by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 16 hour and 15 minute epic drama about the life of Franz Biberkopf, rests at the center of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career. It recounts the story of a man who has just been released from prison after having killed his girlfriend years before. He swears to go straight, but the economic and social stress of Weimar Germany pull him under, and he slowly loses control of his life and his ever-more-destructive relationships. Concerned with the slow time of living, transgression, punishment and atonement, trauma, dystopia, loss, embodiment, sexual relations, and what Thomas Elsaesser has called “the limits of specular space,” Berlin Alexanderplatz summarizes and comments on the rest of Fassbinder’s work. It tells the story of Germany between the wars as a country closing in on itself, serenading itself in the delusion of its own grandeur; in this way, it is a cautionary tale for any nation assured of its own position as the master race. Yet, the film is more than an adaptation of a novel that Fassbinder read at fourteen and that highly influenced him. It is, rather, his attempt to respond to a book he never stopped quoting (in word, image, and sound) for the rest of his life.
When the film was first broadcast on the German state-funded television channel WDR in December 1980, most people did not see what Fassbinder was trying to show them. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand the film, but that they literally could not see it: as Klaus Biesenbach points out in his essay opening this book, the shots were too dark, too low lit, to be visible on the television sets then available. This technical difficulty, conjoined with the film’s violence and explicit sexuality, not to mention its length as a mini-series, doomed the production to little popular success at the time. In 2007, on the 25th anniversary of Fassbinder’s death, the Fassbinder Foundation (with the German Cultural Institute) released a restored 35mm print of the film. As well, they released Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz, a valuable addition to the study and appreciation of this film and its maker.
The book opens with a short series of set photographs and provides three introductory and interpretive essays (by Klaus Biesenbach, Susan Sontag, and Fassbinder), over 500 pages of film stills in color—each keyed to the scene and shot number of the screenplay—and the complete screenplay (translated into English) with an additional hundred or more black and white images from the film. It closes with photographs of 1928-29 and 2007 Alexanderstrasse, a compact time-line biography of Fassbinder’s life, and an extensive filmography and bibliography of works by and about him. It is an impressive, even daunting, volume.
In the first essay, “Black Paintings,” Klaus Biesenbach presents his memory of the film’s exhibition on television, explains the technologies involved in the film’s shooting and exhibition, catalogues Fassbinder’s immense influence on contemporary audio-visual-performance artists working with different projection formats, superimpositions, and collage and montage techniques, and defends the importance of the two-hour epilogue to the film as a complex ending to an unsettled work. He highlights Fassbinder’s theme of the body as means of exchange and payment when all else is lost. And he puts the film in the context of the late 1970s—focusing on the topics of sex and violence, social breakdown, authority, and systems in crisis, stating that throughout the film’s imagery and soundscape “The year 1929 is occurring simultaneously with 1979.”
Susan Sontag’s appraisal of the film, “Novel into Film: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1983),” is the second essay in the book. She contextualizes Fassbinder’s work within the history of film adaptations, which she calls “the game of recycling.” “Being a hybrid art as well as a late one,” she claims, “film has always been in a dialogue with other narrative genre.” She gives a short history of filmed adaptations and their failings before coming to the main comparisons of her article. Here, Sontag supplies a useful, if condensed, comparison between Fassbinder’s filmed version of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel and Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 Greed, his filmed version of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague. (Interestingly, Sontag ignores the 1931 version of Alexanderplatz, directed by Phil Jutzi with Döblin’s collaboration.) Sontag compares the protagonists of the novels and the adaptation techniques of the filmmakers. She concentrates on how Fassbinder is able to complete the task Von Stroheim was never allowed to finish. (His 10-hour adaptation was cut down and 7-1/2 hours destroyed.) Alexanderplatz is not just important as a successful recycling, though. In the end, she argues, it is important because it is Fassbinder’s entire body of work in one piece—“more than a compendium of his main themes . . . the fulfillment and the origin” of everything he did.
The third essay in the book—Fassbinder’s own “The Cities of Man and His Soul. Some random thoughts about Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)”—is his personal history of re-reading the novel throughout his life. He tells us the book did not “turn him on” at first. It wasn’t until over a third of the way through the novel that he realized the key to this work he would never leave behind—the meeting of the two men Biberkopf and Reinhold, whose relationship is the rest of the story. After returning to the book again and again, Fassbinder says, he discovered the “love” that runs through this relationship—not a sexual, homosexual love—but “a pure, not socially endangered love” that destroys them, in part because they cannot understand it and in part because it is too deep a love, too frightening a love. According to Fassbinder, Döblin’s novel is a thread woven into all his work, sometimes so deeply it amazes the director himself. The novel’s powerful affect comes not from the story—which is so small—but from “how the outrageous banality and incredibility of the story is told,” how Döblin exposes his characters’ very mediocrity with so much affection and love. In the end, Fassbinder’s hope is that Berlin Alexanderplatz is only the first of Döblin’s books we read, and that all of it will be read much more than it is today, “for the sake of the readers. Und for the sake of life.”
Available in German and English editions, this book is a valuable research tool and a significant companion to the film. Although its sheer heft (just over 7 pounds) makes it less than the perfect companion for a night at the movies or even an afternoon at a cafe, this is definitely no mere coffee table accessory. It provides the resources to transform the way we look at Fassbinder’s film and the novel that has affected so much of his life.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008