Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) - Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Wow. Is there a better way to describe this film? Is it possible to have a one-word review of a film? Wow. Maybe that’s all that’s needed. It’s hard to know where to start when talking about this one. Do you talk about its sheer massiveness? Do you talk about the acting? Do you talk about the brilliant lighting and cinematography? What about the captivating musical score? Or maybe it’s best to just start with Rainer Werner Fassbinder himself? The man was so prolific during his short career that it’s nearly hard to take in everything (or even to find it all). He made over 40 films in roughly a decade. And perhaps his greatest achievement is this film, Berlin Alexanderplatz. In the annals of epic filmmaking, Berlin Alexanderplatz makes most “epic” films seem very small indeed. Clocking in at 940 minutes, including 13 “episodes” and 1 epilogue, it is as big and epic as they come. And that’s an understatement.

Originally aired as a mini-series on German TV, this film has finally become more accessible with Criterion’s release several years ago, in a huge 7 disc set. I have watched it for the first time, after spending the last couple years digging through Fassbinder’s canon of films. I’m actually glad I waited to see this until now, because I feel like I was better able to appreciate the scope and breadth of the film and understand how the themes and design of the work fits with Fassbinder's other works. Based on Alfred Doblin’s novel of the same name, Fassbinder’s film details the troubled life of the hulking man-child Franz Biberkopf (an unforgettable Gunter Lamprecht), from his murder of his girlfriend, to being released from prison, his delving into alcoholism, and troubled relationships with various women, involvement with a group of criminals where he ends up losing his right arm due to an accident. In the film’s final episodes, he finds fleeting love with a beautiful woman he calls Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), but she meets an untimely death, whereupon his despair is unquenchable. In the absolutely outrageous 2-hour epilogue, we see his experiences in a hell-like place, where he is subjected to horrific visions and experiences as one of cinema’s most unrelenting, and unforgettable passages is told.

I’m not so sure that the film could necessarily be considered enjoyable per se. But it’s the sheer weight of the thing and the incredible command of the screen and the material that Fassbinder puts on display that makes it so good. I started out watching episodes rather infrequently, but as I worked my way through, I found it to be more and more compelling and watched with more rapid fervor. What
Fassbinder is able to do with such a long running time is create a literary arc. Rewards for watching this film come from the depth, slowly built throughout the story just as one would find in a great novel, and it really compares very well to literary storytelling, perhaps even more than cinema itself.  If you asked me to pick a few favorite episodes, I would probably choose 7 and 11 as my personal favorites. Episode 7 is filled with some incredible lighting and suspense, and contains some of the best acting in the entire series. Episode 11 remains unforgettable due to the knock-down drag-out fight between Franz and Mieze. This extended moment of conflict and human violence is incredibly troubling, as he nearly kills his love out of jealousy and rage, but simultaneously "loves" her all the same throughout. It is a devastating scene and one of cinema’s most memorable clashes, as they brawl along the floor for what seems like an eternity. Mieze’s screaming pleas at the top of her lungs echo as an expression of life’s pain and misery. It is a moment of pure, agonizing release.

But that scene is also a microcosm of Fassbinder’s filmmaking. His stuff is often difficult to watch. His approach is often very raw, awkward, and nakedly emotional, leaving one feeling uncomfortable and troubled. At times the film is all of these things: glorious, breathtaking, inspirational, but also annoying, disturbing and exasperating. One cannot sit and watch this film passively. This is a film that will slap you in the face and shake you up repeatedly. And I realize it’s also probably not everyone’s cup of tea.  There is no arguing with the high degree of acting quality on display though, and this film contains a cavalcade of Fassbinder regulars….everyone from Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Brigitte Mira, Volker Spengler, to the absolutely perfect Barbara Sukowa as Mieze and Hanna Schygulla as Eva. Every performance in the film is spot-on and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch for the entire 15 hours. Furthermore, the lighting and cinematography adds emotional and psychological depth. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the musical score, by Peer Rabin, which is haunting and enigmatic throughout. After hearing so much about this film for several years, I was thinking it would be hard to live up to expectations, but this film surpasses them. It is without a doubt, one of the very best films ever made.


Sam Juliano said...

Yes Rabin's score is stunning too Jon. You have penned an extraordinary review on what of the cinema's supreme masterpieces by one of the most troubled of all cinematic renegades, one whose workaholic and substance abuse eventually caught up with after one of the most prolific careers in a life ended at a young age. BERLIN is arguably his masterpiece and you do a fabulous job connecting the dots. Lamprecht is indeed unforgettable (as is Sukowa) and the film's despair-driven coda is in collaboration with the director's own philosophical convictions. This is a real hell on earth, and the film leaves you shaken. I watched it a few years back in a two day span.

Terrific review Jon!

Jon said...

Hey Thanks Sam. I am impressed by the fact you watched it in two days! That is indeed a feat and I'm thinking would be a slightly different experience than mine was, which was stretched out a bit. I consider this film to be one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. It's a knockout.

John Kolchak said...

Jon, I have been obsessed with B.A. since watching it many years ago. In case you're interested I wrote a book loosely based on the story of a Franz type character but which takes place in "Weimar Russia" i.e. the early years of Yeltsin. Take a look if you're interested, thanks. Not trying to spam you just trying to get the word out.