Berlin Alexanderplatz

Premiere Date — 940 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Fassbinder’s 36th feature, epic about a hapless German everyman struggling to survive in late 1920s Berlin.

FILMS: Shorts “Little Chaos” and “City Tramp” | 1. Love is Colder Than Death | 2. Katzelmacher | 3. Gods of the Plague | 4. Coffeehouse | 5. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? | 6. American Soldier | 7. Niklashausen Journey | 8. Rio das Mortes | 9. Pioneers in Ingolstadt | 10. Whity | 11. Beware of a Holy Whore | 12. Merchant of Four Seasons | 13. Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant | 14. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day | 15. Bremen Freedom | 16. Jail Bait | 17. World on a Wire | 18. Nora Helmer | 19. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul | 20. Martha | 21. Effi Briest | 22. Like a Bird on a Wire | 23. Fox and His Friends | 24. Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven | 25. Fear of Fear | 26. I Only Want You to Love Me | 27. Satan’s Brew | 28. Chinese Roulette | 29. Women in New York | 30. Stationmaster’s Wife | 31. Germany in Autumn | 32. Despair | 33. In a Year With 13 Moons | 34. Marriage of Maria Braun | 35. Third Generation | 36. Berlin Alexanderplatz | 37. Lili Marleen | 38. Theater in Trance | 39. Lola | 40. Veronika Voss | 41. Querelle.


Fassbinder’s 15-1/2 hour epic drama Berlin Alexanderplatz is, in every way, a defining work of his artistry and life. It encapsulates, and expands upon, the themes and techniques that make his cinema unique. Also, virtually every performer associated with Fassbinder is here: Harry Baer, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, Günther Kaufmann, Brigitte Mira, Lilo Pempeit, Hanna Schygulla, Volker Spengler, Barbara Sukowa, and dozens more, as well as literally thousands of extras; Fassbinder himself is the narrator, and makes a surreal cameo, with two angels, in the epilogue. Günter Lamprecht, in the lead role of Franz Biberkopf, gives one of the most extraordinarily nuanced and sustained performances I have ever seen on screen or stage. The film itself is immediately engrossing, evoking powerful — and universal — emotions, yet it’s also masterful in its visceral interplay of narrative, theme, performance, image and sound: entertainment and art brilliantly joined.

The Fassbinder Foundation spent two years in the painstaking recovery of this monumental film, with help from the German Cultural Institute, screening in 2007 a fully-restored 35mm print at film festivals and museums around the world. Concurrently, the Foundation has published a monumental book containing Fassbinder’s complete screenplay, hundreds of color stills, essays by Fassbinder, critic Susan Sontag, editor Klaus Biesenbach, and more. The Criterion Collection has released Berlin Alexanderplatz in a definitive 7-disc box set (detailed below) that includes the fully restored film and a wealth of supplements, ranging from several documentaries to a book of essays.

Because Fassbinder’s is that rarest of adaptations — a film as great as the literary masterpiece that inspired it — this review will first, in the background section, explore Alfred Döblin’s monumental 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, partly inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses. To see Fassbinder’s film in a broader context, we’ll also look at Phil Jutzi’s very good 1931 film adaptation that was co-written by Döblin (included in the Criterion Collection set), and also at Fassbinder’s screenplay. The analysis section focuses on Fassbinder’s epic: throughout his life, he had wanted to film a version reflective of Döblin’s panoramic scope that would also allow him to express — some might say expose — his own vision of life, his nation, and himself, all of which had been formatively shaped by this novel.

Update: There is now a third adaptation, running 183 minutes, Burhan Qubani’s Berlin Alexnaderplatz (2020), updated to contemporary Berlin. I have not yet seen this film.

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Background — Döblin’s Novel Berlin Alexanderplatz

You can jump directly to an analysis of the film, or read the following background information, which briefly covers:

  1. Berlin / Alexanderplatz — a history of the locale,
  2. Alfred Döblin (author of the source novel),
  3. Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (this extensive section looks at the book in terms of literary/historical context, technique, and themes),
  4. radio play that wasn’t,
  5. Phil Jutzi’s 1931 film version, and
  6. book review of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz (complete screenplay, essays, resources).

Berlin / Alexanderplatz — A History of the Locale

Location! Location! Location! is not only a watch cry for realtors everywhere, but a key to both Döblin’s novel and Fassbinder’s film. Although in revealingly different ways, both artists make the title locale as important as any character.

Both the novel and 1931 film version include the full title and subtitle, Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf, that immediately tells us that this is a tale about both a specific place and individual. Paradoxically, while Fassbinder’s film is focused even more intensely on Franz, he omits the subtitle.

So what is this place? Here’s a whirlwind tour.

Berlin, founded in 1230 by German feudal lords, has always been a center of political, economic, scientific, and cultural ferment; in 1871, it became the first capital of a united Germany. In the early twentieth century, artists turned it into a focal point for such influential movements as Expressionism and Dadaism. The Reichstag fire in February 1933 marked the incendiary rise of the Nazis, and after their defeat the Berlin Wall was a stark reminder of the sundered West and East Germanies. Happily, today’s reunited Berlin is one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

Alexanderplatz is a large open square and public transportation hub in central Berlin; locals often simply call it “the Alex.” Originally a cattle market, it was named in honor of an 1805 visit by the Russian Emperor Alexander I. It became a major commercial district in the late nineteenth century, with the construction of a station (Bahnhof) of the same name and nearby public market. In the 1920s, it was a center of the city’s nightlife, bustling with bars and clubs, not to mention the attendant crime. Alexanderplatz has been marked by several major redevelopments in its two centuries, as depicted in Döblin’s novel, with more to come.

Although Fassbinder keeps the name of Döblin’s novel, it’s worth noting that his pictures’ titles rarely refer to locations; most refer to the main character. Of the two titles that consist solely of a place name, this is the only one focused on the fateful connections between locale and character. (The other picture, Rio das Mortes, refers to a mythical treasure site, thousands of miles away in South America, that we never see.) Fassbinder suggests “the Alex’s” outdoor neighborhood much more than he shows it, for reasons — both budgetary and thematic — that we’ll look at below. In a larger sense, one of Fassbinder’s overriding themes, throughout his body of work, is a place — Germany — fraught with political, psychological, moral, and very personal implications. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in October 1929, the focus is on one typical — and archetypal — neighborhood at a specific historical moment. Both Döblin and Fassbinder, in their different ways, are brilliant at finding the universal in the particular, as Franz and company come to embody not only Weimar Germany but aspects of the human condition. And Fassbinder, with more insight than hindsight, was able to enrich his interpretation of Döblin with knowledge of the catastrophic Depression that was to hit beleaguered Germany just months after the novel was published, giving rise to the Nazis and, afterwards, the postwar “Economic Miracle,” chronicled in the BRD Trilogy (begun with The Marriage of Maria Braun, just before this film, and concluded afterwards with Lola and Veronika Voss). Fassbinder knows that much happened in the half century since Döblin wrote his book, even as much remained the same.

Few novels have such an intimate connection between author and subject. Döblin actually wrote his novel, month by month, at the same time and in the same place in which it was set.

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Alfred Döblin

Physician/author Alfred Döblin’s (1878–1957) massive experimental novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, is both a gut-punch sensory experience and one of the most important German novels of the twentieth century. Before examining the book, let’s look at its author.

Döblin (pronounced ‘DUE-bleen’) was born on August 10, 1878, in the town of Stettin, in the Pomerania region of the newly-unified German empire. Both of his parents, Max and Sophie Freudenheim Döblin, were Jewish, but they had ‘irreconcilable differences.’ Max abandoned his wife and five children when Alfred was 10 — the future author later called this event “the turning point of my life” — and Sophie moved her family to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. (Fassbinder’s father similarly abandoned his family; this may be yet another reason for his identification with Döblin.)

He began writing seriously in high school, and continued while simultaneously studying medicine and philosophy at the universities of Berlin and Freiburg. In 1911 in Alexanderplatz, he opened a practice as a psychiatrist, specializing in nervous disorders. The following year he married fellow medical student Erna Reiss; they had four sons. But he still found time to co-found the influential Expressionist literary journal The Storm and, in 1915, to publish his first epic novel, The Three Leaps of Wang-lun, about a people’s rebellion crushed by the state. During World War I, he served as a combat physician and finished an historical epic, Wallenstein. But by 1918, when he published his Expressionist novel Wadzek’s Battle With the Steam Turbine, he was becoming cynical about German nationalism and politics, as seen in the satirical essays he wrote under the name ‘Left Paw.’ His despair at his nation’s descent into fascism can be seen in his 1924 fantasy, Mountains, Seas, and Giants, an acerbic dystopian satire. The failure of his 1927 verse epic set in India, Manas, about the casting off of ‘the old for the new man,’ paved the way in 1929 for his masterpiece on the same basic theme, Berlin Alexanderplatz, that we will look at in the following section.

When Döblin saw his “Socialist and Jewish” works publicly burned by the Nazis in their infamous literary auto-da-fé on May 10, 1933, he knew that he had to leave Germany. He moved first to Switzerland and France, describing his experiences in the Surrealist Babylonian Wandering (1934), Men Without Mercy (1935), and several poorly-selling historical novels. In 1940 he escaped to the United States, where he failed to make a living as a Hollywood screenwriter at MGM, and in 1941 converted to Catholicism. He returned to Germany after the war, but could not adjust, so he resettled in Paris. Soon after the publication in 1956 of his last major novel, Tales of a Long Night, deteriorating health forced Döblin to enter a sanatorium in the Black Forest, where he died in 1957.

There are several themes that Döblin explored throughout his writings — and that we can see in Berlin Alexanderplatz — including the individual’s quest for how to find political and spiritual salvation amidst the chaos of modern life. His works all reveal his deep commitment to social equality and improving the lives of the working class. But there are also paradoxes aplenty in Döblin. Although his books are “for the working man,” he employs avant-garde techniques, such as non-linear narrative and stream of consciousness, that are not universally ‘reader friendly.’ There are also gaping contradictions, as seen in his extolling the passive acceptance of oppression in The Three Leaps of Wang-lun but advocating violent resistance in Men Without Mercy; his essays show him as a utopian idealist but his one overtly utopian book, Mountains, Seas, and Giants, ends in disaster. Biographers have also noted his ambivalence towards sexuality and women, that is on full display in Berlin Alexanderplatz as well as other works. Viewers of Fassbinder’s films will see that both artists share many of the same complex, and fascinating, contradictions in their works (we’ll explore some of those connections below).

Now, let’s look at the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Döblin’s inspired combination of aesthetics, politics and raucous energy produced one of the few best-selling, not to mention enduring, experimental novels ever written.

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Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

Like its title location, the novel is something of a hub. In terms of literature, Berlin Alexanderplatz both draws on earlier fiction and paves the way for the many later works that have used its collage-like technique. On another axis, it radiates out to adaptations in other media, from Döblin’s own radio version (that had to wait two decades for its premiere), to Jutzi’s 1931 film and the Fassbinder masterpiece, and it seems inevitable that a musical or operatic stage version waits somewhere in the wings.

The basic story of Berlin Alexanderplatz — in all of its incarnations — is relatively simple, and Döblin provides a full, if suggestive, summary on the very first page: “This book reports the story of Franz Biberkopf, an erstwhile cement- and transport-worker in Berlin. He has just been discharged from prison where he has been doing time because of former incidents [in a drunken rage, he accidentally killed his girlfriend with a cream-whipper], and is now back in Berlin, determined to lead a decent life. And, at first, he succeeds… [Then] three times this thing [“that looks like fate”] crashes against our man… Finally it torpedoes him with huge and monstrous savagery. Thus our good man, who has held his own till the end, is laid low. He gives the game up for lost; he does not know how to go on and appears to be done for.” But is he? During his adventures, Franz holds a staggering array of jobs — selling ties and shoelaces, distributing brochures for organizations as wildly divergent as gay rights, the Nazis, and the Socialists (Franz admits he doesn’t understand it all!), and finally settling into roles as thief and pimp; has several affairs; falls in love with a tender-hearted streetwalker whom he renames Mieze; and becomes obsessed with the charismatic criminal named Reinhold.

But the tale is in the telling, and Döblin draws on an eclectic array of sources, both personal (he lived for years in the Alexanderplatz neighborhood) and cultural, to “report the story of Franz Biberkopf” in a kaleidoscopic style that is as memorable as any of his characters. While Döblin famously compiled a mountainous collage of newspaper and magazine clippings as research, he also drew on traditions that span the entire history of Western fiction, including seminal contemporary works. The principal influence, in both technique and ambition, was James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses (also the greatest novel I’ve read), which appeared in German translation by 1927. Döblin claimed that he evolved his techniques independently but from the same sources as Joyce, including expressionism and Dada, but that he did read Ulysses after finishing his first draft, and then used it as inspiration for his final revision.

Berlin Alexanderplatz’s literary lineage is far more expansive. Döblin’s surprising use of rhyme — that pops up when you least expect it — takes us back to the beginnings of the Western novel, more precisely to the long tradition of Menippean satire, in which prose and poetry intermingle to ridicule the ruling class; this form stretches from the third century BCE, to Petronius’s first century CE Satyricon, Rabelais’s sixteenth century Gargantua and Pantagruel, Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and arguably a modern prose/verse hybrid like Nabokov’s 1962 Pale Fire). We can also see Henry Fielding’s picaresque structure and saucy narrator who frequently breaks the narrative to directly, and trenchantly, address the reader (Tom Jones, 1749) — Döblin’s narrator is arguably the most engrossing, and contentious, character.

For all of the droll Fielding-like commentaries, we increasingly hear the frantic tones of the work that inaugurated German modernism — of which Berlin Alexanderplatz is another cornerstone — poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s only prose fiction, “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” (1910). This landmark of existential literature is in the form of elliptical ramblings, depicting modern city life (Paris) through a narrator futilely trying to force his experiences into a traditional linear mold. Going back further in the national culture, we see the hallmarks of early nineteenth century German Romanticism: at one point, Döblin even has Franz’s doctors refer to “our daddy Goethe and Chamisso,” although they might have added Schiller, Kleist, and Georg Büchner (whose uncompleted 1837 play Woyzeck, with its benighted “little man” anti-hero and fragmentary structure, may have paved the way for this novel, as well as literary expressionism). More specifically, we see Romanticism’s relentless focus on a protagonist whose life is defined by sweeping emotions and violence (Fassbinder emphasizes this tradition in his film’s dark visual style and melodramatic scene selections). That era’s obsession with death can be seen in the novel’s frequent invocation of the character the Reaper. Although this is a near universal motif, Döblin openly draws on the poem “There is a Reaper Who is Called Death,” about dying as a natural part of a divine order, from the landmark 1808 folk ballad collection, The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn), edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. (Just a few of the composers who have set this particular lyric are Mendelssohn in 1828, Schumann in 1849, and Brahms in three versions from 1858, 1862 and 1864; the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow borrowed extensively from it for his 1838 “The Reaper and the Flowers.”) From a still earlier age, we have the German baroque classic, Grimmelshausen’s semi-autobiographical Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668), a picaresque satire about the Thirty Years’ War, whose ironies, including the yoking together of violence and humor, can be seen in Döblin. From the German dark ages, we have the lacerating and ironic imagery of the Dance of Death motif, as well as remnants of the teutonic conflation of the Bible and folk tale, both apocalyptic in the Whore of Babylon (Berlin) and sadomasochistic in the long-suffering Job (Franz).

For all of its connections to German literature, Döblin is a literary man of the world, who casts his intertextual net far and wide, with Ulysses the principal catch. Joyce’s all-encompassing literary genius, and wit, draws connections between the mythic hero Odysseus/Ulysses and a frumpy everyman in Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904. He sometimes employs a montage-like technique based on his love of cinema (he tried but failed to become a movie theatre magnate); certainly the most lamentable never-made film was the collaborative project planned by Joyce and Eisenstein. Döblin connects with Joyce in prominent ways, from his unflinching naturalism in depicting life as lived experience, flatulence and all, to drawing connections between ancient texts (Homer in Joyce, the Bible in Döblin, as well as the Orestes myth). But while Joyce had a strict correspondence between passages in Homer and individual chapters of his novel, Döblin is much more freely eclectic in his use of sources. And if anything, Döblin revels even more in expressionistic possibilities. The phantasmagorical final part of his novel, when Franz lies delirious and near death in a mental hospital, recalls Joyce’s hallucinatory “Night Town” section (as well as Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony (1875), and the surreal “Magic Theatre” conclusion to Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, published two years before Berlin Alexanderplatz).

Perhaps the closest analogue in American literature to Döblin’s book, as well as another likely source, is John Dos Passos. His overlapping collage style — mixing traditional storytelling with newspaper clilppings, ads, pop songs — depicts the flotsam, jetsam, and sheer energy of a major city, from top to bottom, in 1925’s Manhattan Transfer — available in German translation before Döblin began his novel. However, Döblin is more visionary, and even apocalyptic, than Dos Passos, reminding us of the American author’s key inspiration, T.S. Eliot’s apocalyptically fragmented 1922 poem The Waste Land. On a deeper level, Döblin harkens back to a common thread for all of these American authors, the cosmic humanity and “barbaric yawp” of gay poet Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass (that evolved through a half-dozen editions, from 1855–1892). Whitman’s ability to enter the the minds and pulsing bodies and spirits of seemingly everyone, recalls the classic passage early in Berlin Alexanderplatz when the narrator ‘walks through the walls’ of every apartment in a Berlin building, tenderly exposing the lives and yearnings of the residents; Whitman is also perhaps the originator of kaleidoscopic and montage-like literary effects (he also greatly influenced cinematic montage, by inspiring Eisenstein).

And let’s not forget one more towering, and nose-thumbing, figure in German literature and media: Bertolt Brecht. His subversive delight in humanizing criminals, at the expense of what he saw as the stifling middle-class, sprang up at the same time as Berlin Alexanderplatz. Brecht and composer Kurt Weill’s musical play Threepenny Opera premiered August 31 1928, while Döblin was writing his novel, but he may (also) have known the original version of Brecht and Weill’s dystopian Mahagonny, “a short epic [musical] play” that premiered in July 1927 (its sets by Caspar Neher placed the action in a boxing-ring before background projections of sloganeering scene-titles — compare this to a major sequence in the epilogue of Fassbinder’s film). Yes, Mack the Knife or the not-so-good people of Mahagonny could be neighbors of Franz, Mieze and Reinhold (and so could the denizens of such Brecht and Weill-inspired Broadway musicals as Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (stage 1966, film 1972) and Chicago (stage 1975 and revival 1996, film 2002). On a deeper level, Döblin’s wildly eclectic, yet carefully modulated, style is a literary analogue to Brecht’s “alienation effect,” with its transformation of agitprop into music, dance, scenic projections, and other forms of razzle dazzle. Both artists want not to lull the audience but to galvanize it into self- and political awareness — in so many words, Döblin tells us just that in the opening page of the novel, when he not only summarizes the story to come but tells us his agenda: “This awful thing which was his life acquires a meaning…. To listen to this, and to meditate on it, will be of benefit to many who, like Franz Biberkopf, live in a human skin, and, like this Franz BIberkopf, ask more of life than a piece of bread and butter.” Even with the psychological depth of their characters, Brecht (Mother Courage) and Döblin (Franz Biberkopf) want to convey the essence of experience in a more complex and full way than is possible with psychological realism, and they’re not afraid to use a fistful of over the top techniques to do so. Brecht was also, of course, the major influence on Jean-Luc Godard (Pierrot le fou, 1965), whose most brilliantly original inspiree remains Fassbinder — even with radical art, there is tradition.

Although incorporating fewer traditions, you can see the influence of Döblin — or at least their part in the same cultural ferment — in such other German literary classics of the period as Hermann Broch’s trilogy The Sleepwalkers (1932) and Robert Musil’s posthumous The Man Without Qualities (1943). Döblin and these later works all share techniques — montage, stream of consciousness, essay-like passages interspersed with dramatic scenes, and visionary epiphanies — to depict how the modern world threatens individual identity. A highly regarded postwar author who acknowledges Döblin as a major influence is Nobel laureate Günter Grass (The Tin Drum, 1959).

Döblin’s all-embracing combination of so many traditions — Menippean satire, picaresque, existentialism, romanticism, naturalism, expressionism, Dada, surrealism, “alienation effect,” as well as a rich vein of humor — is certainly impressive, but what makes him a titan of German literature, and a beloved enduring writer, is how he brings everything in his novel to life, with the sights, sounds, smells, hopes and fears of not only big city life but modern experience.

What is so ingenious in the narrative form of Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf is that Döblin encapsulates the subjects of both its title and subtitle, “the Alex” and Franz, showing the interconnections of the two, as well as their relationship to a much larger cultural matrix, ranging from classical and biblical literature (as noted above) to pop culture that was literally of the minute. Döblin wrote his novel during the exact time and in the locale where it was set. This intimate connection allowed him to leave behind earlier far-flung settings in China, India or a fantasy land, and remake his home turf in his own image; the book deserves a more proprietary title: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf.

Let’s take a closer look at the text to see what makes it tick. As you can see in the following table, the novel consists of nine parts of varying lengths; each section is founded on usually biblical motifs. The action, centered in and around Berlin, covers a year and half. PLEASE NOTE that there are a few major “plot spoilers,” but these incidents are so pivotal that they must be referred to.

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Outline of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

Page references are to Eugene Jolas’s circa 1935 English translation of the novel, initially published as Alexanderplatz, Berlin; the edition used here is from Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York (sixth printing, 1983). This same translation is now available from Continuum International Publishing Group, reprinted in 2005, but its reduced type size yields a 400-page book. Translator Eugene Jolas (1894–1952) was a multilingual poet, literary critic, and close friend to James Joyce. PLEASE NOTE: Although the following table contains much original material, it was inspired by an excellent German site dedicated to the novel. (In the analysis section below, there is an outline of Fassbinder’s screenplay, including how it corresponds to the novel.)

Part / Page — Time / Place — Main Characters (Franz is assumed) — Main Action — Motifs (Often Biblical)

Part 1 / page 1. — Summer 1927 / Berlin — Tegel Prison; the Jewish Scheunenviertel neighborhood (central Berlin). — Franz (age 30), Nachum and Eliser, Minna. — Franz Biberkopf released from prison, befriended by two Orthodox Jews. — Expulsion from Eden [Franz ‘forced’ to leave prison: now “the punishment begins”]; (Döblin’s original) Story of Zannovich.

2 / p. 49. — Rosenthaler Platz (central Berlin). — Meck, “Polish Lina.” — Franz builds a new life as a small-time salesman. — Adam and Eve in Paradise; Greek myth of Orestes.

3 / p. 131. — Christmas 1927. — Lina, Uncle Lüders, a widow. — First Hammer Blow of Fate: Lüders’s betrayal of Franz over the widow. — Adam and Eve and the Serpent.

4 / p. 153. — January – February 1928. — Reinhold and his women Fränze, Cilly, Trude. — Franz puts his life back together, but is increasingly obsessed with the criminal Reinhold, who fobs off his old girlfriends on Franz. — Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise; Job.

5 / p. 215. — February – April / Alexanderplatz. — Reinhold, Pums Gang. — Second Hammer Blow: Franz in deeper with criminals, Reinhold causes him to lose his right arm during a Pums Gang burglary. — Prophet Jeremiah.

6 / p. 291. — April – June. — Eva, Herbert, Mieze. — Franz recovers under the care of Eva and Herbert; finds Mieze and falls in love even as he becomes her pimp. — Whore of Babylon (Book of Revelation); Abraham and Isaac.

7 / p. 415. — August – September. — Mieze, Reinhold, Karl. — Third Hammer Blow: Reinhold kills Mieze. — Ecclesiastes.

8 / p. 493. — September – October. — Karl, Reinhold, Eva. — Franz has a nervous breakdown. — Ecclesiastes; Job; Whore of Babylon; the Reaper Death.

9 / pp. 573 – 635. — Winter 1928–29 / Buch Asylum. — Reinhold, Konrad, the Reaper Death. — Reinhold, in prison, in love with Konrad; delirious Franz and the angels Terah and Sarug; the Reaper Death; the old Franz dies, the new Franz Karl is born. — Whore of Babylon; the Reaper Death; Ecclesiastes.

Now that we have the big picture, let’s take a look at the details, and how they work together. We’ll focus on just the opening pages since, as with most works, the opening subtly lays out the aesthetic plan for the entire work.

The first of the novel’s countless, yet defining, paradoxes occurs when we learn that Franz, who is both savage and innocent, sees prison as a place of safety, and the outside world as a looming, booming chaos. Döblin sums up Franz’s feelings — even as he unwittingly gives Fassbinder the title for the first of the fourteen sections of his film version — in three ominous words: “The punishment begins.”

That terse paragraph is immediately followed by a prose/poetic whirlwind, describing Franz’s first streetcar ride in years. This passage is typical of the entire novel’s style, which is why we’ll look at it closely. Here is both the original German — even if you are not fluent, you can still sense the force of Döblin’s sounds and rhythm (German ‘w’ sounds like English ‘v,’ ‘j’ like ‘y’) — and the Jolas translation:


Er schüttelte sich, schluckte. Er trat sich auf den Fuß. Dann nahm er Anlauf und saß in der Elektrischen. Mitten unter den Leuten. Los. Das war zuerst, als wenn man beim Zahnarzt sitzt, der eine Wurzel mit der Zange gepackt hat und zieht, der Schmerz wächst, der Kopf will platzen. Er drehte den Kopf zurück nach der roten Mauer, aber die Elektrische sauste mit ihm auf den Schienen weg, dann stand nur noch sein Kopf in der Richtung des Gefängnisses. Der Wagen machte eine Biegung, Bäume, Häuser traten dazwischen. Lebhafte Straßen tauchten auf, die Seestraße, Leute stiegen ein und aus. In ihm schrie es entsetzt: Achtung, Achtung, es geht los. Seine Nasenspitze vereiste, über seine Backe schwirrte es. „Zwölf Uhr Mittagszeitung“, „B.Z.“, „Die neueste Illustrirte“, „Die Funkstunde neu“ „Noch jemand zugestiegen?“ Die Schupos haben jetzt blaue Uniformen. Er stieg unbeachtet wieder aus dem Wagen, war unter Menschen. Was war denn? Nichts. Haltung, ausgehungertes Schwein, reiß dich zusammen, kriegst meine Faust zu riechen. Gewimmel, welch Gewimmel. Wie sich das bewegte. Mein Brägen hat wohl kein Schmalz mehr, der ist wohl ganz ausgetrocknet. Was war das alles. Schuhgeschäfte, Hutgeschäfte, Glühlampen, Destillen. Die Menschen müssen doch Schuhe haben, wenn sie so viel rumlaufen, wir hatten ja auch eine Schusterei, wollen das mal festhalten. Hundert blanke Scheiben, laß die doch blitzen, die werden dir doch nicht bange machen, kannst sie ja kaputt schlagen, was ist denn mit die, sind eben blankgeputzt. Man riß das Pflaster am Rosenthaler Platz auf, er ging zwischen den andern auf den Holzbohlen. Man mischt sich unter die andern, da vergeht alles, dann merkst du nichts, Kerl. Figuren standen in den Schaufenstern in Anzügen, Mänteln, mit Röcken, mit Strümpfen und Schuhen. Draußen bewegte sich alles, aber — dahinter war — nichts! Es — lebte — nicht! Es hatte fröhliche Gesichter, es lachte, wartete auf der Schutzinsel gegenüber Aschinger zu zweit oder zu dritt, rauchte Zigaretten, blätterte in Zeitungen. So stand das da wie die Laternen — und — wurde immer starrer. Sie gehörten zusammen mit den Häusern, alles weiß, alles Holz.


He shook himself and gulped. He stepped on his own foot. Then, with a run, took a seat on the car. Right among people. Go ahead. At first it was like being at the dentist’s, when he has grabbed a root with a pair of forceps, and pulls; the pain grows, your head threatens to burst. He turned his head back towards the red wall, but the car raced on with him along the tracks, and only his head was left in the direction of the prison The car took a bend; trees and houses intervened. Busy streets emerged, Seestrasse, people got on and off. Something inside him screamed in terror: Look out, look out, it’s going to start now. The tip of his nose turned to ice; something was whirring over his cheek. Zwölf Uhr Mittagszeitung, B.Z., Berliner Illustrierte, Die Funkstunde. “Anybody else got on?” The coppers have blue uniforms now. He got off the car, without being noticed, and was back among people again. What happened? Nothing. Chest out, you starved sucker, you, pull yourself together, or I’ll give you a crack in the jaw! Crowds, what a swarm of people! How they hustle and bustle! My brain needs oiling, it’s probably dried up. What was all this? Shoe stores, hat stores, incandescent lamps, saloons. People got to have shoes to run around so much; didn’t we have a cobbler’s shop out there, let’s bear that in mind! Hundreds of polished window-panes, let ’em blaze away, are they going to make you afraid or something, why, you can smash ’em up, can’t you, what’s the matter with ’em, they’re polished clean, that’s all. The pavement on Rosenthaler Platz was being torn up; he walked on the wooden planks along with the others. Just go ahead and mix in with the people, then everything’s going to clear up, and you won’t notice anything, you fool. Wax figures stood in the show-windows, in suits, overcoats, with skirts, with shoes and stockings. Outside everything was moving, but — back of it — there was nothing! It — did not — live! It had happy faces, it laughed, waited in twos and threes on the newspapers. Thus it stood there like the street-lamps — and — became more and more rigid. They belonged with the houses, everything white, everything wooden.

Döblin viscerally — like getting a tooth pulled out by the roots — makes us feel exactly what Franz feels, as he is thrust back into the relative chaos of big city life. Döblin’s original prose is even more staccato and propulsive, with all of its sharp “t” sounds, than Jolas’s translation, that nonetheless captures the frantic effect. (In terms of translating this passage into film, Jutzi captures it visually in Franz’s disorienting tram ride, borrowed from Walter Ruttmann’s spellbinding 1927 documentary, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (available free online) — a kaleidoscopic film that may also have influenced Döblin; but Fassbinder focuses on Franz’s psychological response, through revealing close-ups of actor Günter Lamprecht’s expressive face — arguably, Fassbinder did film this Döblin scene in the nightmarish tram sequence at the beginning of Veronika Voss). Much later in the novel, Mieze proves the great female love of Franz’s life (Reinhold is the male), but ironically, considering his stomach- and mind-churning response to this ride, her father was a streetcar conductor.

One way to approach Döblin’s prose is to imagine it spoken aloud. For all of its brilliance at capturing in words the volatile experience of Berlin life, there’s also a lot of humor: “happy faces” overlayed on the anxiety. Strange as it may sound (and that may be exactly the effect Döblin intended), I can imagine someone like Robin Williams, in his guise as the garrulous, shape-shifting genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992), performing a reading of the novel, rather than Fassbinder’s delivery, as the voice-over narrator, in an almost sepulchral monotone. That works brilliantly with his interpretation of the novel, but it’s not how you would imagine Döblin’s torrential novel to sound if it were read dramatically. The novel’s jiving rhythms feel closer to today’s rap performances than to, say, orotund classical declamation. Even in the brief representative example above, note how the driving pace of the prose plays off of the static, yet terrifying, world that Franz perceives. As Döblin puts it, “Outside everything was moving, but — back of it — there was nothing!”

Above we looked at some of the literary influences on the novel, but Fassbinder, in his 1980 essay on the novel, makes a piercing comment about the source of its unique style: “To me the question of whether Döblin knew Ulysses is less exciting than the idea that the language in Berlin Alexanderplatz was influenced by the rhythm of the elevated trains that ran past the window of Döblin’s Berlin study. The language is certainly shaped by such things — mostly the noises of the big city, the specific rhythms, the constant madness of an unceasing back-and-forth. And… a very specific alertness to everything that living in the city means, certainly provides the source of the montage technique Döblin uses….”

Exactly. Although the narrative settles down, at least relatively, for dramatic scenes, it constantly returns to its vertiginous depiction of “the Alex” as a place where life is frantic, transitory, and not infrequently sinister. We see and hear — and sometimes, to the point of sensory overload, smell, touch and taste — the neighborhood’s teeming atmosphere, with fragments of its pop songs, advertisements, street vendors’ cries, snippets of overheard conversations (some more tantalizing than others), and everywhere the deafening noise of construction. Alexanderplatz, like Franz entering his new life, is very much a work in progress. (Unknown at the time, this would soon come crashing to a halt, with the imminent Great Depression and rise of Hitler.)

The style, as much as the action, is a critique of the hair-raising pace and impersonality and fragmented nature of modern life. The novel is both a depiction, a celebration, and a warning about too much too fast. But the technique reveals deeper insights than some merely flash literary reproduction of daily life.

Döblin ratchets up the metatextual energy by moving well beyond the title neighborhood for broader fields of reference, drawn not only from classical. biblical, and national literature (as we saw above) but a deluge of facts from weather reports, geography, medicine, psychology, mathematics, and physics (sometimes replete with diagrams). As in, say, Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick (my second-favorite novel) — with its chapters on Cetology and how to tie nautical knots — Döblin’s data are not only technically accurate but, if read closely, subtly resonant metaphors for the psychology and sociology of both the place and protagonist. In that regard, the novel embodies the overwhelming collective forces of a modern technological society.

Beyond that encyclopedic subject matter, Döblin intensifies his novel — and creates parallels between his literary style and the twin subjects — by employing such modernist techniques as flashbacks (and a few flashforwards), stream of consciousness, protean shifts in narrative (is that Franz speaking, or the narrator, or someone else, perhaps even a god?), and a delightfully crazed sense of humor. Not infrequently, all of this is happening at once — and always through Döblin’s masterful control of rhythm — as in the memorable scene in Book Two between Franz and his old war buddy, Georg Dreske, as they chew the fat in a tavern. Look at how Döblin characterizes them, moving from an almost art history-like description of patterns of light all the way to outer space, from Bible stories to dinosaurs, from a beer sign to an illuminating epiphany that is at once classical (in its formalism) and anticlassical (in its mingling of high and low) — satirical and visionary — in how it brings together so much: “But that sunlight which spreads silently over the table in front and on the floor, divided into two masses of light by the sign: Löwenbräu Patzenholfer, is age-old and makes all else seem perishable and unimportant, when you see it. It came from over x miles away, it shot past the star y, the sun has been shining for millions of years, since long before Nebuchadnezzar, before Adam and Eve, before the icthyosaurus, and now it shines into the little beer-shop through the window-pane, divided into two masses by a tin sign: Löwenbräu Patzenholfer, spreads out over the table and on the floor imperceptibly gaining ground. It spreads over them, and they know it. It is winged, light, over-light, light-light, from heaven high I come to you.”

Paradoxically the novel — like Alexanderplatz and like that German everyman Franz — is multifaceted yet a whole. It succeeds because however all-encompassing the range of allusions, and factoids, they can always be connected to the title locale and, more specifically, to Franz. To borrow a Döblinish metaphor from physics, the novel — in terms of its style as well as its dual subjects — is both centrifugal, moving away from its center, but also the opposite, centripetal, moving back… again and again. (Fassbinder dramatically clarifies this “eternal return” by giving Franz only one apartment, instead of the many he has in the novel.) The final chapter, for all of its over-the-top Freudian dream imagery, works as well as it does because it draws together the novel’s underlying centrifugal/centripetal movement.

The montage technique, inspired by film and Joyce but which Döblin made uniquely his own, allowed him to break free of the artificial linear strictures of narrative to produce a dizzying, yet right, effect of simultaneity that draws sometimes astonishing parallels between the mundane — sunlight on a tavern table — and the infinite reaches of time and space. Part of Franz’s, and the reader’s, disorientation comes from being shown that the line between the prosaic and the prophetic can sometimes dissolve like that, even while we remain stuck in a queasy liminal place somewhere in between.

This dualistic experience lies behind the layers of paradox that shape every aspect of the novel. Döblin’s work is paradoxical in the richest sense, ranging from its characters and story, through its style (narrative form, metaphors, prose rhythms), to the underlying philosophy we’ve just extracted. It’s a fictional world that feels all too real, as it leaps dizzyingly between outer and inner experience, a protagonist who is alternately innocent and savage, a narrator who is omniscient yet volatile and petty (not unlike the Old Testament Jehovah, who is invoked several times), a tone that veers from cosmic flights to scientific detachment to bawdy humor, a style constantly torn between expressionistic exuberance and naturalistic objectivity, a narrative form that is at once carefully structured (a tripartite design centered around the “three hammer blows” of fate) yet kaleidoscopic enough to encompass, although not with equal weight, millennia of humankind’s achievements from both the sciences and arts.

For all of its attempt to be a Grand (detractors would say ‘Grandiose’) Unified Theory of art and life, the pathetic final image — of the born-again neutered Franz as a factory doorman — proves as disturbing, and unexpected, as anything that came before. For all of Döblin’s compassion, and even love, for his characters — the quality that first drew Fassbinder, and certainly many other readers, into the novel — there is also a kind of cynicism. Franz always has the best intentions, of becoming “a decent man,” but he is constantly struck down just as he seems about to settle into happiness.

It seems Franz has gotten too big for his proverbial britches, by thinking he could succeed on his own. This is made all too clear during his climactic hallucinations in the insane asylum, when Death — playing a part like the Voice from the Whirlwind in the biblical book of Job — tells him that only a submissive man can be part of the eternal anonymity, which is supposed to be a good thing. Franz is now completely broken, both outwardly (having lost his arm and the woman he loved) and inwardly; he gives in, lets go of his self-reliance, and becomes just another cog in society’s wheel, working as an “assistant door-man in a medium-sized factory.”

Yet in another paradoxical twist,  the novel ends with Franz tentatively embracing free thought, as he skeptically watches his country’s resurgent militarism. He says, perhaps too self-confidently, “That’s why I first figure out everything, and only if everything’s quite O.K., and suits me, I’ll take action. Reason is the gift of the man, jackasses replace it with a clan.” You wonder if Franz — who only a year before sold with equal enthusiasm, and incomprehension, gay rights pamphlets and then Nationalist Socialist propaganda — can live up to his own ideal during Germany’s coming horrors. Such a Nazi “revolution” was a monstrous social change, but remember what the term means in physics: a single rotation around a fixed center that returns to the starting point. Franz himself has made a complete “revolution”: we first saw him all but begging the guard at Tegel Prison to let him stay; now, following his exploits, he has become a guard himself. For better or worse, we know that Franz will be a survivor, at whatever price.

Is this defeatist ending to be taken at face values? In light of all that’s come before, as much in the far-ranging implications of Döblin’s style as in Franz’s story, perhaps not. In fact, Döblin wrote several different endings, yet never found a way, to his own satisfaction, to resolve the tensions in Franz’s queasy mix of gullibility, nascent political awareness, and self-blindness — much as Döblin himself held shifting and sometimes contradictory political views that, on a larger level, reflected the internal contortions of the Weimar artists who veered between a desire to be one with the “common man” at the same time that they saw themselves as post-Romantic firebrands.

Fassbinder’s insights into the novel again prove astute: “Döblin’s novel is too good to permit a person to go under or lose himself in it. Again and again, I was forced, as any reader is, to return to my own reality, to analyze everybody’s reality. A criterion, by the way, by which I would measure any work of art…. [The novel] helps you get a theoretical handle on things without itself being theoretical, forces you to behave morally without itself being moralistic….”

Döblin doesn’t want to depress us but rather to free us, or more specifically, to give us the insight needed to begin freeing ourselves. (This is similar to how Fassbinder uses Hollywood melodramas, in his last 30 or so films, as both homage and liberating deconstruction.) Döblin creates this multiple perspective by constantly playing so many diverse factors against each other in the text, as well as in the story he tells. Like his contemporary Brecht, or later Godard and Fassbinder, Döblin wants us to be free to see and understand the larger social forces at work; all of these artists know that a novel or play or film is yet another socially-constructed labyrinth in which we can lose ourselves. So each of them have come up with ingenious and liberating “bread crumb trails” to help us find our way out of the fictional, and socioeconomic, maze, on the way to genuine freedom.

One key difference between Döblin and the others is the twisted complexity of his narrator; you wonder how much of Godard’s acerbic voice-overs — in films like 1967’s Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (the “Her” is a Paris defined similarly to Döblin’s Berlin; and as in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, the filmmaker/screenwriter also performs the deadpan voice-over) — were inspired by the German poet/novelist. But Döblin’s protean narrator, who ties together all of the outrageously eclectic textual strands, is the novel’s most interesting character.

There are many times when we’re not sure who is speaking: Is it Franz, or the narrator in one of his many guises, or some omniscient divinity such as Death in the final part? Whitman has even more radical and rapid shifts in personae, yet in Leaves of Grass we never get that queasy feeling we have in the novel, especially at the end. Döblin keeps us reading — and often prevents this multiplicity of voices from becoming a noisy confusion — through the propulsive rhythm of his prose, that rushes forward, like “the Alex,” like Franz, and like what may or may not be Fate.

What struck me on a second reading was a parallel between the narrator and his subject, Franz, and the relationship of Franz and the male object of his affection, Reinhold.

This narrator often comes across as some guy you’ve just met who wants to be your new best friend: wrapping his arms around you, buying you one round after another. His tone is teasing, sometimes hectoring, but always obsessive. I’m not making any assumptions about Döblin’s inner life; but the narrator — perhaps obliviously — seems almost to have a crush on Franz, perhaps comparable to Franz and Reinhold’s homosocial bond.

Fassbinder reveals what lies within the novel, as he opens the closet door on Döblin’s subtext: “Berlin Alexanderplatz didn’t only help me in something like a process of ethical maturation. No, it also provided genuine, naked, concrete life support when I was really at risk during puberty, because I was able to apply the story to my own problems and dilemmas, oversimplifying, of course I read it as the story of two men whose little bit of life on this earth is ruined because they don’t have the opportunity to get up the courage even to recognize, let alone admit, that they like each other in an unusual way, love each other somehow, that something mysterious ties them to each other more closely than is generally considered suitable for men. Yet it’s by no means a question of something sexual between two people of the same gender; Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold are in no way homosexual….”

One can argue with Fassbinder’s ultimate point here (even as he seems to do himself in his film), but there’s no arguing with how much same-sex content there is in the novel, as well as its ambivalent take on sex.

The narrator, for all of his attempts to liberate us from repressive strictures, never seems himself to break free of the gender limitations that perpetuate that society (revolutions spin around only to return to where they started — unless the cycle can be broken through true understanding and the will to change). It’s almost like Hamlet’s take on his mother, who “protests too much.”

Look at the names. Franz rechristens the woman he loves so that she becomes a pet: Mieze is German for ‘pussycat,’ which as in English has the dual nature of being both playful and salacious. Franz’s surname is even more grotesque: Biberkopf literally means ‘beaver head,’ and the misogynistic sexual slang of ‘beaver’ (in German as in English), so he’s metaphorically a ‘girly man.’ (Fassbinder amplifies this theme in his film, when — even before the hair-raising epilogue — we glimpse a feminized Franz wearing the dead Mieze’s lipstick and dress.)

Döblin, the psychiatrist, certainly knew of the liberating potential of Freud’s theory of polymorphous sexuality; but did he also understand the stereotypical implications that underlie it, of “passive femininity” and “active masculinity”? And although Franz hawks booklets from the great sexologist, and gay rights pioneer, Magnus Hirschfeld, did Döblin realize that he still clung to what we know today are outmoded, and restrictive, models of “effeminacy”? Unfortunately, the novel indicates that Döblin, understandably for his time, had not been able to make those conceptual leaps. Hence we see, even beyond the inherently limitation of setting the novel in one small neighborhood, women through an ambivalent gaze that is at once romanticized (hookers with hearts of gold, or at least burnished aluminum) and at times misogynistic (not only the endemic flightiness and infidelity, but recall “Polish Lina’s” homophobic outburst when she finds that “her Franz” has been selling Hirschfeld’s literature; simultaneously Döblin includes perhaps the most compassionate portrayal, in any popular novel, of an erstwhile ‘straight family man’ who falls in love with a youth — prefiguring Reinhold’s infatuation with Konrad at the end). (If you’ll allow a semi-digression, it’s interesting to note that Tegel, in northern Berlin, was home not only to Germany’s largest prison — where Berlin Alexanderplatz begins in all of its incarnations — but to the Humboldt Palace, home to a man whom Döblin would have admired: genius Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the gay author and naturalist who was the first scientist to explore Latin America, the founder of such fields as physical- and bio-geography and meteorology, and a revered diplomat whose life spanned almost 90 years. Now back to the novel…)

For all of the narrator’s grand visionary connections — history, the arts and sciences — he often seems as limited in his understanding of human potential as Franz or any of the other characters. You have to wonder if the call for personal diminishment, in the final pages, isn’t connected to a fear of personal sexual freedom as part of a larger social liberation. To whatever extent those blinders extend from the narrator to his creator, who’s to say?

Historically, Germany was about to veer hard to the right with the onset, and onslaught, of the Great Depression, that began just weeks after Döblin completed his novel and it was published to enormous success (perhaps the world’s only best-selling experimental novel). The Depression crushed the already beleaguered loser of World War I, allowing the Nazi ‘Aryan saviors’ to seize power. It was an era when all difference — whether political/philosophical, artistic, or sexual — became anathema. Since Fassbinder incorporates these events into his adaptation, let’s briefly chart the beginning of Germany’s descent as reflected in the novel’s first two adaptations, for radio in 1930 and the screen in 1931, both of which involved the author.

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The Radio Play That Wasn’t

It may come as a surprise that Döblin, who had achieved considerable literary acclaim, was skeptical about the continuing relevance of the novel. Even in the 1920s he saw the writing on the wall — or rather on the airwaves and silver screens — as he realized that he was now living in a mass- and multi-media world. Initially, Döblin focused on radio, then at its early zenith (Brecht was similarly fascinated by new media, creating works like the 1928 “cantata for radio” The Lindbergh Flight with composer Kurt Weill.) Döblin had yet another connection to drama, in all its forms, through his brother, actor Hugo Döblin (1876–1960). Hugo appeared in over 80 German films, mostly in the 1920s, including Lady Hamilton (1921) and Lucrezia Borgia (1922) directed by Richard Oswald, best known for the landmark 1919 gay film Different From the Others.

There is a fascinating 2006 study, Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture, by Peter Jelavich, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. Focusing on Döblin’s novel, and its first two adaptations, he charts the vertiginous decline of authorial freedom under the Nazis — who began their ascent in 1929 — with their escalating demands for censorship, including self-censorship. On a superficial level, you could argue that many artistic comprises would be required to bring a complex and massive avant-garde work to either radio or film: 600 pages to 90 minutes. But beyond the inherent limitations of technology, and the expectations of popular radio and movie audiences, you can see how the Nazis’ agenda compelled even Döblin — who, despite his new-found mass popularity, was still seen as a ‘socialist Jew.’ Through the persuasion of the Nazis, increasingly in control of mass media, he not only had to ‘dumb down’ his novel, but to make it “apolitical.” The dramatized Berlin Alexanderplatz is no longer a dense multi-layered work about human autonomy in conflict with a modern metropolis — although Döblin’s radio play adaptation had some innovative ideas about how to use the medium’s inherent (non-visual) nature to recast his novel. For instance, he planned to use overlapping sound layers — with their thematic and metaphorical resonances — to aurally parallel the novel’s interlayered textual modes (gossip, news, scientific facts, the main story); Döblin’s radio strategy anticipates by decades Robert Altman’s use of multi-layered sound in 1975’s Nashville, as well as Fassbinder’s in 1979’s The Third Generation.

Even before the Nazis seized total political, and cultural, power in 1933, we can see — as reflected in the fate of this one work — the slow death of the Weimar Republic’s progressive culture marked by diversity and innovation. Looking at the example of radio, Jelavich notes that it was a state-run monopoly, long dominated by domestic dramas. They were comparable to today’s soap operas, but with an even more pronounced didactic social conservative slant. As the radio audience grew rapidly in the 1920s, programming gradually became more politically diverse. Nationalist politicians and newspapers, not unexpectedly, demanded that such on-air “immorality” be “cleaned up,” and in 1926 so-called “political oversight boards” were set up to censor any content not in line with Germany’s increasingly right-wing values: even including atheists in a forum discussing religion was now illegal.

Yet at the same time, artists like Brecht and Döblin wanted to create what they called “new radio art.” Döblin’s fascination with the medium began by building crystal radio sets at home; he later became a popular — and famously quick-witted — on-air commentator (which certainly helped sales of his novel). But he realized that Berlin Alexanderplatz could never be done for radio in its current form, not only because of its massive length but because of its (purposefully) fractured, densely-layered nature, as well as passages dealing overtly, and positively, with two groups targeted for extermination by the Nazis: Jews (including the two men who befriend Franz after his release from prison) and bisexual, gay and lesbian people.

Döblin’s radio version of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel that seemingly everyone was reading, went into production for the nation’s most prestigious and popular show, the Berlin Radio Hour. But the dramatization was abruptly “postponed” two weeks after the Nazis gained yet more power in the 1930 elections; it was not performed until twenty-five years later. A transcript of the Radio Hour oversight board meeting includes the note that in the present “excitable times… there was no reason to transmit the fear psychosis to radio….” (Although audiences never got to hear what might have been a landmark in the medium’s history, a rehearsal recording still exists.) In a further sop to the Nazis, the Radio Hour now ramped up its production of explicitly right-wing works, while eliminating those with any opposing viewpoint.

Döblin was understandably upset by the fate of his radio adaptation, but he consoled himself with the imminent production of the movie version, from one of Germany’s hottest filmmakers.

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Phil Jutzi’s 1931 Film Version

Phil (sometimes ‘Piel’) Jutzi (1896–1946) was a highly-regarded Weimar cinematographer, screenwriter and director. At first he brought his strong Communist sympathies to a series of topical films but, like so many others, he renounced his former beliefs when the Nazis came to power. Jutzi’s most notorious assignment was re-editing Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin for what the German censors decided was a skittish German audience: the Odessa Steps had never been so bloodless, or apolitical. More estimably, his 1929 Mother Krausen’s Journey Into Happiness inspired one of Fassbinder’s best films, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven.

Coincidentally, Jutzi was the same age as Fassbinder — 35 — when he made the 1931 Berlin Alexanderplatz, his most acclaimed film. The German Films Website’s list of the 100 Most Significant German Films includes Jutzi’s version but, inexplicably, not Fassbinder’s (one could speculate that its premiere on television, instead of in a cinema, and its being largely unavailable until now kept it out of the running).

Collaborating with Döblin, Jutzi’s 90 minute film version manages to include several of the novel’s main plot points while not feeling rushed. Although for reasons of both running time and political expediency, he had to trim many scenes, his staccato visual style, in the periodic montages of hustling bustling Berlin, more closely reflects the prose style of Döblin than Fassbinder (although the latter embodies that in his kaleidoscopic credit sequences that begin each episode). To achieve these montages, Jutzi drew extensively on Ruttmann’s documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, while applying them into the main plot line of Franz Biberkopf. Despite watering down of the original, it’s an impressive, and sometimes moving, achievement. As we’ll see below, Fassbinder’s 16-hour running time allows him fidelity to the full epic sweep of events and characters in Döblin, and much more. But Jutzi’s film still works dramatically, and in its production history, reveals how the Nazis used censorship to impose a relentlessly conservative message in films to rally the mass audience.

In the lead role of Franz, Jutzi casts Heinrich George, an actor who bears more resemblance to the pathos-inducing Emil Jannings in Murnau‘s 1924 The Last Laugh than to the somewhat feral, and sexually charged, protagonist of Döblin’s novel. George (1893–1946) was a popular actor of his day; he had one of his first roles in the Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as the guardian of the enormous generator. He was also noted for his diva-like behavior: he refused to work with the young Brecht on his first directing gig in 1922. He had enough clout to persuade Döblin to remold Franz more in keeping with George’s popular screen persona of a kindly brute. Although active in Germany’s Communist Party, he later switched sides and made several propaganda movies, including the Nazis’ first feature, Hitler Youth Quex [‘Quicksilver’] (1933), and the even more infamous Jew Süss (1940). As Jelavich notes in Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture, his portrayal conveyed that “not just George, the private citizen, but all of the [beloved] proletarian roles that he had embodied during the Weimar years were now supporting the new regime.”

Döblin’s Franz is 30, but George looks at least twenty years older than that, although he was only 38. Also, Jutzi (unlike Döblin and Fassbinder) eliminates every trace of the homoerotic undercurrent in the relationship of Biberkopf and the alluring criminal Reinhold. Whatever your feelings about Jutzi’s adaptation and casting, it’s a rare privilege to see the actual locations that Döblin wrote about, from the same time as the novel — although one wishes that, at some point, Franz might have gone for a check-up at Dr. Döblin’s clinic. (The actor died in 1946 in a Russian concentration camp, just north of Berlin, after an appendix operation.)

For all of their cuts to the novel, Jutzi and Döblin did make a few enjoyable additions, including the ‘meeting cute’ scene for Franz and (a ‘morally cleaned up’) Mieze. The frequent use of the bird in a cage, as a symbol for Franz’s imprisonment, is much more prominent than in the book, where it appears just once. In fact, here it’s a key symbolic image — repeated so many times that it feels obsessive — as it is in Fassbinder’s film. A tellling difference between the two directors is how Jutzi is content simply to show the caged bird and let the metaphor speak, or chirp, for itself, while Fassbinder carefully frames other characters next to or through the cage, thereby increasing both its psychological weight and symbolic richness (this is an advance over his powerful use of the ‘caged bird’ imagery in The Stationmaster’s Wife). A prominent difference in adaptation is that while Jutzi, following the novel, devotes considerable screen time to Franz in the hospital, including an affecting moment when he first realizes that his arm has been amputated, Fassbinder all but eliminates this section (for reasons we’ll look at below).

What you miss most in Jutzi’s film is the complex richness of Döblin’s novel, that challenges us in profound ways to reevaluate our society and ourselves. Instead, what we have is a diverting drama, of a dumb but nice guy, that morphs into a generic gangster movie, with what could be characterized as a feel-good ending. No political turbulence, Jewish- or gay-friendly characters, or hallucinatory visions need apply.

One of the strengths of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is that he finds incisive ways to dramatize not only the novel but the damning history — as we’ve seen here regarding the radio and 1931 film versions — behind it.

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Book Review of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Below we’ll look at Fassbinder’s film in detail, but here I want to introduce editor Klaus Biesenbach’s exceptional Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz (Schirmer/Mosel Publishing, ISBN:9783829603102, hardcover 2007, $90.00).

This book is almost as monumental as the film. It includes Fassbinder’s complete screenplay in English translation, substantive essays by Fassbinder, Susan Sontag, and Biesenbach, 530 full color stills (plus several hundred black and white frames integrated into the screenplay section), as well as a comprehensive Fassbinder filmography and bibliography.

You can’t help but first notice its staggering dimensions: 664 pages, 12.2 x 9.6 x 2 inches, and weighing upwards of eight pounds. But anything less would be, well, less. This is not some glossy coffee table tome with which to impress your cinephile guests — or brandish at people who talk during your screening of the film. It offers insight into every aspect of the epic’s history, from Döblin’s novel to Fassbinder’s lifelong obsession with bringing it to the screen. It’s film writing at its best: equal parts rigorous scholarship and informed celebration.

Besides his insights into Berlin Alexanderplatz, Biesenbach provides a year-by-year biographical portrait of Fassbinder, a summary and production history for each one of Fassbinder’s 41 films, his complete theater and film credits (for his own films as well as those he appeared in, wrote and/or produced for others), as well as exhaustive listings of seemingly every article written on Fassbinder’s picture, from contemporary reviews to later analyses, plus a multilingual listing of perhaps every book yet written about Fassbinder. There are also many textual and historical photo resources devoted to Berlin and its Alexanderplatz neighborhood.

Another important aspect of this book is how it gorgeously, and sometimes savagely, reveals Fassbinder as a visual artist. Perhaps the worst misconception about Fassbinder, and one that I’ve dealt with in each of my reviews, is that his films are ‘stagy’ and hence not ‘cinematic’ — not true, as the hundreds of stills in this book, not to mention Fassbinder’s films in their entirety, reveal. His use of cinematic space — from both a psychological and aesthetic perspective — is masterly, from the beginning of his career (Katzelmacher, his second feature and based on his own play, is a visual masterpiece); and we can see it, in full riotous bloom, here in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Yes, the stills help us recapture moments from the epic, but they also show us Fassbinder’s visual genius in action.

Although Berlin Alexanderplatz, like all of Fassbinder’s works, stands — towers — on its own, the wealth of resources in Biesenbach’s book can only deepen our appreciation and enjoyment of this titanic work.

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Analysis — Fassbinder’s Film Berlin Alexanderplatz

This section focuses on several aspects of the 1980 Berlin Alexanderplatz:

  1. Fassbinder’s screenplay,
  2. comparison of Döblin and Fassbinder’s versions,
  3. production history,
  4. visual and sound style,
  5. Fassbinder’s revelations. (Above are background resources for Döblin and his novel).

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Fassbinder’s Screenplay

To make a sweeping generalization, Döblin’s novel — for all of its literary virtuosity — is actually simpler than it seems, while Fassbinder’s film — despite his seemingly conventional focus on character and narrative clarity — is more complex, in its counterpoint of action, image, sound, performance style and, not least, voice-over narration.

Let’s start, as Fassbinder did, with his literally towering screenplay.

Here is an overview of the script’s fourteen parts, including their cryptic individual titles, the scene numbers, the correspondence to Döblin’s novel (its nine parts are outlined above), how each relates to Franz, and details about the German television premiere. (The complete screenplay, in English translation, is included in the book Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz reviewed above.)

Outline of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

Part. Title — Script Scenes — Relates to Döblin — Focus on Franz… — First Broadcast / Length

1. The Punishment Begins. — 1 – 20 — Novel Part 1 — disoriented — October 12, 1980 / 90 minutes
2. How Is One To Live If One Doesn’t Want To Die? — 21 – 31 — Novel Part 2 — job to job — October 13 / 1 hour
3. A Hammer Blow To The Head Can Injure The Soul. — 31 – 53 — Novel Part 3 — trying to go straight — October 20 / 1 hour
4. A Handful Of People In The Depths Of Silence. — 54 – 70 — Novel Part 3 — bottoming out — October 27 / 1 hour
5. A Reaper With The Power Of Our Lord. — 71 – 83 — Novel Part 4 — for Reinhold — November 3 / 1 hour
6. Love Has Its Price. — 84 – 97 — Novel Part 5 — unwitting crime — November 10 / 1 hour
7. Remember — An Oath Can Be Amputated. — 98 – 107 — Novel Part 5 — rebuilding his life — November 17 / 1 hour
8. The Sun Warms The Skin, But It Burns It Sometimes Too. — 108 – 119 — Novel Part 6 — loving Mieze — November 24 / 1 hour
9. About The Eternities Between The Many And The Few. — 120 – 129 — Novel Part 6 — unspoken feelings — December 1 / 1 hour
10. Loneliness Tears Cracks Of Madness Even In Walls. — 130 – 140 — Novel Part 6 — settled — December 8 / 1 hour
11.Knowledge Is Power And The Early Bird Catches The Worm. — 141 – 155 — Novel Part 7 — unsettled — December 15 / 1 hour
12. The Serpent In The Soul Of The Serpent. — 156 – 162 — Novel Part 7 — blissfully in love — December 22 / 1 hour
13 — The Outside And The Inside And The Secret Of Fear Of The Secret. — 163 – 176 — Novel Part 8 — devastated — December 29 / 1 hour
14 — Epilogue: My Dream From The Dream Of Franz Biberkopf Of Alfred Döblin. — 177 – 224 — Novel Part 9 — madness to rebirth — December 29 also / 2 hours

What first strikes you about the screenplay, apart from its prodigious size, is how detailed it is, with thousands of specific camera angles — many of which the writer/director used. (It’s the opposite of today’s minimalist Hollywood script format, that eschews shot descriptions; screenwriters in the pre-1960s Hollywood studio system included detailed camera set-ups along with action descriptions and dialogue — but unlike Fassbinder, very few were also directors.)

Fassbinder knew that his screenplay had to be, well, letter perfect. His long-time friend Harry Baer, who most often worked with him as an actor, here is credited as Artistic Collaborator; together they spent three years researching the period. Berlin Alexanderplatz was going to be the largest-scale film in German television history… and it was on a very tight budget. (Below is a detailed production history.) As a director, Fassbinder knew that a solid script would allow the actors the freedom to focus on their performances, instead of fussing with pages of last-minute rewrites.

The screenplay is more than an historical artifact; it’s a good read, thanks to Fassbinder’s vivid writing and occasional jabs of humor in his descriptions — that only us readers will see. With his international fame already at its zenith, you wonder if he suspected that someday it would be read by people beyond the production staff and actors. Still, it was never intended as an autonomous work; it’s a dramatic text that needs actors and filmmaking to bring it to life.

There are some minor differences between the screenplay and finished picture. For instance, Fassbinder opted to replace some dramatized scenes with voice-over narration, which helps the overall pacing. We do not need to see the Abraham and Isaac near-sacrifice (as it appears in the script), when hearing it in VO (in the finished film) allows us to imagine it. Also, it might have detracted from the primary biblical reenactment: the jaw-dropping scene of Job sacrificing a live lamb.

Fassbinder removed a few (presumably filmed) sections of scenes, as at the beginning of part 5, where the screenplay’s first several shots, of chit-chat at Franz’s local bar, are removed. In the finished film the action begins abruptly, suggesting this material was shot but later cut to expedite the pivotal first meeting of Franz and Reinhold; the rest of the sequence plays as written. In the finished picture, Fassbinder sometimes goes against his script to begin or end some of the parts at a different point: part 6 starts one scene later, part 8 begins one scene earlier, and in part 9 he improvises a few moments before the screenplay kicks in. On one level, this juggling indicates how Fassbinder saw the film as a unified whole as opposed to an episodic series, despite the requirements of broadcast television.

If you come to Fassbinder’s film from Döblin’s novel, you might be wondering, Where did all the avant-garde go?

Although Fassbinder’s body of work, from the films he made as a teenager to his riotous final work, Querelle, is — in the richest and most probing sense — experimental, Berlin Alexanderplatz, on a cursory viewing, seems like his most straightforward and conventional movie, at least until the epilogue. Instead of Döblin’s literary pyrotechnics, and somewhat flat characters, Fassbinder gives us more vividly real people, heartfelt emotion, and tears (oh yes, I cried many times) than in any of his other films. No offense to Tolstoy, but he’s not the only one who can raise soap opera to the level of art.

Fassbinder understand that the narrative is what holds everything together — characters, emotion, visual and sound style, themes, and Fassbinder’s ultimately staggering vision. He refashions the source so that it’s comprised of dozens of 10-minute scenes that play out in real time, often with few or no cuts. This timing is not coincidental, since a film reel only holds 10 minutes of footage. (In Hitchcock’s dazzling 1948 thriller Rope, seemingly made in one continuous shot, he went to ingenious lengths to hide the reality that the camera needs a refill every sixth of an hour.) In a form strikingly different from Döblin’s polymorphous montages, Fassbinder gives us what seem like dozens of beautifully made one-act plays — but they build in cumulative effect.

A skilled dramatist, for both theatre and film, Fassbinder knew precisely how to structure every aspect of a scene, from where to begin and end it, to how it should flow, for maximum impact. Here, he almost seems to be overcompensating for Döblin’s hyperactive narrative, that may be centered on the Alexanderplatz but is, literally, all over the map, not to mention the space-time continuum.

Fassbinder pares away to the emotional core of Döblin’s characters — and he does so in a highly formal, effectively reductionistic way. Perhaps none of his other screenplays or plays can so easily be encapsulated in just a couple of words. In the outline above, I purposely used the column “Focus on Franz…” to show how basically simple, or rather intensely focused, each part is. Of course, there are always many peripheral events, but the core action/emotion of each part is crystal clear. For instance, in part 1, after his release from prison, the theme is Franz’s disorientation; part 10 is about him being settled, while part 11 is about him being unsettled; in part 14, a double-length episode, we go from Franz’s delirium to rebirth. Further, there is an accordion-like movement — from Franz lost, to Franz finding himself, then becoming lost in a new way, then finding himself in another way — until the epilogue. Fassbinder provides more structural closure, but no less ambiguity, than Döblin by enwrapping this benighted German everyman in the chaotic swirl of Germany history from the time just after the novel ends, and the Nazis seized control, to an apocalyptic future.

But taken as a whole, these discrete (although rarely discreet) “mini-plays” create an effect that is vastly more than the sum of its parts. While retaining the sociopolitical and mythic meaning of the novel, Fassbinder increases the effect by raising it to the level of ritual, specifically a purification rite. Like all of those, its purpose is to cleanse and then reintegrate a reborn self, either with society or the individual. In a way, Fassbinder has refined the underlying structure into a Passion of the Everyman, that incorporates Döblin’s biblical tropes but then adds to them a dramatic formalism that recalls the inexorable Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (several of which Fassbinder staged)

Fassbinder deviates most from the novel in Franz’s delirious visions in the epilogue. He strips away layer after layer not only of the crushed man’s self-deceptions but of Döblin’s tacit assumptions as well; and in the film’s most controversial aspect, Fassbinder lays bear not only his own body of work but perhaps his most hidden and tortured longings. This extended nigthmare vision at first may seem formless, but it’s not. Fassbinder follows Döblin’s basic pattern, that alternates scenes of Franz’s mental breakdown (such as ghosts and talking mice, although he makes the latter mute). But he gives these gruesome scenes a deeper resonance by inverting the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, so that we move down from a heavenly street (instead of Döblin’s literal cemetery) that’s part Alexanderplatz and part Cocteau-inspired limbo (Orpheus), to the purgatory of Freienwalde, to a hell that’s part Francisco Goya (Los Caprichos — “The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters” indeed), Gustave Doré (illustrations for Dante), Ken Russell (Mahler), Pier Palo Pasolini (Salò), and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (Our Hitler), but pure Fassbinder.

However, Fassbinder also clarifies the biblical underpinnings of Döblin by suggesting the Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross, which encapsulate Jesus’s final hours. Like this Via Crucis, Fassbinder divides his film into fourteen parts (instead of the novel’s nine); and like Döblin’s novel, it includes three “blows,” which may parallel the three times that Jesus falls on his way to crucifixion. Fassbinder climaxes his epilogue with a surreally literal crucifixion of Franz, that draws equally on Renaissance art and Pasolini’s living tableau parody of it in “La Ricotta”; Fassbinder ends this scene with both a whimper and a bang, as everything is engulfed in nuclear holocaust, all to the danceable strains of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (giving Kubrick a run for his Dr. Strangelove money, with the lugubrious “We’ll Meet Again” accompanying armageddon). Although Döblin was still years away from converting to Catholicism, he also may have conceived his novel, on one level, as a purification ritual, drawing on the Jewish traditions with which he was raised, for Franz and, by extension, the modern world. In the film’s epilogue, as we’ll see below, Franz’s rebirth also allows Fassbinder to depict his own ultimate revelations.

To borrow a Döblinesque biblical metaphor from Ezekiel, these manifold narrative layers work like wheels within wheels, within wheels, all meshing and working together — despite the sometimes cacophonous grating sound, as ancient clashes with modern, and urban life crushes the individual — to keep the action moving inexorably forward, like the traffic swirling around that transportation hub, the Alexanderplatz; or like Mieze and Reinhold and Franz all rushing to meet their fates.

Yet despite Fassbinder’s use of classical ‘well-made play’ structure (beginning, middle, and end — in that order), he finds ways not only to incorporate the dense non-linear essence of the novel but, arguably, to surpass it in emotional and thematic depth.

Fassbinder slyly alerts us to his multi-layered bent in the oracular titles he gives the fourteen parts. Although he uses phrases from the novel, they do not correspond with Döblin’s more playful ones. Note the basic form of X within Y within Z within…, in titles like “The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent” and that whopper, “The Outside and the Inside and the Secret of Fear of the Secret.” Peel back one layer, and you find another; and underneath that, there’s more… and yet more. Ironically yet revealingly, the most straightforward title — it describes exactly what we see — is also the most ambiguous: “Epilogue: My [Fassbinder’s] Dream From the Dream of Franz Biberkopf of Alfred Döblin.”

Although as noted above, the 1931 film creatively borrowed the frenetic montage of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, to depict Franz’s vertiginous streetcar ride, Fassbinder definitively cinematizes Döblin’s literary montage — in its essential form, as used throughout the novel — although only in the brief credits sequence that begins each part. As Fassbinder describes it in his screenplay, its 29 shots “are a montage of images of Berlin in the years 1919–1930… linked by the wheels of a tram as well as original archival footage… accompanied by [opera singer Richard Tauber’s] rendition of [composer Franz Lehár’s 1934] operetta Juditha [Giuditta]. The overall impression should be of the kind one would have walking down a street on a Sunday afternoon. Hearing the same request program pouring out of countless rooms and apartment on all sides; but the effect is far from homey, on the contrary, it feels sinister and eerie.” Unsettling, indeed: interspersed with shots of typical strollers, we see flashes of extreme poverty, social unrest, even a bit of period ‘adult material’ (a large naked buttocks). Fassbinder recontextualizes — both aurally and thematically — the aria “Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert!” (‘Friends, Every Day is Worth Living!”) from Lehár’s opera, not so loosely inspired by Bizet’s Carmen, with a text by Paul Knepler. The title is an apt summary of the full text, a paen to the joys of life (“Die herrliche Welt!” / “The wonderful world”) and the hoped-for love of an enticing “Signora … Signorina.” But the disconnection we see and hear — between the stock romanticism of the lyric and the stark period photos, as well as between the lushness of Lehár’s music and Tauber’s voice — sets up for the complex series of disconnections, from the psychological to the socioeconomic to the moral, that are the core of Fassbinder’s expansive vision.

Also like Döblin, Fassbinder employs flashback. But his focus, reflecting Franz’s point of view, is obsessively on one pivotal event: when, in a drunken rage, he accidentally killed his lover Ida. We return to this scene over a dozen times, but always from a different angle, both literally in terms of various camera angles and emotionally as reflected in Franz’s face and body, as well as in the reactions of Frau Bast who watches in voyeuristic horror.

As a segue into the next section, where we’ll examine Fassbinder’s complex and creative relationship to the novel, let’s take a representative scene from Döblin — Franz and Reinhold in the getaway car — and see how it’s transformed from screenplay to screen. First, the background.

The central relationship — that defines the entire novel — is not the heartbreaking romance of Franz and Mieze (who’s happy to support the man she loves through prostitution), but the no less passionate, although never directly spoken, relationship between Franz and Reinhold. Before examining the getaway scene, let’s compare how the two artists show the first meeting of Franz and Reinhold; both are from Franz’s point of view.

Although Fassbinder, at several points, turns up the men’s repressed desire to the boiling point (and then some), Döblin is more explicit in his description of the first time Franz, at his favorite pub, sees the vulnerably alluring criminal: “Franz felt tremendously attracted by him. He was slim, wore a shabby army coat — wonder if he’s a communist — and had a long, thin, yellowish face…. Franz couldn’t take his eyes off him. What sad eyes the fellow has. Probably been doing time [like I did]…” By contrast, Fassbinder’s screenplay is reticent, noting a shot of “Pums and Reinhold from Franz’s POV…. Reinhold looks at Franz with big, sad eyes… CS [close shot] of Franz giving Reinhold and Pums a very odd look….” Yet in the film, there is a look of tender yet raw longing in Franz’s face, matched only once, by how he later looks at Mieze in love.

Coming after more than fifteen hours is, in context, a scene almost as heartbreaking as the death of Mieze… almost. It’s the next to last meeting (in the ‘real world’) of Franz and Reinhold, on the police building’s stairway. Going down is Franz, on his way to the asylum, in a strait-jacket; going up, in handcuffs, is Reinhold. The screenplay is as circumspect as at their first meeting: Reinhold “gives [Franz] a long, sad look;” Franz can’t speak but “his gaze contains more tenderness than hatred” for the man he loves who’s murdered the woman he loves. On screen, with two consummate actors, you may find yourself like Reinhold weeping, in a brilliant and heartfelt directorial addition. The love of these two men, expressed in such twisted and fatal ways, still dares not speak it’s name; but the look they have for each other says it all.

Fassbinder uses the phantasmagorical epilogue to continue exploring their relationship in several horrifically ironic scenes, culminating in a boxing ring. Bodies glistening with sweat, they verbally then physically go at each other, while behind them — in rear projection, as if designed by Bosch — a looming crowd spins straight at them. This vertiginous background recalls a key motif in the novel, of the world tossing around as if engulfed in a whirlwind (Fassbinder repeats the most famous instance, when Franz imagines the roofs of houses shooting up into space, in an intermittent series of monologues). Little by little, the cheering/jeering fans come so close they all but suffocate the men. The crowd is a fascinating component, since it as split as the two men, simultaneously encouraging and mocking. But at last Reinhold and Franz climax their feelings for each other in raw no-holds-barred contact; love as a technical knockout.

Now, let’s look at the pivotal getaway scene, that divides their relationship, and sets their lives on the course that determines everything that follows.

Fassbinder follows Döblin almost to the letter, including the punctuation of Franz’s nervous laughter, but with less (dated) slangy dialogue. In the novel, Reinhold sneers, “Watcha laughin’ at, you monkey, what’s the matter, you crazy or somethin’?” We also get to hear Reinhold’s thoughts, which are a rationalization for what he’s about to do: “The lazy hound, the good-for-nothing bum! Suddenly something flashes over Reinhold…. that’s that fellow Biberkopf, who left him in the lurch, who gets his janes to leave him, he’s got the goods on him, the fresh, fat sucker…” Now comes a point where Fassbinder follows the novel word for word — in his ambiguous, yet typical, voice-over narration. Here comes a double (literary) sucker punch, aimed straight at us. Before Reinhold shoves Franz out the door, Döblin — and Fassbinder, recited in his deadpan narrator’s voice, in striking contrast to the texts — shoves us into a Romantic prose poem, then a biblical prophet.

The first insertion, that may be a pastiche by Döblin, is so vivid you could imagine it being painted by the eerily sublime Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich: “Water in the black forest, you lie so mute. In terrible repose you lie. Your surface does not move, when there is a storm in the forest, and the firs begin to bend, and the spider-webs are torn between the branches, and there is a sound of splitting. The storm does not penetrate you.” In a moment, we’ll be able to relate this to the indomitable Franz, after the “second hammer blow” falls and he loses his arm.

Immediately following is the second interjection. One of many biblical references, it’s a redacted version of Jeremiah 17: “Cursed be the man, saith Jeremiah, that trusteth in man; he shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” If you look up the reference, you see that Döblin pares away the original context, which is about God being mad at the “sin of Judah,” defined as clinging to pagan ways by worshipping in “their groves by the green trees.” Döblin recontextualizes the Bible so that it, on a surface level, fits his general theme of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’

Yet the intensity of the prophet’s fiery words may also reflect the subtextual passion of Franz and Reinhold. What Fassbinder adds, to both the novel and his own laconic screenplay, is the unmistakable homoerotic subtext: cue the sweat and light it so it glistens like diamonds. (Throughout the film, and regardless of gender, perspiration is a fetishistic trope for desire; and glistening glittering things become a key metaphor.) By the way in which Fassbinder stages and films the scene, he makes us wonder if Reinhold doesn’t push Franz out of the speeding car not just to stop their pursuers, but because his own (speeding) emotional intensity is too much for him to bear. To underscore this subtext, Fassbinder flashes the same phrase that gave its title to the entire part 6: “Love Has Its Price.”

For all of this narrative density, what makes Fassbinder’s version so rich are the characters. While they are embodiments of Döblin’s, Fassbinder intensifies them by focusing on their psychological and emotional complexity. He accomplishes that not only through structuring his script around them, instead of the novel’s swirl of fragments, but by casting exceptional actors, many of whom he’d been working with for over a decade in both theatre and film. As director, he knows how to shape performances while yet allowing his cast the freedom to turn these characters into unforgettable flesh and blood people. In the novel, the narrator is the most vivid characters; in Fassbinder, it’s everyone, from Franz, Mieze and Reinhold to peripheral characters like Frau Bast. The result is so real and compelling, that the 15-1/2 hour running time can feel more like fifteen minutes.

Now, let’s take a close look at the complex relationship between book and Fassbinder.

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A Comparison of Döblin and Fassbinder’s Versions

What may first strike readers of Döblin is how faithful the film is to the novel’s hundreds of incidents yet, paradoxically, how it emerges as a work that is quintessentially Fassbinder’s, from psychology and social critique to cinematic technique, all of which unite to embody his incisive vision.

What might have caused Fassbinder to have such a strong and enduring connection to Döblin, to the point that throughout his entire life he dreamed, and planned, of making a film worthy of Berlin Alexanderplatz?

Intellectually, Döblin’s expansive range of interests, from science to myth to literature to modern media — and his ability to make fresh connections between them — also appealed to a man of insatiable intellectual appetites like Fassbinder.

Biographically, there were formative experiences that Döblin and Fassbinder also shared. Both were the sons of physician fathers who left their families: Döblin’s when he was ten, Fassbinder’s when he was five.

Fassbinder revealed, in his 1980 essay on the novel, that it not only changed his life when he was about 13 or 14, but saved it. Tormented by the realization that he was gay, it was Döblin’s compassionate understanding that moved him to begin accepting himself. As he wrote, it “provided genuine, naked, concrete life support when I was really at risk during puberty…. it helped me avoid going under.” Still, he accuses Döblin of “cowardice” in how he fails sufficiently to un-closet Franz’s and Reinhold’s relationship, “possibly out of an inexplicable timidity towards the prevailing morality of his time and his class, possibly out of the subconscious fear of a man who was somehow personally implicated [in a same-sex relationship].” While never inventing any explicit scenes for the two men, Fassbinder in his film manages to reveal the intensity of their passion, through nuances in performance and visual strategies.

He also responded to Döblin’s larger healing vision — of understanding, acceptance, and love, regardless of a person’s social standing or outsider status or sexual orientation. You can see this expressed throughout Fassbinder’s own works. Whether his play or films, they arguably contain no definitional “villains,” just confused, sometimes desperate, but always vulnerable real people. As Fassbinder wrote, Döblin “teaches the reader to see these characters, reduced to mediocrity, with the greatest tenderness, and to love them in the end.”

Historically, Fassbinder appreciated how Döblin gave a voice to the millions of down-and-out Germans who yet somehow managed to survive. Fassbinder also saw disturbing parallels between the dying Weimar Republic and the authority-craving populace of 1980, who clamored for the government to take away their freedoms to “stop terrorists” like the Baader-Meinhof Gang (dissected by Fassbinder in The Third Generation). Throughout his body of work, Fassbinder selectively but sharply commented on his national history: from the doomed medieval Peasants’ Revolt (Niklashausen Journey), to nineteenth century Prussia (Effi Briest), to Weimar (Berlin Alexanderplatz), to the Nazi era (Lili Marleen), to the postwar “Economic Miracle” (the BRD Trilogy), to his contemporary 1970s Germany, where most of his films are set, veering between tense domesticity (The Merchant of Four Seasons) and revolution (The Third Generation), and sometimes both at the same time (Mother Küster’s Goes to Heaven).

As Fassbinder pointed out, Döblin’s novel bubbled up in countless ways throughout his entire career. Self-conscious about wearing too many different production caps (writer, producer, director, and more), Fassbinder edited his films under the in-joke pseudonym of “Franz Walsch” — the first name for Biberkopf, the second for American director Raoul Walsh (White Heat)

Fassbinder named several characters Franz, often connecting them through psychology or story to Döblin’s Biberkopf. Plus there are many plot elements, scenes and motifs, throughout his films, that refer directly to the novel. This chronological list, extending from his first picture to his last, is not exhaustive, but it indicates the pervasive influence of the book throughout his career, in ways both large and small:

  • Love is Colder Than Death — plot and emotional dynamics similar to the novel, with a Franz (played by Fassbinder) sharing his prostitute girlfriend with the male criminal he may be in love with.
  • Gods of the Plague — opens like the novel and both film versions with Franz (now played by Harry Baer) walking out of prison and trying to start a new life; also about criminal underworld and their complex intimacies, including bisexuality.
  • The American Soldier — the explosive results of repressed same-sex longing, with parallels to the novel’s Franz and Reinhold.
  • Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? — a German Everyman tries, desperately, to lead a good life, until the pressure causes him to crack.
  • The Niklashausen Journey — connections between personal needs and politics; visually, as in the major scene in Pums’ office and in Franz and Lina’s walk down a busy street at night, Fassbinder uses multiple planes of crisscrossed — physically counterpointed — action.
  • Whity — title character comparable to Franz, despite the very different setting (this is Fassbinder’s revisionist Western).
  • Beware of a Holy Whore — confined locale (instead of Döblin’s Berlin, it’s a German movie crew making a film at a hotel in Spain) that acts as a pressure cooker, exposing both the individuals and, by extension, the larger social forces working through them; also like Döblin’s novel, it’s an eclectic and witty satire.
  • The Merchant of Four Seasons — hawking wares and the toll it takes; the difficulty of trying to lead a decent life.
  • The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant — claustrophobic interiors, and scenes that play out in long continuous takes.
  • Martha — the swirling camera around frozen characters, as in Berlin Alexanderplatz’s memorable ‘subway station tableau.’
  • Ali: Fear Eats the Soul — a heartbreaking love story of outsiders.
  • Effi Briest — Fassbinder as narrator, literally becoming the voice of a novelist he cherishes; Brechtian use of intertitles.
  • Fox and His Friends — this is Fassbinder’s explicitly gay reworking of Döblin, in which he names his character, the only lead role he ever gave himself, Franz Biberkopf.
  • Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven — a naive person is drawn into radical politics.
  • Fear of Fear — an Every(wo)man’s descent into madness.
  • The Stationmaster’s Wife / Bolwieser — tortured, intimate relations; also shots of victrolas.
  • In a Year With 13 Moons — a transgender version of Job; also the slaughterhouse motif, here shown in real time unlike Berlin Alexanderplatz’s montage of vintage photographs.
  • The Marriage of Maria Braun — the seductive connections between business, sex and crime.
  • The Third Generation — political revolutionaries; also use of a dense overlapping soundtrack.
  • Lola — sex, business, and crime.
  • Veronika Voss — her surreal tram ride is Fassbinder’s version of Franz’s similar ride (discussed above); he may have had to omit it from Berlin Alexanderplatz for budgetary reasons.
  • Querelle — the sadomasochistic surrealism of Berlin Alexanderplatz’s epilogue comes to full flowers-of-evil bloom.

Now, let’s look at the mechanics of the adaptation, and then at the thematic implications of what Fassbinder removed and added.

Of his 43 films, Fassbinder adapted only a few works, not counting his own stage plays. Those adaptations include Goldoni’s play The Coffeehouse, Marieluise Fleisser’s play Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Daniel Francis Galouye’s science fiction novel Simulacron 3 — retitled World on a Wire, Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House — retitled Nora Helmer, Cornell Woolrich’s short story “For the Rest of Her Life” — retitled Martha, Fontane’s novel Effi Briest, Clare Booth Luce’s play The Women — retitled Women in New York, Oskar Maria Graf’s novel Bollwieser — retitled The Stationmaster’s Wife, Nabokov’s novel Despair, and Genet’s novel Querelle.

Although Berlin Alexanderplatz is the most avant-garde of the works he adapted, it’s surprisingly notable for its surface naturalism, at least until the hair-raising epilogue. Besides ‘straightening out’ the narrative line, his most dramatic change is one of emphasis. Ironically, he removes Döblin’s subtitle — “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” — although his version focuses resolutely on the character.

Döblin’s scenes are often sketchy, whereas Fassbinder rewrites them to wring out every last drop of their searing emotional potential, while yet stripping away much of Döblin’s melodramatic bent — not to mention his excessive, if authentic, period street slang. Fassbinder has an uncanny gift for being able to pinpoint where and how melodrama transforms into human truth. This had been a subsidiary goal of Fassbinder’s since in 1971 he turned to revisionist melodrama, as a vehicle for his political and aesthetic goals; but it comes to full fruition in this film.

While Döblin’s book is steeped in cinema — its major influences, Joyce and Dos Passos, both experimented with literary montage techniques — Fassbinder, if anything, makes it into one of his most theatrical films, with extended scenes that develop in continuous time. But Fassbinder’s relationship to the novel is more intricate than it might first seem, as he simultaneously expands and contracts its narrative, making it more concrete but also, in some ways, more abstract yet resonant.

All of Fassbinder’s changes to characters are small but not minor, as he humanizes them in ways that Döblin does not. For instance, the novel caricatures Franz’s first post-prison lover, “Polish Lina,” but as rewritten by Fassbinder and subtly portrayed by Elisabeth Trissenaar (title role in The Stationmaster’s Wife), we see all of her vulnerabilities; when she shrieks at Franz for (cluelessly) selling pro-gay literature, it’s because she frightened of losing the man she loves rather than some stereotypical homophobia.

The novel and film’s most important woman character, and the great female love of Franz’s life, is of course Mieze, who follows a long line of previous girlfriends, virtually all of whom Franz “volunteered” to take off Reinhold’s hand (he loved the conquest but hated commitment). Not all of Döblin’s authorial skill can begin to achieve the level of heartbreakingly real pathos in Barbara Sukowa’s performance. For me, hers is the most affecting, but never for a frame cloying, portrayal of a vulnerable character that I’ve seen in film, with Giulietta Masina coming in close behind with Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). (It will come as no surprise that Fassbinder had Sukowa study Masina’s performances, as preparation for her role.) Mieze, in both the novel and film, is so compelling because of her depth. She’s not all sweetness and light, like a doomed Dickens waif; she can let out with a barbaric yawp, as when she uncovers Franz’s plan to have Reinhold watch them have sex.

That pivotal scene is a clear illustration of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 1985 literary study Between Men, in which she exposes how two males will use a “shared” woman to displace their forbidden sexual feelings for each other. (Woody Allen might have summed up their dilemma with the lines from his Manhattan (1979), “I’m both attracted and repelled by the male organ…. So it doesn’t make for good relationships with men.”) Döblin and Fassbinder offer a parallel lesbian scene, with Mieze and Eva perhaps using Franz as a refractive point for their love. Eva, who loves Franz but can’t bear children, wants Mieze to have “their baby.” The novel’s version of this scene is a bit more dramatic than Fassbinder’s. Eva says, “‘Sure, you’re queer, Sonia [Mieze’s real name].’ ‘No, I’m not queer, I never touched a girl before in all my life.’ ‘But you’d like to touch me.’ ‘Yes, it’s because I love you so and you want a child by him…'”

About Reinhold, Fassbinder makes it even clearer than in the novel that he is not stock villain. Rather it’s Berlin, the soulless and soul-crushing city, that is the antagonist for all of the characters; it’s what brings out the worst in everyone. Gottfried John is a defining Reinhold, not only matching Döblin’s description — in his combination of bony cheeks and indefinable sexual allure — but because he also conveys the heel’s vulnerability, which is sometimes almost as affecting as Mieze’s, as well as his treachery. Although the heterosexual John confessed to having some difficulty playing the then-rare gay scene, after he’s become head over heels in love with his cell mate Konrad, his reticence — as Fassbinder certainly realized when he cast the role — only makes the character seem more real. Reinhold proves perhaps the most dramatic example of both Döblin and Fassbinder’s radically inclusive empathy.

In the film, Meck (Franz Buchrieser), Franz’s best friend, is not only more emotionally layered than in Döblin, he allows Fassbinder to remove an extraneous character. Now it’s Meck (instead of the flunky alternately called Oskar or Karl Matter) who helps Reinhold hide Mieze’s body; this makes Meck’s betrayal of Franz, and his remorse, much more affecting. In fact, it’s possible to see Fassbinder’s interpretation of Meck, and Franz’s other male friends — the vendor in the subway, the sexually ambiguous squirt Willy (Döblin describes him as being more conventionally “cute” than the actor cast), Baumann, even blond Bruno — in a more homosocial light than in Döblin. But as with the key Franz and Reinhold relationships, it’s all in subtleties of body language, and proximity, as well as lighting and composition.

Perhaps the most important, if subtle, change made to the novel’s cast of characters is Frau Bast — played by Brigitte Mira, who gave two of the greatest performances in Fassbinder’s, or anyone’s, films, with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. Frau Bast is barely mentioned in Döblin, but Fassbinder makes her an omnipresent figure, always quietly hovering in the background of Franz’s apartment in her boarding house. In a way, she’s like the novel’s omniscient narrator who, in one of the book’s classic scenes, literally ‘walks through the walls’ of every dwelling in an apartment building and tells us what’s going on. Fassbinder’s Frau Bast, on the one hand, is, along with Eva (Hanna Schygulla), the warmest and most dependable character in the film. Yet at the same time, she’s an inveterate snoop — listening at doors, peering through key holds — and, alas, it’s not hard to imagine how well she might fit into the Nazi regime, collecting rent from her boarders while earning a little extra by keeping the Gestapo informed about their level of patriotism. On a metaphorical level, Frau Bast could be read as Fassbinder’s sly metaphor for cinema, that most literal and voyeuristic medium.

Speaking of Franz’s apartment, it is Fassbinder’s most important locational change from the novel. There, Franz lives in a series of different apartments, basically one for each new girlfriend. But by combining all of those flats into one, Fassbinder gives it a psychological edge: Franz becomes his cramped apartment; its condition, whether tidy or chaotic, reflecting his inner state. Also, it becomes increasingly charged with memories, most prominently as the scene of his accidental murder of his girlfriend Ida (with Frau Bast watching, of course) hence, it’s a constant reminder of all that Franz has attempted and, before Mieze, failed at achieving.

In a way, the single greatest difference between the novel and film is the narrator. We’ve already looked at the many, sometimes wildly contradictory, layers that comprise Döblin’s alternately snarky and sublime narrator — the persona that selects what we see, and whose multifarious language defines how we perceive it. Fassbinder’s narrator is, ironically, a dramatic contrast to the novel’s in his utter lack of drama. Fassbinder uses a monotone for his voice-over narration, as he did in Effi Briest — but Fontane and Döblin are, in more ways than one, worlds apart. Fassbinder’s interpretation of this persona is intriguing, not least for its completely deadpan approach to what set Döblin’s narrator into one verbal frenzy after another. In the film, the restrained emotion presents a striking, and hence involving, contrast to the emotionally charged performances and evocative visual/sound design. (Notably, when we do see Fassbinder on screen, briefly in the epilogue — flanked by the two androgynous, punked-out angels Terah and Sarug — he is silent.)

In Döblin, the narrator is the novel; in Fassbinder, he functions as one more essential note, metaphorically speaking, of the chord that is the sum total of all of the film’s parts, from narrative to performance to style. (Speaking of music: this novel continues to belt out, in high C#, a plea for an operatic or musical theatre version, with points for eschewing the obvious Brecht and Weill, or Kander and Ebb, pastiche. It might be effective to go for an eclectic melding of Rossini’s energetic melodies (The Barber of Seville) and Alban Berg’s evocative formalism (Lulu). Fassbinder had a passion for, and vast knowledge of, opera; one can only imagine what he might have done as librettist and director of such a production, not least with the trio for Franz, Mieze, and Reinhold as he hides under Franz’s bed (part Marriage of Figaro, part Rosenkavalier, part Wozzeck), climaxing with Mieze’s coloratura, and then a melting love duet for her and Franz.)

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Production History

Let’s take a breather, now that we’ve scrutinized the screenplay and Fassbinder’s complex narrative strategy, and learn the history of how the script became the film. A major source for this section are two fascinating new documentaries, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: A Mega Movie and its Story and Restoring Berlin Alexanderplatz, both by filmmaker Juliane Lorenz. She edited Berlin Alexanderplatz and Fassbinder’s last dozen other pictures, and heads the Fassbinder Foundation. Her two documentaries here, that include recent interviews with all major cast and crew, are an indispensable part of the Criterion Collection box set. (Ms. Lorenz has also made the exceptional Fassbinder documentary, 1998’s feature-length Life, Love & Celluloid, that is included in the Wellspring release of The Merchant of Four Seasons.)

Fassbinder was the most prodigiously busy, as well as gifted, filmmaker of recent decades, often getting up to write his next picture at dawn, then filming his current project all day, and editing all night.

In June 1979, he began shooting Berlin Alexanderplatz; in September his incendiary political satire The Third Generation hit cinemas (some rioting ensued), and in New York The Marriage of Maria Braun made its triumphant premiere, opening the New York Film Festival, then playing at a theatre for 54 consecutive weeks — around the globe, it was his most financially successful film. In early 1980 Fassbinder did the narration for the short film “Last Trip to Harrisburg” (released in 1984; it was co-directed by his actor-friend Udo Kier). In April he wrapped production on Berlin Alexanderplatz, then while it was in post-production, from July through September he shot the lavish Lili Marleen, starring Hanna Schygulla and Giancarlo Giannini. Simultaneously he wrote two scripts: one based on Pitigrilli’s 1921 novel Cocaine, and the other original, Hurrah, We’re Still Alive. In August the opening part of Berlin Alexanderplatz premiered at the Venice Film Festival; during its controversial broadcast, from October through December, Fassbinder was in pre-production on Lola, starring Barbara Sukowa.

Because of the unprecedented demands of making the largest-scale picture in German television history, requiring thousands of performers and personnel, it was co-financed by Germany’s WDR and Bavaria Studios, and Italy’s RAI. WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln) is a public broadcasting institution based in North Rhine-Westphalia, with its main office in Cologne (Köln) — Berlin Alexanderplatz was first broadcast through WDR’s parent organization ARD (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland — “Consortium of public-law broadcasting institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany”), a joint organization of Germany’s regional public-service broadcasters; Bavaria Film Studios, located in Munich’s Geiselgasteig district, is Europe’s largest movie production facility; and RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) is Italy’s leading public service network.

Fassbinder alternated freely between working in theatre, film, and television; about a dozen of his 41 features were made for German TV, including two of his best, Martha and The Stationmaster’s Wife.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was budgeted at around DEM 12,500,000. Having crunched some numbers, I found that — at historical currency exchange rates — in 1980 one DEM was worth $.58 US; then converting the sum into 2007 US dollars, it translates to roughly $9 million. (That figure tallies with what producer Günter Rohrbach — who was then head of Bavaria Studios, where he oversaw Das Boot — said in the documentary, that it “cost about 6,500 euros for a minute of screen time; you can’t produce anything for that amount today” in 2007.)

There was serendipity in the production schedule, since Fassbinder was able to use the colossal street set, of 1920s Berlin, left over from Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg. Even with that, the initial estimate for a 200-day shoot had to be trimmed down to 193 days, when the cost of sets went over budget. Fassbinder, a shrewd producer in his own right, decided he could bring the picture in in just 156 days, which he did. Because of his meticulous planning, in both the screenplay and logistics — and because he had worked closely before with almost every actor and crew member — he was able to shoot six minutes of footage a day. Incredibly for a film with such intricate camera work, he was able to finish most scenes in just one take. This ‘speed shooting’ was a technique he had used on many of his films, not only for budgetary reasons but because both he and the cast knew that it could bring out a spontaneity that multiple retakes might inhibit. In the documentary, Barbara Sukowa praises Fassbinder’s “sensitivity… especially when it came to the emotionally difficult scenes.” Even with their rigorous ten-month schedule, it’s good to see archival footage of Fassbinder and the cast and crew finding some time for the occasional pickup soccer game.

Fassbinder put a then 22-year-old Juliane Lorenz in charge of editing his epic; she had already cut his previous half-dozen films. Each day he had her put together a rough cut, as soon as the film was processed, so that it could be reviewed right away. As she says in the documentary she directed, “Fassbinder made the film with total discipline…. But we didn’t find it at all stressful…. There were no mobile phones or computers. And it was all analog editing. It was all hand-made.” By all accounts, there was a spirited optimism on the set, and production advanced quickly.

However, Fassbinder took a somewhat different directorial approach with his star, and alter ego, Günter Lamprecht (best known to non-German audiences from Wolfgang Petersen‘s Das Boot as Captain of the Weser) Before his career-defining performance as Franz Biberkopf, Lamprecht had worked with Fassbinder on three pictures: World on a Wire playing Fritz Walfang (this two-part 1973 TV film was Fassbinder’s only stab at science fiction; it was remade in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor), Martha (1974) as Dr. Salomon, and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) as Hans Wetzel. As a youth Lamprecht, born in 1930, trained to make prosthetic devices by day, while doing amateur boxer by night, until he found his true calling at theatrical legend Max Reinhardt’s acting school in Berlin. At that time, Lamprecht now laughs, “I was never able to finish reading Berlin Alexanderplatz!” Thirty years later, “I gave up eleven months of my life and had to gain a lot of weight” to bring the character to life — and, I would add, to create one of the most indelible performances in screen history. Fassbinder, to elicit the performance he needed from Lamprecht, kept his distance from the actor until they were on set. Then he used the actor’s anxiety, at the rapid pace of filming (“I didn’t know if I could keep up,” says Lamprecht) — not to mention the physical pain of keeping his arm in a special device to simulate it’s being amputated — to bring out the Franz’s harried, and ultimately disintegrating, nature. Afterwards, Lamprecht was delighted to be able to shed the weight he’d had to gain to play the role (as defined by Döblin and Fassbinder). He said, “As I became slimmer, I became Günter Lamprecht again.”

(It’s interesting to note that in his collected writings, Anarchy of the Imagination, Fassbinder talked about wanting to make a parallel theatrical feature version of Berlin Alexanderplatz, starring Gérard Depardieu as Franz and Isabelle Adjani as Mieze; but he died too soon. As an aside, among US actors of the time, the Frederic Forrest of Coppola’s 1982 One From the Heart would have made an ideal Franz.)

One intriguing aspect of watching many, or all, of Fassbinder’s films is seeing how he uses each actor to bring a special resonance because of their previous roles. Almost all of Fassbinder’s venerable “stock company” appears in Berlin Alexanderplatz. To take just one example, Raúl Gimenez had just played the oily if charismatic nihilist in The Third Generation, but here he’s an ideal incarnation of, at once, a fleshed-out version of Döblin’s sketchy character and one of author Jean Genet’s criminal-saints. The Konrad/Reinhold love scene was clearly based on Genet’s only film as a director, the powerful Un Chant d’Amour — Fassbinder’s final film was based on Genet’s novel Querelle.

Although Schwarzenberger proved a brilliant choice as director of photography — and he would shoot all of Fassbinder’s remaining films — he had not been hired initially. Originally Fassbinder’s longtime collaborator Michael Ballhaus (who now shoots all of Martin Scorsese’s pictures) was to film the epic. But after shooting a movie with another director, after his previous work with Fassbinder on The Marriage of Maria Braun, he felt he was being “punished.” Reportedly, Fassbinder refused to speak to Ballhaus directly, instead he sent messages through an assistant. Whatever really happened, Ballhaus quit and Schwarzenberger was hired.

The first challenge was to shoot in 16mm, as the budget demanded, and still make the epic look like an epic. Today Schwarzenberger can laugh at “that ridiculous little 16mm, not even Super 16mm,” but his and Fassbinder’s achievement is extraordinary — although the full power of the visuals can only be seen today, after a painstaking restoration. What television audiences saw in 1980 was very different, and to most of them so literally “dark and ugly” — most TV sets, with their low image resolution, could not reproduce what Fassbinder had envisioned — that it caused an uproar along the lines of “that junk is where our taxes is going!” At least critics, who were behind Fassbinder, Herzog, and other filmmakers of New German Cinema, loved it. But its literally and figuratively dismal first broadcast relegated the film to the vaults, essentially for the next quarter century.

The meticulous, and miraculous, frame by frame restoration took two years, being completed for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fassbinder’s death in 2007. It was personally supervised by the original editor, Juliane Lorenz, and cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger. Lorenz’s fascinating documentary, Restoring Berlin Alexanderplatz, reveals the titanic effort required to restore the film — repairing tears, correcting faded color, “de-flickering” the image, removing superfluous grain but leaving enough to reproduce the inherent nature of film as opposed to video — and to create a new permanent digital master for archival purposes. In 2007, Berlin Alexanderplatz had a triumphant revival at film festivals and museums around the world, including Berlin Film Festival and Museum of Modern Art; that fully restored version is what you will see in the Criterion Collection set, along with the documentaries, the 1931 version, and more.

At last, Berlin Alexanderplatz exists as Fassbinder envisioned it. And it can be seen as one of his, as well as both television’s and cinema’s, greatest achievements. Much of its power comes not only from its narrative and performances, that we’ve looked at above, but in how Fassbinder brilliantly uses visual and aural style to expand its meaning.

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Visual and Sound Style

Paradoxically, Fassbinder was sometimes at his best cinematically when a film seemed most theatrical. We saw that with the stunning compositions and camera movements, at once psychologically penetrating and visually opulent, in Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, set entirely within one apartment. As we’ll see here, the effect is even more profound in Berlin Alexanderplatz. We’ve already explored how Fassbinder recast Franz’s life, and the plot of Döblin’s non-linear novel, into a formal, almost ritualistic, series of 10-minute scenes that play out in real time. The dramatic intensity is riveting, but so is the more subtle cinematic intensity that comes from the precise coordination of visual and aural elements. (Knowing that this was usually achieved in just one take borders on the miraculous.)

That technical virtuosity is impressive because it reveals not only the characters’ psychological states through inflections of image and sound, but also thematic commentary taken to a visceral level. Here, pictures speak louder than words, even when it’s Fassbinder doing the narration. All of these techniques complement, and sometimes counterpoint, each other not only to refract in a new medium the multi-layered density of the original novel, but to go beyond it. Much happened in Germany in the half century since the book’s publication, and while Fassbinder dramatizes some of that — making the rise of the Nazis more pointed than in Döblin — he also consistently uses cinematic-based inflections to get under the skins of these people and their world, as we’ve seen in his multiplex understanding of Franz and Reinhold’s ‘dare not speak its name’ relationship. Let’s look at some specific way in which Fassbinder uses visual and sound style to make his Berlin Alexanderplatz more than the sum of its parts.

For all of its stylistic integrity, Fassbinder quotes, reworks, and/or plays with several other films, putting Berlin Alexanderplatz in an eclectic tradition. Besides Un Chant d’Amour and Fassbinder’s own films noted above, you can see Bertolucci’s 1970 The Conformist (shot by Vittorio Storaro) and Coppola’s 1972 The Godfather (shot by Gordon Willis), in the autumnal orange, brown, gold and black palette that defines the look of the entire film; the low angle on Pums at his crime lord’s desk is a witty homage to the opening scene of The Godfather. Of course, the artistic ‘godfather’ of that palette, and use of shadow, is Rembrandt. Fassbinder’s depiction of what he calls the “Babylon Street” gives a nod to the doomed ‘tower of sexual grotesques’ in the early part of Fellini Satyricon, while both look back to their source, the surreal comic horrors of Hieronymus Bosch: in the epilogue, that outfellinis Fellini, Fassbinder even plays some scenes against a gigantic blowup of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (circa 1504). But as Fassbinder and cinematographer Schwarzenberger acknowledged, the major cinematic influence was Josef von Sternberg (although more in his restrained phase, as with 1930’s Blue Angel, than the deliriously inspired later masterpieces like 1932’s Blonde Venus or 1934’s Scarlet Empress).

Sternberg, working of necessity in black and white, could only put color in his titles; but Fassbinder, lacking our digital means of easily desaturating footage, created a pervasive monochrome effect through careful design. As Schwarzenberger put it, they did “black and white in color” — although ‘black and shades of gray in color’ is closer to what we see, now that he and editor Lorenz have restored the picture’s intended color spectrum. Notably, the film opens, with Franz and the guard at the gate of Tegel, in completely natural color.

But as soon as Franz is ‘cast out’ of the prison’s relative safety, the green, blue and most of the red drain away. On those rare occasions when we do see red — including over-eager lips and, rarely but shockingly, blood — the effect is electrifying, because of the controlled palette as well as the drama. Another visually striking moment comes during the suggestive scene of Franz and Reinhold chatting each other up in the urinal, soon after they meet: despite his devilish character (satirized in the epilogue) Fassbinder here identifies Reinhold with an electrifying blue color, that is repeated in several other of his scenes. Despite these purposely jarring bursts of red and blue, for most of the film we exist in a world that reflects Franz’s, and the other characters’, literally dismal lives: Fassbinder, following Döblin, focuses almost exclusively on Berlin’s down and out (and the few professionals we see, like the catty physicians, are no better). This shadowy world, with who knows what going on in the darkest corners, looks literally ‘dirty,’ but not entirely.

Subtly swirling in the air we just barely see countless particles of light. This diffusion effect is achieved by putting a silk stocking over the camera lens and then shooting on a set filled with smoke or fog. But it has emotional impact because, like the use of color, it externalizes the characters’ inner psychological states. Its compositional counterpart is seen in the frequent use of visual indirection: Fassbinder, as in many of his other films, uses queasy shots in mirrors that slightly distort them, or angles through strong geometrical frames, such as windows, doorways, stairwells or various bars (from the bird cage to the prison-like rooms at the asylum) that trap the characters. In a couple of virtuosic shots — Franz and Lina’s walk along a crowded nocturnal street, and a major Pums Gang meeting in their boss’ office — that recall the ambitious but uneven Niklashausen Journey, Fassbinder choreographs multiple simultaneous planes of action, with each one moving at opposite angles to the others: he has turned people into the bars of their own living cage.

In another stand-out sequence, even more ambitious than the classic shot in Martha with the camera swirling faster and faster around the actors, Fassbinder freezes the action in the subway station, and then gives the camera all of the moves, while it prowls, and all but pounces, on the static men. Much more common are long continuous takes that visually suggest the emotional blockage and tension of the characters, not to mention their obsessiveness, as they stare a little too long at things.

Another visual metaphor, that creeps rather than leaps into your perception, is the strange lens flares, that give a corona — often in a star-burst pattern — to characters. It’s as if what little light there is in this world is either murky or radioactive…. which brings us to Alain Resnais’s 1959 modernist landmark, Hiroshima mon amour. It opens, unforgettably, with a man and woman making love, although what we can’t take our eyes off of is the unearthly glitter that covers them. As Marguerite Duras wrote in her original screenplay, it’s like they were “drenched with ashes, rain, dew, or sweat…. deposited by the atomic ‘mushroom’…” Although Fassbinder doesn’t go literally nuclear until his epilogue, there seems to be a connection between Resnais’s prologue and the infrequent but astonishing use of sparkling particles throughout his film. (A common inspiration for both may be the poetically ambiguous glitter in Cocteau’s 1945 Beauty and the Beast — Cocteau may also play a starring, if behind the scenes, role in Fassbinder’s mind-bending epilogue.) The shimmering suggests that we are briefly moving into a strange, even spiritual, realm. This seems especially clear when we see the ghostly Mieze covered in the stuff. But Fassbinder, never mawkish, knows how to add just enough irony to make the effect effective, along the lines of that disco ball he puts in his vision of hell (even Dante never envisioned a literal ‘disco inferno’).

Those brief flips from the natural to supernatural, that explode in the final two hours, indicate a crucial aspect of the entire film, that is even more powerful than in the novel. Franz, like his world, exists in a tense liminal state — betwixt and between — and almost every visual and aural aspect of the film makes us feel what that means.

Maybe the best in-joke in the film occurs early on, when Franz walks past a theatre. Although Fassbinder doesn’t specify it’s name in the script, we can see it on the marquee: The Marienbad. Yes, another reference to Resnais, here to his inexhaustible 1961 labyrinth, Last Year at Marienbad, that may offer a key to Fassbinder’s film. As noted earlier, Berlin Alexanderplatz only seems to be naturalistic (in part because of how it ‘straightens out’ Döblin’s narrative lines) — in reality, it’s much deeper, darker and stranger than that, closer in its implications to Last Year at Marienbad — with characters trapped in a hermetically-sealed world defined by their memories and self-deceptions — than to the Fassbinder film that it most resembles stylistically, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

Visually, emotionally, psychologically — and perhaps even uncannily — there’s something very wrong about this Berlin, and it’s not just because Fassbinder wanted to save a few Deutschmarks on the sets.

Franz is a man, like Berlin is a city, caught in the middle in many ways: between innocence and bestiality, love and lust, desperation and resignation, past and future, light and darkness. And that liminality is defined by its boundaries. We’ve seen how Fassbinder uses color and light to express that, now let’s see how he uses space and sound to push it even further.

This is a place where nothing is ever settled. Alexanderplatz is constantly under construction (like Franz’s character, and even like Döblin’s novel). Streets are being torn up for a subway station, stores and houses are being torn down to make room for more of the same. But it all seems like frenzied busywork, rather than what Döblin at his most utopian might call a collective building towards a better shared future. Rarely has construction felt so much like destruction, even when we hear rather than see it, as in Fassbinder’s film.

One reason that this feels like an “unreal city” (to borrow a tag line from The Waste Land) is because in a film about a place called Berlin Alexanderplatz, we never actually see it (which is starkly different from Döblin, who pointed up every nook, cranny and tattered newspaper). Fassbinder uses the title to point up this gaping hole in his film — like the gaping holes in Franz, Reinhold and the others — of a locale that is unsettlingly present in its absence, indicated only through the variously twisted actions and emotions of the characters.

Paradoxically, we see a lot of what’s around the elided title location, but from a perspective that’s distorted both psychologically (Franz) and metaphorically (Fassbinder). This is a world defined by ominous exteriors (bits of street, the infernal underground subway station), lifeless interiors (the slaughterhouse, the hospital, and asylum are all unnervingly clean, but the ‘save a soul’ mission is not), and all manner of cages. Ironically, we never see Tegel Prison, but we do see bird and monkey cages, and at last Franz winds up once again behind bars, but it’s a place that’s anything but comforting: the Buch Insane Asylum. As noted above, Fassbinder reinforces the caged nature of the physical world through camera placement, so that sometimes even a window or aquarium makes you feel like you’re doing twenty to life.

Fassbinder uses Franz’s apartment to focus the sense of being trapped. By consolidating Franz’s half-dozen different abodes, in the novel, into one, you might think it would seem an anchor for him, and the audience; but the opposite happens. Its constant presence is a cumulative reminder of just how trapped Franz is: from bed (sex, when he’s “lucky”) to table (eating), over and over, and outside the window a garish neon light that makes everything look off. Ironically, the only place that ever feels relaxed, despite the potential for brawling, is the neighborhood bar, with its kindly paternal barkeeper (as in both Döblin and Fassbinder’s lives, this is a world absent fathers).

In this unstable world, you can’t even hear yourself think — but walls are so thin you can hear what everyone else is doing, and they can hear you. It’s not just the permeability of sound that’s unsettling, it’s the quality of what you hear: muffled voices, unsettling sharp echoes in the underground subway, the shrill chirping of a caged goldfinch, the howling of an off-screen storm at Eliser and Nachum’s (with Franz cowering on the floor, like an ex-con King Lear on the heath), and the constant din of the never-ending construction, that we almost never see.

Fassbinder underscores the artifice of his Alexanderplatz in the beginning of the epilogue, when he overlays Döblin’s cemetery scene (the delirious Franz is having conversations with the dead, flanked by the angelic couple) with the plywood-thin streets of back-lot Berlin. In the daylight, even a smoke machine can’t obscure the fragile, sham nature of this world, that has been implied — and used to subtle but powerful metaphorical effect — during the previous thirteen parts, when its flimsiness was hidden by night or a carefully positioned camera. Now, it’s like A Streetar Named Desire’s Blanche DuBois under a naked bulb, exposed.

Besides these resonant visuals, Berlin Alexanderplatz boasts perhaps the greatest score of any Fassbinder film. Composer Peer Raben, who scored virtually all of Fassbinder’s productions on stage and screen, here creates his masterpiece. The score moves from nervous electronic ticks to lush period-style melodies, and everything in between. At first his plaintive theme seemed pitch perfect as an expression of Franz’s yearning — for a decent life, for happiness, for love — but geographically out of place. Most of the dozens of variations on Franz’s theme are played on a bluesy harmonica, that’s usually associated with the American South, which is also suggested by the faintest trace of Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind in Raben’s central four-note phrase. But in fact the harmonica originated in Vienna in the early 1820s, and then gained popularity simultaneously throughout Europe, the UK, and US. (It produces its haunting sound as air flows past a vibrating reed held in a frame.)

Franz finally, after a long series of travails, manages to find a tender, passionate and real love with Mieze — even though he has no trouble literally pimping her, and she’s only too eager to support her one-armed lover. Their first big date is also the viewer’s first escape from the urban jungle cum cage, to the resort spot of Freienwalde, about thirty miles northeast of Berlin. But ultimately, Freienwalde is no picnic.

What first seems an idyllic getaway spot — notably featuring, at first, the most realistic lighting and color we’ve seen since Tegel in part one, scene one — becomes, during later sequences set there, an extension of the city’s unreality and menace. Freienwalde’s disquieting transformation ends along with Mieze’s life, in one of Fassbinder’s most radical scenes. When Reinhold almost ritualistically murders Mieze, who seems like a wounded doe surrendering to a wolf — its ambiguity is much richer in the film than the novel where although powerful it feels like a necessary plot point — the forest has become touched by the unrealness that pervades the film: ultimately, Fassbinder uses this locus to culminate the film’s stylistics and themes; pointedly, the final shot of the film is of the forest spot where Mieze was killed. Why?

The fog rolls in, on cue, and Fassbinder turns the whole excruciatingly protracted murder scene into a veritable ballet, with a precisely counterpointed almost-dance between predator and prey. You feel queasy for responding to the beauty in such a heinous crime, but that’s exactly what Fassbinder wants: to make us really see and feel the action and its implications. Upon reflection, that unsettling beauty seems a reflection of both Mieze’s innocence and, more radically, Reinhold’s too: he never understand whys he murders her, in either the novel or film. The simple explanation is just that, simple; that it was a crime of passion. But of course, he’s also removing what stands between him and the man he loves, and who loves him, but doing it in a way that guarantees that they will never be able to connect: in other words, Reinhold is getting exactly what he wants and just what he deserves: nothing.

The Freienwalde woods has more presence, and at least as much resonance, as the title location; and the scene of the film’s myriad stylistic and thematic elements coming together. It’s a place where the trees become like prison bars, where the romantic mist turns ominous as it bleeds away color and obscures all boundaries, where entranced people move like desultory fish in the film’s various aquariums; it’s an unreal place where liminality is resolved but only through fatal transformation. Where what we see on the surface, and how we see it, reflects and refracts what’s inside. If you choose to read this film through Resnais, you could imagine this Freienwalde lying somewhere just beyond the elaborate gardens, where shadows are cast the wrong way, of haunted Marienbad.

The Freienwalde scene of Mieze’s murder also introduces the resolution of Reinhold’s character. The best example of Döblin’s radical empathy, that Fassbinder intensifies, is that instead of, say, Reinhold being shot dead by Franz, he’s actually allowed to find love… with a young fellow prisoner, Konrad, whose innocence and attractiveness parallel Mieze’s. (By contrast, Döblin’s ironic, perhaps even cynical, take on life can be seen in the fate he has in store for Franz: madness, near death, then a “spiritual” embrace of conformity leading to what looks like a living death.) As noted above, Fassbinder resolves, and exposes, Reinhold and Franz’s relationship, like Reinhold and Mieze’s, through the epilogue’s cathartic homoerotic boxing match.

Fassbinder, for all of his metaphorical and epistemological brilliance, keeps his film from falling into self-defeating aestheticism — he wants us more awake at the end than the beginning — by focusing on people like Franz, Mieze and Eva, that we come to care about deeply. His exceptional actors make them achingly real, much more so than in the novel.

And in his film’s jaw-dropping epilogue, perhaps the most controversial element in any of his works, Fassbinder brings himself front and center… except that he uses Franz as his surrogate, that is, when he’s not making a silent cameo flanked by two glittery angels.

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Fassbinder’s Revelations

What can you say about the epilogue, “My Dream From the Dream of Franz Biberkopf of Alfred Döblin”? What first comes to mind is: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At its most basic level, Fassbinder’s riotous epilogue is an adaptation of the also, but not nearly so, surreal final part of the novel. In terms of the plot, its function is crystal clear: Franz goes insane with grief over losing the one person he could love freely. The bulk of this final section takes us inside Franz’s mind, and  that’s what gives it a twisted but comprehensible psychological form. We see and viscerally feel him work his way through lacerating grief, until he emerges… changed. He seems to accept his ground-down status as just another cog in society’s wheel, takes a humdrum job, and that may be that — but it’s certainly The End of the book.

By mind-bending contrast, Fassbinder’s epilogue does much more, and arguably takes the artistic triumph of the previous thirteen parts and then hurls the film, himself, and us into the extreme heights and depths of the sublime — which, by definition, can be exquisite or terrifying, or both.

Of course, some viewers find the epilogue sybaritic in the extreme, but it strikes me as being a relentlessly, if sadomasochistically, probing work of internal analysis, with the director’s chair doubling as analyst’s coach. Döblin was the practicing therapist, but arguably Fassbinder goes deeper not only into their shared characters — all of whom, living and dead, return here transformed — but himself. In brief, the epilogue seems more self-revelation than self-indulgence.

Some of Fassbinder’s strangest moments are actually drawn from the novel, like Franz meeting the spectral Nachum (in the novel this was a new character, “a learned professor”), who’s euthanised himself while he listened to jazz and having a friend read him Plato’s Symposium (about love, specifically same-sex love). That incident points to an interpretively useful direction, Plato’s mystical realm of Ideal Forms, even as it brings us back to earth by recalling Germany’s homophobically penal paragraph 175, still throwing gay people into prison in Döblin’s time and later. Ideal Forms seems on the mind of Cocteau, whose valedictory Testament of Orpheus (1960) is the picture closest to the epilogue (even though the symbolic detritus strewn about superficially resembles a film like Syberberg’s 1982 Parsifal). Cocteau appears as himself, in some timeless plane of pure imagination, checking in with the characters that he, and Western civilization, had created, and trying to make peace with his obsessions. Cocteau’s description of it might also offer a clue to Fassbinder’s epilogue: “[It] offers the viewer hieroglyphics that he can interpret as he pleases…. The film disobeys dead rules, paying homage to all who wish to remain free. It brings into play a form of logic that reason does not recognize.”

Fassbinder has taken Cocteau’s approach to its breaking point, mashing Ideal Forms with the Freudian id. Expressionism, of which Döblin was an influential proponent, tried to externalize the mind, specifically its darkest recesses; here we see Fassbinder’s postmodern take. This deconstructive fantasia has proven anything but a dead end, as you can see in such dazzling later works as director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), although they don’t attempt Fassbinder’s revisionist national history.

With equal parts symbolism and visceral wit, Fassbinder uses the epilogue to strip away the civilized veneer of his parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Döblin depicted the disintegrative modern forces that ground people down, and Fassbinder takes it further, showing us how they were ready to embrace the Nazis. Fassbinder doesn’t just give us goose-stepping ironic stereotypes, he creates one of his most profound and disturbing images to climax Franz’s purgative nightmare vision (that comprises most of the epilogue). We have the crucified Franz, while at his feet lie Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who holds a mini-Franz with a waxen face and swastika armband. (Fassbinder uses the two supporting characters he’s most made his own — Meck and Frau Bast — as Jesus’s earthly parents; mercifully he has not filmed the screenplay’s incestuous coupling, even more transgressive than the final scene of The American Soldier, of the risen Franz and the Virgin Mary.) It’s not a stretch to see the connections Fassbinder is making between the “Satan’s brew” of religion, self-deception, mass social control, and fascism.

Besides his cyclonic history of Germany, Fassbinder uses this feature-length coda to scrutinize his own works, and the vision of himself that he embedded there. To take just a couple of examples, the massive pile of bodies in the ‘dream slaughterhouse’ (the screenplay specifies who’s there: “Lina, Meck, Mieze, Cilly, Eva…” and the others) recalls not only concentration camp horrors — that would be released by the millions of frustrated, self-blinding “cogs” in the Nazis’ wheel of state — but, in a stunning conceptual leap, the image quotes the after-work sensuality of the film cast and crew in his satire Beware of a Holy Whore — and in a profoundly ambiguous affirmation of life, these bodies, literally getting ready to be ground up into (metaphysical) hamburger, are still writhing in sensual pleasure.

In his recent global success, The Marriage of Maria Braun, the titular wedding is shot, tongue in cheek, through a blast hole, courtesy of the Allies. In this epilogue, Fassbinder uses the same composition, but now we see Franz, crawling on the ground among hundreds of live rats, bottoming out in the worst possible way. The mate he’s looking for might be Mieze (glitteringly angelic in the epilogue) or Reinhold (now a whip-wielding demon with a tango dancer’s hairdo), but it’s really himself he still can’t find but desperately needs to.

By bringing those seemingly disparate points of reference together, Fassbinder revises, and explodes, the singular meaning of his own past and current work. He wasn’t kidding when he famously said that each of his films is a constitutent part of one larger whole: “I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope that in the end it will be a house.” Now when you (re)see his earlier pictures through the lens of this epilogue — we’ve only looked at two of countless examples — they will summon up Fassbinder’s own revisionist take on them, as he essentially reinvents himself.

This reflexive visionary roller-coaster ride makes you realize that Fassbinder has been completely frank with us in his title. This really is his “Epilogue: My Dream From the Dream of Franz Biberkopf of Alfred Döblin.” We have a dramatization of the novelist’s protagonist, and it is certainly a work of oneiric subjectivity. It’s precisely what Fassbinder described, and then some, all grooving to a madly eclectic soundtrack that veers from Kraftwerk to Der Rosenkavalier to Glenn Miller to Elvis Presley.

He uses this post-Freudian epilogue to push every aspect of his film — dramatic, thematic, and subtextual — far beyond the breaking point. It’s as if Fassbinder has found a way to transfer his unconscious whole to the screen, with all of its contradictions and obsessions and strangeness and, yes, beauty too.

This is personal filmmaking at its most extreme and dizzyingly subjective. Fassbinder here refracts the characters and themes through his own subconscious, leaving out none of the desires and fears, no matter how transgressive. He’s made more than a film of the most important novel of his life; he’s broken it apart, dived through, and found himself on the other side, scattered through the personas of Franz, Reinhold, Mieze and Döblin’s dozens of other characters — but they are now Fassbinder’s people, played with ironic nihilistic campy abandon by the actors he’s worked and lived with for his entire adult life, and by the end, you can imagine that they have all merged and emerged into a composite of Fassbinder himself, torn between love and sadomasochism and innocence and rage and desperation and, yes, hope too. Few artists — Dante, Bosch, de Sade, Goya, Genet, Pasolini — have ever given catharsis such apocalyptically self-honest, let alone self-referential, form.

Nieztsche’s oft-quoted line, from Beyond Good and Evil (1896), seems more apt for Fassbinder’s epilogue than at the beginning of, say, a James Cameron movie: “when you stare into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you.”

Seeing the pit, of longing and fear, through Fassbinder’s eyes offers us insight, not only into the usually opaque filmmaker, but into the hidden meanings of the novel that haunted his life.

Döblin ends with a rigid, if ironic, sense of closure — as if a god were putting to rest the case of a modern mini Job who didn’t measure up, so he’s better off being a cog in a wheel, within a wheel, within a wheel. But in Fassbinder, the ending seems both more viscerally painful, yet also — as perhaps Döblin, in his heart of heart, wanted — more hopeful. Fassbinder has recast Franz’s ‘pilgrim’s progress’ as a kind of ritual cleansing.

But while Franz is going through his personal hell on the way to purification, Fassbinder is putting Germany — past, present, and future — through something no less revealing… while at the same time holding the splintered mirror up to himself. Yet when we emerge at the other end of his rabbit hole (that would have sent de Sade, let alone Lewis Carroll, off the deep end), it feels strangely, even defiantly, liberating.

We’ve made it through this harrowing visionary 16-hour experience, that ultimately reveals what everyone, characters and creators alike, had been trying to hide. We’ve earned the right to feel like we have a new lease, if maybe not full ownership, on life, for as long as we can make it last.

Franz may not experience that, but we can — and that’s our personal triumph, just as this film is Fassbinder’s aesthetic and perhaps even spiritual triumph; an ecstatic culmination of his art and life.

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  • Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • Written by Fassbinder, based on the novel by Alfred Döblin
  • Produced by Peter Märthesheimer and Günter Rohrbach
  • Cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger
  • Edited by Juliane Lorenz and “Franz Walsch” (Fassbinder)
  • Artistic Collaborator: Harry Baer
  • Costume Design by Barbara Baum
  • Assistant Directors: Harry Baer, Renate Leiffer, and Thomas Schühly
  • Sound by Hans R. Weiss Sound Mixer: Milan Bor
  • Original Music by Peer Raben

Additional Music (listed in the end credits):

  • “Radio Activity” (Music: Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider-Esleben; Text: Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider-Esleben, Emil Schult) — performed by Kraftwerk
  • Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier (Opus 59)
  • “Me and Bobby McGee” (Music & Lyrics by Kris Kristofferson & Fred Foster) — performed by Janis Joplin
  • “Candy Says” (Music & Lyrics by Lou Reed) — performed by Velvet Underground
  • “Atlantis” (Music & Lyrics by Donovan Leitch) — performed by Donovan
  • “Chelsea Hotel Nr. 2” (Music & Lyrics by Leonard Cohen) — performed by Leonard Cohen
  • “In the Mood” (Music by Joe Garland)
  • “Amara Terra Mia” (Music by Domenico Modugno, Lyrics by Enrica Bonaccorti) — performed by Domenico Modugno
  • “Fischia il vento” (Music by Felice Cascione)
  • “Always” (Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin)
  • “Santa Lucia” — performed by Elvis Presley
  • “Silent Night” — performed by Dean Martin
  • Not listed in the credits: “In the Mood” (Music by Joe Garland and Andy Razaf) — performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra

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  • Günter Lamprecht as Franz Biberkopf
  • Elisabeth Trissenaar as Lina
  • Karin Baal as Minna
  • Franz Buchrieser as Gottfried Meck
  • Peter Kollek as Nachum
  • Brigitte Mira as Frau Bast
  • Mechthild Grossmann as Paula
  • Barbara Valentin as Ida
  • Hans Zander as Eliser
  • Yaak Karsunke as Jailer
  • Claus Holm as Wirt
  • Roger Fritz as Herbert
  • Hanna Schygulla as Eva
  • Axel Bauer as Dreske
  • Klaus Höhne as Newsboy
  • Herbert Steinmetz as Newsboy
  • Harry Baer as Richard
  • Rolf Zacher as Krause
  • Werner Asam as Fritz
  • Marquard Bohm as Otto
  • Jürgen Draeger as Sausage salesman
  • Hark Bohm as Lüders
  • Angela Schmid as the Widow
  • Christiane Maybach as Descending woman
  • Sonja Neudorfer as Flower seller
  • Gerhard Zwerenz as Baumann
  • Jan George as Greiner
  • Katrin Schaake as Frau des Kellners
  • Elma Karlowa as Frau Greiner
  • Hermann Lause as Insurance salesman
  • Wolfgang Schenck as a Criminal
  • Karl-Heinz von Hassel as a Criminal
  • Karlheinz Braun as Attorney Löwenhund
  • Peter Bretz as Rudi
  • Gottfried John as Reinhold Hoffmann
  • Annemarie Düringer as Cilly
  • Helen Vita as Fränze
  • Ivan Desny as Pums
  • Günther Kaufmann as Theo
  • Irm Hermann as Trude
  • Volker Spengler as Bruno
  • Vitus Zeplichal as Rudi
  • Lilo Pempeit as Frau Pums
  • Kristine De Loup as Woman in the alley
  • Karl Scheydt as Man in the alley
  • Traute Höss as Emmi
  • Fritz Schediwy as Willy
  • Peter Kuiper as Glatzkopf
  • Udo Kier as Young man in the bar
  • Helmut Petigk as Old man in the bar
  • Barbara Sukowa as Mieze
  • Wolfried Lier as Worker at the gathering
  • Kurt Weinzierl as Speaker at gathering
  • Jan Groth as Joiner Ede
  • Adrian Hoven as Georg Freimuth
  • Y Sa Lo as Ilse
  • Dieter Prochnow as Policeman
  • Rainer Will as Newsboy
  • Elke Haltaufderheide as Waitress
  • Hans-Michael Rehberg as Police inspector
  • Matthias Fuchs as Young doctor
  • Horst Laube as Chief doctor
  • Roland Schäfer as Dr. Proll
  • Raúl Gimenez as Konrad
  • Georg Lehn as Irrer
  • Margit Carstensen as Terah
  • Helmut Griem as Sarug

    Uncredited Cast:
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Narrator (voice) and Himself
  • Holger Hagen as Pums (voice)
  • Joachim Kemmer as Voice of Joiner Ede (voice)
  • Juliane Lorenz as an Official
  • Marie-Luise Marjan as Dörchen
  • Eleonore Melzer as Light girl
  • Peer Raben as Announcer
  • Walter Reichelt as Old man in the bar (voice)
  • Werner Schroeter as Sarug
  • Peter Thom as Voice of Jailer (voice)

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Original Video Release (Used for This Review)

The Criterion Collection has released a monumental 7-DVD box set of the fully restored epic, in its definitive visual and aural form, that also includes Phil Jutzi’s complete 1931 version, and a wealth of filmed and print supplements detailed below.

  • Seven-disc set
  • New high-definition digital transfer from the 2006 restoration by the Fassbinder Foundation and Bavaria Media, supervised and approved by director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger
  • Dolby Digital Monaural in German with optional English subtitles
  • Two new documentaries by Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: A Mega Movie and its Story features interviews with the cast and crew, Restoring Berlin Alexanderplatz is an in-depth look at the two year, frame-by-frame restoration
  • Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary Notes on the Making of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”
  • Phil Jutzi’s 1931 version of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a ninety-minute film of Alfred Döblin’s novel, from a screenplay co-written by Döblin
  • New video interview with Peter Jelavich, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture
  • New English subtitle translation
Fassbinder Reviews
Fassbinder Reviews

Reviewed November 13, 2007 / Updated March 12, 2022

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