Since spring seems to be off in the distant future, at least someone could bring one of the legendary art house films now in theatrical release to Chicago. Alas, not only do we have to wait until Killer of Sheep is released on DVD, Chicago is also being bypassed for the theatrical release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. This might not be so bad, though. The DVD release is expected some time this year, and watching it at home is probably a more authentic viewing experience, anyway. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a 13-episode (plus a weird epilogue), 15 1/2-hour television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same name.
The first episode is called "The Punishment Begins." This is the most optimistic moment in the series. We first meet our hero, Franz Biberkopf, a former transport worker, as he is being released from prison after serving a four-year term for beating to death his prostitute-mistress in a drunken fury. Our hero vows to remain "decent," but he's ill-equipped to navigate through the slow-motion disaster that was Wiemar Germany. Franz is emotionally volatile, not terribly perceptive, and more than a little paranoid. He meanders interwar Berlin cobbling together a living in the ruined economy, turning a meager profit on anything he can get his hands on: tie clips, a Nazi newspaper, stolen goods, and women. His every enterprise ends in misery and failure. He eventually goes crazy and Death volunteers to be his therapist. When Berlin Alexanderplatz was first aired on West German television in 1980, everyone hated it.
One probable cause of the hostile reaction was most West German households in 1980 had small, black and white televisions, so the nuances of Xavier Schwarzenberger's color cinematography were lost. Even sympathetic viewers of the series--Berlin Alexanderplatz got an enthusiastic reception in the US during a brief theatrical run in 1983--admit that Fassbinder's film requires some endurance. There's no agreed-upon method watching it. In 1983 New Yorkers were subjected to seven and eight-hour screenings. No one wants to go through that again. But A.O. Scott warns, "If you dip in an hour at a time over the course of a week or a month, you risk missing its hypnotic, cumulative power." I first saw it on video in one-to-two hour increments over a couple of weeks on a grad school TV hardly better than the West German models. There were some tiresome sequences, to be sure, and the abrupt tonal shifts I found alternately stimulating and irritating, but Fassbinder is like no other European direct, and his work gets better with more exposure.
When watching European art house cinema from this period, we come to expect either the lyricism of Rohmer or Antonioni or the existential revolt of Truffaut or the early Godard. Where others were ironic and cerebral, Fassbinder was unabashedly melodramatic. When other European auteurs wanted to dabble in melodrama, they leaned toward American noir; Fassbinder borrowed from the German emigré Douglas Sirk and the domestic melodrama tradition. Fassbinder transferred the confined, bric a brac-cluttered spaces and the well-coiffed hysterics of the 1950's American home to the seedy, junky world of 1920's Germany. Sirk's heroines are as equally trapped and despairing as Fassbinder's petty criminal Franz; both are unable to externalize their inner anguish into effective action. In Berlin Alexanderplatz the cramped visual space of the television and the repetitive form of the television series take on a whole new expressive meaning, and for that alone it's worth waiting for the DVD release.