HE WHO INHABITS A HUMAN SKIN
Fassbinder’s film epic “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, which provoked a storm of audience protest in the 1980s, is being shown for the first time at the Berlinale in a newly restored version
– here is a tribute to “Alexanderplatz” and a declaration of love to experimental cinema by [German film director] Tom Tykwer.
“For many it will be worth their while to watch and hear this who, like Franz Biberkopf, inhabit a human skin and who happen, like this Franz Biberkopf, namely, to demand more of life than a piece of bread and butter.” (Alfred Döblin, from the preface to “Berlin Alexanderplatz”)
It is once again time to think, to speak and to write about this fifteen-hour film which, at the onset of the eighties (that decade which would later bring with it an end to the Cold War and a comeback for capital), enraged the national spirit and gave occasion to assaults by the yellow press and (in the wake of this) protests from “millions of television viewers” who felt themselves “robbed of their license fees” (“Bild” newspaper).
The public protest against this work, which everyone who was hanging around Germany at the time remembers – and many remember the outrage even better than the film itself – was directed with fervor against the television stations, the filmmakers, the ensemble, and naturally, above all, against its director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Although the alleged unacceptability in technical matters (the film was accused of considerable flaws in the quality of the images and sound) was thrust into the center of attention with vehemence, it appeared that such problems were hardly worthy of such a storm of indignation. The pain caused by the film somehow went deeper, and with each further episode, broadcast one week after the other at the time, it seemed like a dirty thorn was boring itself deeper and deeper into the wound of this republic, a country which didn’t feel too comfortable in its own skin anyway and, accordingly, was soon thereafter to fall into a cultural and political stupor (Fassbinder died in 1982, Kohl became Chancellor). At this time Germany had no desire at all for the languorously celebrated excesses of this film, its prancing obscenity and fruitless crassness, a kind of German swansong, and all the more so since all these elements meandered – freely floating and without commentary, as it were, always asking, but never answering, in other words completely ignoring the brief for public edification invested in public television – over a period of thirteen long television weeks.
If you take into account the almost unlimited freedom – despite, for that time, the considerable expense of the production – with which Fassbinder was able to realize this extremely introspective, almost inaccessible film concept, it throws light on the exceptional position he enjoyed as a filmmaker at that point in time. Just having turned thirty-four years of age, he already had some forty films under his belt, including his latest and greatest box-office triumph, “The Marriage of Maria Braun”. Consequently, nowhere in “Berlin Alexanderplatz” does one get the feeling that he is holding back or censoring himself; it is one of those films, perhaps like only Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1”, which completely turn their backs on traditional, economical narrative conventions – and which at the same time, seemingly paradoxically, feel bound to the narrative, come back to it time and time again, sometimes even in a compulsively conservative way, only to undermine it right away for the sheer delight of it. It is a film that plunges directly into its topic, a story straight out of everyday life, tears it piece by piece away from its concrete, reality-oriented style and, with an extremely intimate, almost private view, dissects it, stretches it out, and then, above all, spins it out into time, expands it, as it were, to such a degree that interim spaces are torn open in this drawn-out time; and Fassbinder wants to gaze down into the fissures in this vastly stretched-out time, to rip them even further apart, to look even deeper until time itself seems no longer expansible – and then splits completely asunder.
What follows is merely an epilogue, a final chord in the midst of the Black Hole of this temporal rift.
In other words, “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, this thirteen part film plus the said “epilogue”, was never really a TV movie. It is a narrative experimental film which, juggling with various theatrical principles, seeks a hideaway between the traditional and the avant-garde.
Concerning the visual aspect, Fassbinder and his cameraman Xaver Schwarzenberger appear to be flouting the medium here as well: their joint distain for the alarm signal on the camera’s light meter as it no doubt wildly lashes out seems too provocative. The night shots, for example, which were obviously composed for the big screen and a sensitive film emulsion, were watered down into a faint, flat, gray-black blur on most of the German Telefunken TV sets available at the time.
From then on the film seemed ostracized as “unbroadcastable”, even “unshowable” – until resistance arose on the part of some festivals and individual movie theaters, and, long after Fassbinder’s death, a few increasingly scratched 16 mm prints toured through the art-houses and film museums of this world, until these prints, too, were no longer watchable.
Now, Juliane Lorenz with her Fassbinder Foundation was able to convince a number of cultural and film subsidies as well as technical film companies to undertake, under Schwarzenberger’s direction, the painstaking restoration of the negative of the film, which was originally shot on 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm, and above all to dare to make a new optical and color correction, which, in view of the technology now available, appeared to be a very promising undertaking. And in fact: the legendary “darkness problem” has more or less disappeared; except for a few shots it was possible to bring out the contrasts in the monochrome night compositions to such a degree that there is always an intelligible picture and not just a picture puzzle. Never before has the filigree compositional stylistics of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” been seen in this form, or could hardly even have been imagined. At the same time, Schwarzenberger has taken care not to lose the quality of this intimate night spectacle, precisely because the choking confinement evoked by the slightly soft-focused darkness of the images reflects the narrowness of a world which is constantly threatening to crush Franz Biberkopf.
“You have to hear stories. It is pleasant and sometimes even makes one better.” (“Mahabharata”, Indian epic)
Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) is let out of prison, where he has been serving a four-year sentence for having committed manslaughter on his lover. He is spit out into the raw, increasingly impoverished urbanity of Berlin in the late twenties and tries to get a foothold again, an effort in which he is seldom able to prevail. He gets to know a number of women with whom he spends a short time or sometimes a bit longer, but it is only when he encounters Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) that he believes he has found the right one. He has a few close or looser friendships with various men, among them Reinhold (Gottfried John). The feelings between Franz and Reinhold are stronger than they are able to fathom, and thus this involvement develops a momentum of its own which finally leads to Franz’s undoing.
At the beginning of the story Franz swears from now on to “become an honest soul”, but fate is not on his side and he suffers a setback one time after the other until it finally gets to him with such force that it breaks his iron will, and in the end, robbed of all hope for a piece of happiness, he is left there alone and broken.
Not the Story
“The essential thing about ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ is not, after all, its story – the novel shares this point with several other novels of world literature –, and its construction is perhaps even more ridiculous than that of Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities’; the essential thing is simply how the monstrously trite and unbelievable plot is related. And also the attitude towards the figures in this account, whose souls the author sadly lays open for the reader, while teaching him on the other hand to look upon these exposed souls in their very mediocrity with the greatest of tenderness, and in the end to love them.” (R.W. Fassbinder, 1980)
The story, in other words – normally the Holy Grail of every screenwriter and filmmaker –, is not the point. With this, Fassbinder establishes a method that marks “Berlin Alexanderplatz” to a greater degree than any of his other works. While almost stoically ignoring all the demands of a plot, he sets out to circle around singular human conditions, to penetrate them and to bring forth a reflexive (= referring back to the subject) truthfulness which shows that nothing is more foreign to a person than the person himself and that he is therefore constantly in search: of himself. And therefore the voice-over commentaries, spoken by Fassbinder himself, never serve as parentheses or interlinkings of plot elements; they lack in fact all narrative-binding impulse. Rather, they draw closer attention to moments in which something entirely individual comes to the fore or in which a thought or a feeling by or about a person is brought to a halt, prolonged or protracted. What he recounts are passages from the novel through which Fassbinder makes it clear to us that the novel, too, is strewn with unconventional prosaic digressions that constantly, by means of facts, associations and rebounding fragments of an idea, demonstrate to the reader the disjunction of the narration.
The particular gist in the identificatory conception of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is that in the beginning the protagonist appears as a rather simple-minded, coarse soul; but in the course of the narrative we soon recognize that our assessment is in no way adequate to account for the complex, deep sensibilities with which Franz Biberkopf will come to grapple. Which doesn’t mean that Biberkopf is not in fact simple-minded and coarse – but rather that we must nevertheless concede him “such a differentiated subconscious, paired with an almost incredible imagination and power to suffer not granted in this degree (. . .) to most figures of world literature.” (Fassbinder)
Repetition and Expansion
“Cinema is there to show us what we would not see without cinema. To expand the word and the image. To make visible what is normally invisible.” (Jean-Claude Carrière, “The Secret Language of Film”)
By repeating, prolonging or stretching out events, Fassbinder is seeking something that he assumes to be found in the ritualistic gesture of human behavior, in our tendency to make a rule out of things, to repeat them, through outward order to find the way to an inner order by means of an organized course of events until these finally strike us as compulsory.
Seen in this light, Fassbinder is an epigone of Pina Bausch and a precursor of Christoph Marthaler, two theater people who through repetition and prolongation of social gestures reveal people’s addictive potential for self-destruction culminating in the ritualistic.
One of the strange things about the experience one has with viewing “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is that the stretched-out temporality does not leave the impression of making the story more precise, but rather creates an elliptical sensation. For a while your concentration is so completely distracted from the narrative chain of cause and effect that you almost lose your orientation and ask yourself in view of such a total standstill whether the story will ever get moving again. In the fascinating Episode 4, above all, it plods along like almost only in Bruno Dumont’s “Twentynine Palms”, among recent films. Or maybe like in the first act of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal”.
Structural Folk Theater
“What we once again appreciate in ‘Le jeune Werther’, even though it sometimes almost makes us mad, (. . .) is precisely the inappropriate, even exotic alliance of the natural with the artificial, which brings to light a truth that is not too far away from that of theater.” (Thierry Jousse on Jacques Doillon, in: “Autorenkino und Filmschauspiel” by Anja Streiter)
Jacques Doillon, the director of such films as “Young Werther” and “La Pirate”, is another next of kin of Fassbinder, an auteur who rips situations out of their so-called authenticity in order to search for their meaning on an alternative, artificial field of play. With Fassbinder it is extremely important that with all his prolongings and repetitions he is not only working through some formal experiment, but is exploring at the same time the figures themselves as soon as they climb into the hamster wheel and satisfy truly human needs, both sublime and primitive. For all the choreography, the characters are not just at the mercy of some directorial tick, not just puppet-like shells as with Robert Wilson, for example, but rather they act out and live through these sequences as psychological beings, as three-dimensional individuals.
In the ritualized romantic roundel that unfolds between Mieze and Franz, for example, the desire for the infantile, brotherly/sisterly, escapist pleasure of togetherness formulates itself for both characters to an exaggerated degree that only naively innocent lovers are capable of celebrating – which for its part is familiar to everyone, since after all every love is innocent. To cite another example of a different nature: The infinitely often repeated traumatic murder of Ida by Biberkopf expresses the accidentality with which vehement rage can suddenly turn into bloody madness, and feels at the same time for the participants somehow unreal, like a remote-controlled danse macabre.
At least this is the way the actors play it. And they don’t play it with even the slightest bit of detached nuance, on the contrary: the acting style that marks “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is (not always, but often) earthy, extroverted, sometimes even declamatory – and thus obviously indebted to folk theater, alternating by choice between burlesque and dramatic sketch. That kind of folk-theatrical gesture, which already suggests itself through the dialect that marks the language of the original novel, was used by Fassbinder in many of his works as an instrument of stylization. Folk theater, historically defined through its distinction from court theater, had stamped its mark on the director just as much as had the avant-garde stages of the late sixties, and his very own personal style, which grew up out of a fusion of these two influences, was taken to the extreme and to perfection in “Berlin Alexanderplatz”.
Biberkopf and other Men
“As director it could also be possible, of course, to show particular consideration to the leading actor in so far as the director shouldn’t drive him crazy with other things, since he has such a difficult task to perform. (. . .) In fact, the only source of disturbance I had was my director, who continually interfered in my work.” (Günter Lamprecht, 1981)
Nonetheless, or maybe simply because of it: Günter Lamprecht as Franz Biberkopf, that can be stated unconditionally, was the perfect cast for this film. And even if Lamprecht might have quarreled with Fassbinder so terribly much, he did in fact delve down deeply into Fassbinder’s cosmos, adapted himself congenially to the elegiac fragment of a screenplay, and gave just as much energy and variation to each subtle individual moment as to the blaring pamphleteering. Lamprecht’s Biberkopf is (probably like the director as well) a fragile berserker for whom the world has proved too narrow, the heart too big, the passion too oppressive, and the intellect too weak, and who lets himself fall, eyes wide open, but with limited knowledge, into the shredding machine of human fate.
With a tour-de-force performance, as varied as it is graphic, as loud as it is gentle, Lamprecht is a huge, violent child in the body of a man – and thus all of the thematic threads of the film logically come together in his character.
Everything this man goes through in his tortured life turns his (erroneous and roundabout) fateful course into a kind of Passion, and as if this perfect fool were a preacher in disguise, apostles are hanging on his heels. They are called Nachum (Peter Kollek), Meck (Franz Buchrieser), Lüders (Hark Bohm), Baumann (Gerhard Zwerenz) and Reinhold (Gottfried John) – and they all use him, either as psychic membrane for their neuroses, as patient for their promises of salvation, or as willing victim for their exploitive intentions. For Biberkopf’s perfect foolishness is both a provocation and a promise for all the fallen angels around him: they hope for redemption at his side, as if his simplicity could heal their neuroses, their despair, and their impairments. But Biberkopf is not all that simple after all, and he has no desire to be membrane or patient or victim, and this makes the whole thing complicated.
Reinhold and other Women
“And this is certainly not about something sexual between persons of the same sex, Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold are by no means homosexual (. . .). No, what is between Franz and Reinhold is no more and no less than a pure, not socially endangered love.” (R.W. Fassbinder)
The most important person in Biberkopf’s life is not called Mieze, nor Eva (Hanna Schygulla), nor Lina (Elisabeth Trissenaar), but rather is called Reinhold and is in fact a man. A deadly radiant energy emanates from this friendship, a magnetism that has fatal consequences for both of them and which in the more than ten hours in which Reinhold is present in the film never seems entirely understandable, but rather remains unexplained to the end. It is simply that Franz loves Reinhold, no matter how much Reinhold takes it out on him, and Reinhold no doubt loves Franz, too, and it’s too much for him. This therefore brings about a destructive downwards spiral at the end of which, in an endless single take, Reinhold’s attempt to seduce Mieze leads to her murder.
By contrast, the women in Biberkopf’s life rule his everyday routine, they are the signature figures (and bear the wounds) of the various periods of his life, they take each other’s place like relay runners, and, with the exception of Eva, are easily seduced, but then love gets in their way. Biberkopf gives each of them his affection and protection, but not his heart. This is first captured by Mieze, who seems almost closely related to him in her childlike, cheerful nature. Franz can mirror himself naively in Mieze, and the two of them soon behave together with confidential playfulness like Cocteau’s “enfants terribles”, and if it weren’t for Reinhold, Franz might have found happiness with Mieze.
Rainer Werner Biberkopf
“(. . .) My life would have taken a different course, surely not in toto, but in some, many, maybe even decisive ways, than it took with Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” in my mind, in the flesh, in the body as a whole, and in the soul – smile, if you must. (R.W. Fassbinder, 1980)
Certainly almost everyone who occasionally or more often reads a book can name their favorite hero or heroine, a literary figure onto which their identity-seeking projections are directed, prose characters with which they feel related or in which they even find themselves embodied, and their own insular life therefore seems less lonely and a bit protected.
That this character from a novel for Fassbinder was Franz Biberkopf is obvious from his entire work; elements or direct quotations from “Berlin Alexanderplatz” show up time and again in his earlier works, and the Döblinesque view of destructive and yet yearning, sensitive men appears like a blueprint for tragic heroes throughout Fassbinder’s oeuvre. It is of course at the same time a direct reflection of Fassbinder’s own emotionally chaotic life with all its complicated polygamous bonding dynamics. The most conspicuous pre-drafts of a Biberkopf figure can probably be found in “In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden” (“In a Year of 13 Moons”, 1979) and “Faustrecht der Freiheit” (“Fox and his Friends”, his somewhat underrated masterpiece from the year 1975), where the figure played by Fassbinder himself is even called Franz Biberkopf.
“And really, to be honest, what should a love mean to a being who was brought up like we were or similar to that, a love that leads to no visible results, to nothing that could be presented, exploited, in other words, that could be useful?” (Fassbinder)
Franz’s love of Reinhold is not only a mystery to himself, but also to us – and yet we know what he’s talking about. The film touches here on a collective secret knowledge which, rumbling in our subconscious, brings to mind on some strange evening of our life a confusing feeling of deepest tenderness for a person of whom we never really thought that they play an important role in our life.
“Good close-ups have a lyrical effect. They are ‘seen’ not by the good eye, but by the good heart.” (Béla Balázs)
“Berlin Alexanderplatz” is for considerable stretches a film with long takes, uninterrupted sequence shots, sometimes for minutes without a cut, which means that the cut takes place in the camera, as it were, by moving the camera position with the dolly and changing the frame by zooming. The close-up, for example, is often used not as a response to a long shot or as a follow-up to a counter shot, but rather it is sought out by the camera, which glides silently on up to the figures, above all Biberkopf, and the figures dance toward their marked positions, like in slow motion, until finally lens and object come together in a close-up.
The target reached is often an image of limitation, because Xaver Schwarzenberger’s camera again and again finds window frames, gratings or wooden beams that narrow the framing of the picture like a passe-partout, a frame within a frame that clamps in and firmly holds the personnel like prisoners of an image. Or like the ever present parakeet in the birdcage.
But at some point in every long take the cut has to come, and every time it must have been a great challenge to find the exact right moment for it, sometimes as a break, sometimes in a state of flux, and there are times when the image simply vanishes into a fade out.
Then, time and again, especially in the epilogue as well, film editor Juliane Lorenz counteracts this method with quick, aggressive, associative stretches of montage – and out of the contrast of these dynamic counterpoles arises the unnerving rhythm of the film, which, ubiquitously and with evocative insistence underscored with Peer Raben’s music, swings unpredictably and erratically to and fro between elegy and adrenalin – which is an attempt on the one hand to do justice to Biberkopf’s subjectively varying perception of time and on the other to capture the delirious energy of Döblin’s prose.
Laughter in the Dark
“Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
And this Biberkopf does himself.
In the laughter which sometimes bursts forth out of Biberkopf like a machine gun salvo and then seems never to stop, distorting his face into a grimace and showing him as someone who overcomes and masters his failure with the booming gesture of a winner, – in his laughter which is never a pure light laugh, but always a bellowed, demanded, longed-for burst of laughter – herein is Biberkopf’s fear laid bare. Laughter is Franz’s weapon with which he keeps panic, doubt and worry in check.
In the end the laugh turns into a cry, the never-ending cry of a man whom life does not want to deliver from his guilt, his innocence, his offense.
We don’t understand him, this Biberkopf, and yet we know what he does and we suspect why. That is the dilemma of the viewer in “Berlin Alexanderplatz”: he knows what to make of it, but then again he doesn’t, and he is sometimes angry to be left so alone by a film that doesn’t want to help him to decipher Franz Biberkopf and his emotions, but which succeeds at the same time by dispensing with all interpretative aids, and instead insisting on observation in order to create a close rapport with the figure. A rapport that is exceptional even for Fassbinder’s cinema.
The way in which we see films and how they have an effect on us changes over the years, just as one changes as a person; an impression that is familiar to everyone.
In the past I had no trouble at all sitting in the movies for days on end watching one film after the other and with no qualms about jumping from one genre to the next, from Tarkovsky to Spielberg, from Bergman to Hitchcock. There was a seemingly endless reservoir of time and patience, and I felt an ever playful openness; it was never too much for me in the face of the constantly changing emotional strain to which one is exposed in the course of a day. The emotions have their effect and then spread out rather diffusely and without reflection in the cosmos of memory.
However, when I watch an (admittedly: exceptional) film today like “United 93”, for example, or better: stick it out to the end, then it seems to me completely impossible, even physically, to move along without a break to the next cinematographic impression and to slip smoothly into another story, another rhythm, another atmosphere, and into the realm of impressions that develop out of it. In other words, the half-life of an intensive filmic experience has slowed down appreciably, or else: a film finds, potentially, a greater echo in one’s own history, in the personal zones of resonance in the memory.
So I sit there after such an emotionally intensive film and vibrate. Then I need time and also the possibility of talking about it in order to digest what I have virtually experienced.
I saw the fifteen-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz Remastered” – 26 years after the first time – in January 2007 within two days in a small, cozy film theater. It can be said that I was very excited and looked forward to the demanding and yet luxurious task of writing an exclusive text after attending an exclusive screening. And I must admit that for some stretch of the time it was surprisingly hard work.
The film is namely not only long, but above all, as you can see from the above, it is committed to a narrative method that on the one hand repulses the viewer while at the same time swallowing him up, drawing him into the decelerated, asthmatic environment of its story. I almost want to say that you are held down under water and, gasping for breath, look at the shimmering reflections on the surface, but from below. They are beautiful, these reflections, but if you want to look at them more closely, the film pulls you down deeper under water. The pressure increases, and you are afraid of suffocating. That might sound fascinating, and after all it is an amazing film that can generate this feeling – but it would not be telling the truth if I didn’t admit that the whole procedure demanded of me an enormous amount of patience, curiosity, perseverance, and: density of feeling.
If one considers once again the importance that Döblin’s novel had for Fassbinder’s development and his attempt to come to terms with Germany and the Germans, it seems almost inevitable to allot to his mammoth film adaptation the rank of a key work in his oeuvre. And yet in light of the recent examination, the film will not let itself be forced into the idea of the sum of all parts, will not be the coherent focal point among all the other parts of his life’s puzzle. “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is, still today, a visual, conceptual and emotional mega-quarry; a sometimes unfocused, often even chaotic, but also constantly fascinating excess consisting of violence, passion, contempt, desire, and – yes, somehow also of love, a film in which people scream, laugh, cry, and screw outrageously, and which never entirely comes together to a whole, never wants to come together, a film that has no desire at all to be packed away into a well-formulated crate in order to sit on the shelf as a key work, deciphered or not.
What is left of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, this endless canon of the sublime and the trivial, is thus a perpetuum mobile of the human dance of love and death.
To examine and to listen to all this in its very impertinence and truthfulness and beauty and hideousness will be worthwhile for many who, like Franz Biberkopf, inhabit a human skin and who share a feeling with the author of this text, namely the desire to demand more of cinema than merely a story.
Text: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 Feb. 2007, No. 33 / p. X1