sábado, 12 de mayo de 2012

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin Alexanderplatz (The Criterion Collection DVD, 2007)
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
West Germany, 1980
In German with English subtitles

Although I couldn't tell you if Rainer Werner Fassbinder really put the "germ" in New German Cinema, I wouldn't bet against it either.  An immensely entertaining and occasionally pretty fucked-up fifteen and a half hour made-for-TV adaptation of Alfred Döblin's 1929 modernist classic--here remastered and presented "in 13 parts & an epilogue" in a superior sepia print than was supposedly originally seen in Cold War living rooms back in the day--the willfully confrontational Berlin Alexanderplatz doggedly follows in the footsteps of oafish, not quite right in the head protagonist Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht in a bravura performance) as he attempts to go straight after being released from prison for the "accidental" beating death of his prostitute girlfriend Ida four years earlier.  That some things just aren't meant to work out for the character will become clear early on with chapter titles like "The Punishment Begins" and "A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul,"  but romantic types just might be tempted to hold out hope for the guy whenever old love Eva (a spot-on Hanna Schygulla) and fetching new love Mieze (Barbara Sukowa, ditto) appear onscreen to try to protect their Franz from true evil in the form of "best friend" Reinhold Hoffman (a preternaturally sinister Gottfried John).  However, as Fassbinder tells Döblin's story, Biberkopf's on again/off again struggles to avoid returning to a life of crime only serve as a launch pad for some even more unsettling reflections on crime and destiny on a metaphysical plane.  Is the childlike but violent Biberkopf being tested by God or Satan?  Are his Job-like troubles all caused by his poor life choices or is it just impossible for a man to "live in a human skin" in the Weimar Berlin of 1928-1929?  Are God and Satan actually one and the same?  Who or what is "The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent" in the Freienwalde forest?  Whatever you make of Berlin Alexanderplatz's metaphysical concerns, one of the things that kept my eyes glued to the screen throughout Fassbinder's bleak but unexpectedly fascinating underworld epic was that many of his storytelling choices were as entirely unpredictable as his mercurial main character.  An intrusive narrator (Fassbinder in a chillingly omniscient voiceover) frequently extends warnings to the characters, intones passages from the Old Testament, and recites grim catastrophe statistics from the newspapers at key moments, for example, alternating these pronouncements with soundless passages where text from Döblin's novel appears on silent movie intertitle cards.  Visually, the film also offers deliberate provocations like the grainy slaughterhouse scene where man's fate is compared to that of cattle and another scene or two--mayhaps more amusing to this viewer--that pay homage to Weimar degeneracy with Biberkopf's visits to a Berlin brothel district where the Whore of Babylon is on sale to connoisseurs of human flesh looking for something different in the fetish department.  Not for everybody and certainly not for book blogger squares but good, clean transgressive fun for anyone that can appreciate a rewrite of Ecclesiastes for a redemption story set in just pre-Nazi late 1920s Berlin: "And I turned and saw the injustice of everything that took place beneath the sun."  (The Criterion Collection)

Fassbinder on the set

Berlin Alexanderplatz, my first Fassbinder ever if I'm not mistaken, is my German entry for the Foreign Film Festival and Caroline's World Cinema Series events.  Mini-series over, the Döblin novel is now underway.

25 comentarios:

  1. This is on my to see list and has popped up a number of times in my recent browsing. Your review makes me want to see it all the more - although as I find it hard to find two uninterrupted hours I don't know how possible it will be to watch this in the near future.

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    1. I understand the time thing, Séamus, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the set why not try watching one episode a week (all more or less an hour long each except for the first one and the epilogue which are both somewhat longer) just like the original German TV audience? As an added incentive, I'm told that the novel was heavily influenced by one of your all-time favorites: Joyce's Ulysses. Cheers!

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  2. Döblin's novel is on my reading list, too. Now I'm thinking that I should maybe accompany it with the TV adaptation as well - even though, to be honest, I'd have the same problem as Séamus. It would probably take me a month to watch. Sounds fascinating though.

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    1. I remember being excited about seeing that on your list, Bettina, but the novel's been a little hard for me to come by over here (the English translation seems to go in and out of print all the time). I think it would be great fun to compare the different book and film versions, though, and the Criterion package also comes with a 90-minute 1931 adaptation by Phil Jutzi in which Döblin co-wrote the screenplay. The Fassbinder version was indeed fascinating for sure.

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    2. Read Anne Thomson's 2014 translation. It is an excellent and riveting rendering in English English and captures the flavour of the original German.

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    3. Anonymous, belated thanks for that recommendation--will keep it in mind. Cheers!

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  3. The thing I remember about the novel, more than the story itself, was the way it was told...montage-like scenes with narration (which in itself is montage-like). Will be interesting to hear your comments on it. It sounds like Fassbinder was going for the same "feel" with the movie.

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    1. I haven't watched the supplements yet, Dwight, but Fassbinder's quoted in one of the accompanying essays as saying that "the essential part [of Döblin's novel] is simply the way in which this incredibly banal and unbelievable plot is narrated." I think that speaks to your two reactions here, but my sense from half a chapter or so of Döblin so far tends to confirm that even more. Looking forward to the novel, but I wish I had a more contemporary translation than the 1960s version I found (my library's more recent translation is lost alas).

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  4. "Good, clean transgressive fun..." ehehe I have watched the first few episodes of this when they showed it on late night TV a couple of years ago. Then I missed an episode.... I've got the novel here as well and think I'll read that first before getting to the movie again. I watched a lot of Fassbinder for a while. Some are outstanding. I think generally this isn't even considered to be his best... His DVDs are hard to get, even from amazon.de...He's waiting to be rediscovered, I guess.
    I think that the unpredictability of the story telling does come from the novel. I can't remember now, have you read it?

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    1. I wanted to wait until after I'd finished the movie before starting the novel, Caroline, so I'm only in the first chapter now. It feels very old-fashioned next to something like Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but I'm not sure how much of that has to do with the translations at this point since they were fairly contemporary otherwise. However, I do get the sense that much of Fassbinder's storytelling unpredictability was borrowed from Döblin, yes. How surprising to hear about the availability of Fassbinder's work over there! My library has a lot of his DVDS so I'm not worried about missing anything of his at this point, but I suspect that I will love some and hate others based on the little I've read about them.

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  5. I also like the phrase "good, clean transgressive fun" - how you-ish! As you can well imagine, I would hate this. Even reading Job in the Bible makes me violently angry. ("Childlike and violently angry") And unless Weimar degeneracy is presented as part of a musical, it also makes me violently angry. But gosh, how could I resist a "grainy slaughterhouse scene"? ..wouldn't want anyone to think I'm a "book blogger square," after all.... (as opposed to a square in general, into which I have most definitely morphed, since metaphysical mental masturbation makes me want to punch people)

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    1. Yes, how me-ish, LOL! I'm not sure how much of the "metaphysical mental masturbation" you deride is addressed to me, to Fassbinder, or to Döblin (please remember I am just your humble scribe!), but it all may originate in Döblin's über-respected novel since he was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism after being chased out of Europe during WWII. In other words, he might have been very conflicted religiously-speaking--and not just yanking anybody's chain a la Fassbinder or me. And just so we're clear about the even more important point, "book blogger squares" in this instance = the vast hordes of super earnest bloggers who believe the novel begins and ends with the collected works of the 19th century Britons Austen, Brontë, and Dickens (i.e 98% of the Classics Club!), bloggers who get weak in the knees over all modern film adaptations of all the above, bloggers who only post about Colin Firth movies, bloggers who post about Titanic 3D, and any/all combinations of the above!

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    2. No, no! I was not referring to YOUR activities, mental or otherwise! :--) And Fassbinder too was just a conveyor, I'd guess, of the ideas of Döblin , who indeed seems to have been seriously messed up. I actually was able to attend a couple of lectures by the brilliant scholar (and former Prussian) George Mosse, who also evinced, to me, that combination of Jewishness and perhaps anti-Semitism which I understand characterized Döblin as well. The combination really produced some rather bleak and "unsettling" reflections. And consider Hannah Arendt - same problem if you ask me. It's interesting to consider the effects of that mix of influences (Jewish upbringing with intense societal rejection and message of inferiority) on so many intellectuals of that period. But enough about that; I'm off to find a Colin Firth movie....

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    3. MY "activities, mental or otherwise" = a crack-up, Jill. Touché! Jewish anti-Semitism is a concept I can't quite come to grips with, so maybe that audience with Mr. Mosse would have been an eye-opener for me (please pardon the mixed metaphors, which are obvious signs of mental distress)--esp. since I haven't read anything by Arendt in ages. In any event, I'll be withholding further judgement on Döblin's effedupedness, whatever its source, until I get the chance to read more of him. You know how I like these perky types anyway!

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  6. I have seen this as a tv series and as always I bought the book afterwards. I can't find in the net if there is a tv series, it was long ago, it was in German language. It was very long, lasted week after week. Maybe in the 80's? Now it is haunting me.. And I never read the book, the tv series was so overwhelming.

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    1. Merike, this is one and the same thing--it appeared as a mini-series on German TV for three and a half months in 1980, and I've read that it wasn't very popular at the time. I thought it was pretty great, but I have to admit I was also amused that Fassbinder got away with so much audience-baiting at the time: the camp epilogue, as just one example, must have angered many people who managed to make it through the violent crime of the previous 13 episodes. Fins aviat!

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  7. Having read the Novel I now want to see this as well Richard watch of fassbinder he was a true one off ,thanks for sharing ,all the best stu

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    1. I actually reread your review of the novel late last night or early this morning, Stu, and am looking forward to spending more time with Döblin after I finish the amazing but seemingly endless Musil doorstopper. In any event, I think you'd enjoy Fassbinder's adaptation given that it's both provocative and entertaining. Cheers!

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  8. Not really related having neither seen the film or read the book, but I used to live just up the road from the Platz.

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    1. I've never been to Berlin, Gary, but now I'd definitely like to visit that area to see how it's different from how it was portrayed way back when. Am a bit of a sucker for the bookly sightseeing thing, I'm afraid. Cheers!

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  9. damn you blogspot for wiping my extremely long comment when i tried to enter it.

    from your review, the mood of the movie reminds me a lot of satantango, which is what i'm currently watching.

    i've wanted to try fassbender for a long time, just because he as a person sounds interesting to me. i'm curious with what he did with his talent.

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    1. Sorry about the comment problems, Selena, but Blogger seems to be more than a bit temperamental these days. As far as the mood of Berlin Alexanderplatz vs. Satantango, the latter seems more claustrophobic and oppressive somehow--prob. because of Tarr's slow motion style and the long takes. The former, while grim enough, also toys with the idea that there might be a way out for the characters from time to time--another difference from Satantango (as I remember it anyway). Fassbinder seems loved and reviled in equal measure, so I'd be interested in hearing what you thought of his work should you give him a try one of these days. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, though, for whatever that's worth.

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  10. Off-topic I know (and apologies to Fassbinder) but are you still thinking of doing a Spanish literature month in July? I need to plan ahead.

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    1. There's no such thing as off-topic over here, Obooki, so I'm sure señor Fassbinder won't mind me fielding your question. In any event, I just checked with Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog and Spanish Lit Month is officially a go for July. We'll be making announcements about it soon, so thanks for the prompt/reminder (please note that your Lat Am reading title for July just happens to be one of our two group read choices for the month as well). Onettimania is coming to the net, at least for about two or three of us. Cheers!

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  11. I have had a copy of this book in German sitting on my shelves for a good while now - your review of the film has me a little more interested in it ;)

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