on 6 April 2011
Based on the alfred doblin novel of the same name, this serialisation by fassbinder tops 15 hours and provides a painstaking view of weimar-era germany and the attempt of the protagonist (an ex-convict, just released from prison) to "become an honest soul". It's powerful, humanist, affecting german drama at its best - the natural comparison here would be with Heimat which this is not, but to take this work on its own merits is to say it deserves a place at the high table of great TV drama. Well worth having.
on 3 November 2007
I remember like it was yesterday when this was screened on Channel 4 back in the 80s. As a family we settled down every week to tune in to what, in my opinion, is the best television series ever made. For the last few years I've been mailing the Fassbinder Foundation to see if we would ever see it released. And now, over 20 years later, here it is!!! Fantastic, groundbreaking, rivetting social drama. Buy it.
Out of prison, ultra sensitive from isolation to the menace of freedom where people eat meat using forks that go into their mouths without bleeding - welcome to the world of Franz Biebekopf.
The narrative is occasionaly progressed by the use of title overlays like a silent movie. We feel comfortable as well as anxious to know of the destiny of the protagonist. All is allegorical, the stories, the characters, the sudden storms and darkness. Even Franz's voice-over adds layers to our experience. The laughter and the sense of utter disconnection is palpable. Compelling. A proper film with a roving camera that loves the story it witnesses unfolding.
Then we see his terrible crime. A long time before he wears an armband. Underground tensions, literally. Is it him or is it Berlin?
It is a film about the power of words to read an individual wrong. The power of words to bind individuals together - out of loneliness. Driven from one confinement to another our protagonist is doomed by others and his inability to articulate his self.
Fassbinder's film is totally compelling. He drives its narrative using the full power of cinema. This is no TV movie. It may be 4:3 aspect ratio and barely stereo sound but each scene is delivered with care and never is our vision bored or are our ears ignored. True art explodes humanity. Berlin Alexanderplatz is true art.
on 16 January 2008
Nothing can be more melodramatic than German melodrama, particularly that of the beginning of the 20th century. Franz Biberkopf's story is such a deep, thick and sickening melodrama and Fassbinder makes it so dense, so heavy that we are totally overwhelmed by this hardening cast-plaster, a melodrama contained between Biberkopf's release from the prison where he has spent four years for killing his girlfriend, Ida, to the end of his life as a concierge in some factory after the trial in which he is a witness against the accused, his friend Reinhold who had assassinated Franz's last girl friend Mieze, after he was released from the mental institution to which he had been committed after the crime. Biberkopf is the perfect victim who is ready to do anything he is asked to do by the people he considers his friends at the moment of the request. He is totally dependent on women and ta the same time reveals he is very particular about them and actually loves only very few. Eva of course, his permanent love who lives with a rich Herbert and carries his child for a few months. Ida, who he killed out of rage one morning. And Wieze who will be killed by Reinhold. The second characteristic of Franz Biberkopf is that he has the brain of a beaver, as his name implies. He is not very swift but he is faithful and he can suffer anything from his friends, though at times he may be taken, over by a fit of rage that makes him blind and murderous, though he can easily be stopped. But to survive in Germany in 1928-29 he is doing what he can, anything he comes across: selling newspapers, including the nazi newspaper, selling erotic literature, selling shoelaces, being part of a gang of thieves, and being a pimp. Then the whole story is nothing but details of a sad ,life that can only be sad. Fassbinder makes it so dense, so packed with hefty details and events that we don't see the thirteen episode flying by. And yet the masterpiece of this long series is the epiloque. Then Fassbinder describes what is happening in Biberkopf's mind after his seizure of insanity when he realizes his Mieze was killed by his supposedly best friend who had caused him to lose an arm when this Reinhold had tried to kill him, the infamous Reinhold. In this epilogue, Fassbinder becomes the most baroque, or even rococo, of all screen artists you can imagine. He brings Biberkopf down into the deranged world of his insanity. He is cruder than Bosh, crueler than Goya, and he depicts the physical dereliction to which Biberkopf is reduced in that mental institution, the haughty condescending carelessness of doctors and personnel, and the haunted mind of his. And in this haunted nightmare he experiences, Fassbinder shows how he is tortured by Reinhold and a few others who have used him in life, how he is tortured by both his lubricity and his refusal to acknowledge it, how he is physically tormented in all kinds of cruel physical punishments repeated ad eternam, a vision of hell borrowed from Dante of course. The point here is that Biberkopf will come out of the institution when he reaches some personal peace in that insanity, in no way the consciousness of his own victimization, but a dull taming of his inner world into a senseless, meaningless and emotionless routine that will transform him into a faithful and reliable concierge looking after cars, lost and abandoned forever in his blessed solitude of the body and the soul. This epilogue is luxuriant and so dense that we just wonder how it could go on like that, over and over again, each situation of victimization opening onto another as naturally as a door you push open and drop closed behind you. Sickening and thickening at the same time, so that you feel totally buried in that grossness and in that cruelty. You are becoming Biberkopf and at the same time the torturing insanity because Biberkopf appears to you as deserving his fate, his insanity, hence your scourges and your violence. It is amazing at this moment to see how Fassbinder manages to make you be a double voyeur and transport you both into Biberkopf himself who cannot rebel in spite of you inhabiting him with the justification to rebel, and thus into the torturing insanity to punish him for not rebelling or to incite him to rebel. The only film-maker Fassbinder can compete with in this perverse mediatic transfer is Clive Barker in his early films or in his Hellraiser series, except that Fassbinder adds an ancient Greek dimension to that delirium that is vital since it will lead Biberkopf to surviving in a mixture of the International, patriotic sings and emerging nazi military rites, rituals and marching beating tempos.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines
I came to this DVD collection blind: I did not see it when it was broadcast on UK TV in the 1980s, nor had I read the novel from which the adaptation was made. I had seen some of Fassbinder's films, but cannot say that I was impressed. Yet the combination of a prospective visit to Berlin (indeed we stayed very close to Alexanderplatz), together with a positive reference to the series in the London Review of Books, and having already watched and been struck by Edgar Reitz's `Heimat' series, all made me take the plunge and purchase this DVD set.
First the facts: it comprises fourteen episodes, or rather thirteen episodes and an epilogue of Fassbinder's making. That epilogue, which lasts two hours, is surreal to the point of laughter due to its unceasing symbolic pretentiousness, though not without some visual and aural stimulation. Most episodes are an hour in length. Extras include (i) a forty-five minute `Making of', a behind-the-scenes documentary; (ii) an hour-long 2007 documentary `Berlin Alexanderplatz: A Mega-Movie & Its Story', in which many of the leading players - both actors and crew - provide comment; and (iii) a thirty-minute documentary on the film's restoration for the digital age. But despite this being a remastered copy, there are still some scenes that have a poor grained sheen from television in the 1980s.
The film has a very claustrophobic atmosphere. The majority of scenes are shot in interiors, and even where we set foot outside, one feels restricted and constrained by the narrow streets with their tall buildings and busy traffic. As well as the crowded streets, the U-Bahn has low ceilings and dark corners; meanwhile, drinking bars are shadowy. Even the rare journeys out into the countryside are dominated by shadowy forest scenes, where leaves are falling and are as brown as they are green. And over everything and everyone in every shot is a veil of sepia tone: rarely do we see a flash of scarlet or a spark of blue-yellow.
The story itself concerns one of life's losers, Franz Biberkopf. It's 1928. In the first episode - `The Punishment Begins' - he has been released from prison where he has served his term for the murder of his girlfriend. The punishment, then, commences after he has left prison. He seeks to live a new life, seeking to earn an honest living from being consecutively a street-trader, a seller of newspapers, and a pedlar of shoelaces, but he is constantly drawn back by both circumstances and inclination to his old haunts and former ways: "I don't want to go on as before", he exclaims. But Biberkopf goes through more women than he has jobs and is surrounded by old acquaintances and new losers. Biberkopf at least concedes to himself that, "My head's as stupid as it is empty".
It is difficult to comprehend any moral lessons to be drawn here; there is no final redemption. I had to wander what the viewer had to gain from watching the series: are we merely prurient witnesses to sordid lives? There is very little humour. Despite the good intentions of Biberkopf, his character is also marred by such instances as his laughing out loud at a newspaper report of a man who threw his three children into a canal to drown after his wife had already committed suicide. Bartender Max cannot understand Biberkopf's reaction, stressing he should be weeping not laughing. Biberkopf counters that instead he respects the husband and father and says he at least is now sleeping like a log in a prison cell somewhere.
Biberkopf is constantly and naively looking for answers as to why fate has dealt him bad cards, but he lacks the self-consciousness required to obtain useful answers. But, for me, the dominant and most interesting character is Reinhold, Biberkopf's dark nemesis. He only appears from episode five onwards, and yet he seems to dominate proceedings, and is superbly played by Gottfried John. (It should be stated that the acting throughout by almost everyone is exemplary.)
This is a rambling epic, but an epic all the same. And yet, despite its title, the story could have been set in London or Paris, or in any other large city: and it could also have been set, with due modifications, in the eighteenth century or in the twenty-first. To that extent the story of Franz Biberkopf is a universal one, but whether you want to spend so much time having it be retold to you in this form is a paradoxical question that only you can answer after having seen it.