lead characters on TV, Franz is the narrative. But unlike most TV shows, we don't grow with Franz and his connect with his journey through details. We just keep learning new things right to the end, new mysteries keep popping up. That's my opinion.