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Berlin Alexanderplatz  [DVD]
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All 14 episodes from the drama series by renowned German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Adapted from an Alfred Döblin novel, the story centres around a man named Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), a good natured and tender man who can be equally hard and violent when he is required to be. Fresh out of prison in 1920s Germany after a four-year stretch for disposing of his girlfriend, Biberkopf sets out to begin a new life for himself before meeting Reinhold (Gottfried John), a charismatic burglar, and falls under his spell. Very soon any hope Biberkopf had of going straight is short-lived. The episodes are: 'The Punishment Begins', 'How Is One to Live If One Doesn't Want to Die?', 'A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul', 'A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence', 'A Reaper With the Power of Our Lord', 'Love Has Its Price', 'Remember - An Oath Can Be Amputated', 'The Sun Warms the Skin, But Burns It Sometimes Too', 'About the Eternities Between the Many and the Few', 'Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls', 'Knowledge Is Power and the Early Bird Catches the Worm', 'The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent', 'The Outside and the Inside and the Secret Fear of the Secret' and 'My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, an Epilogue'.
The work of a genuine master --Time Out
A masterpiece --Slant Magazine --This text refers to the Blu-ray edition.
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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.
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