Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 940 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 German
Release Date: November 13, 2007
Review Date: November 6, 2007
Just as Americans were mesmerized by such miniseries as Rich Man/Poor Man, Roots, Shogun, and The Thorn Birds (among many others), so, too, were German viewers captivated (and later outraged) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-part miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. Like its American counterparts, Berlin Alexanderplatz was based on an epic novel, in this case a work by Alfred Döblin, and we follow a group of characters through a lengthy period of time as their fortunes rise and fall. Berlin Alexanderplatz takes a considerable investment of one’s time and attention so dense it is with ideas both social and political. It isn’t the monumentally emotional wallow that Roots is (at least for an American viewer), but it does contain enough sheer storytelling moxie that I found myself engaged by it even in episodes that were heavily talky and lacking much in identification with American ideas and ideals.
It’s 1927 in Berlin, and Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) has just been released from prison for the beating of his unfaithful girl friend Ida (Barbara Valentin) which resulted in her death. Biberkopf is a rather simple soul, easily led astray and never quite able to rest on a firm foundation without somehow being toppled. The story of his eternal search for stability amid a Germany rife with depression, unemployment, and political unease makes up the plot of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Along the way, he tries selling tie clips and newspapers, dabbles as a pimp, a Nazi sympathizer, and a burglar, and progresses through a succession of women whom he treasures for awhile but never seems able to fully commit to until he meets his dream girl Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). He also makes a number of male acquaintances who, almost to a person, use him while only feigning friendship: the salesman Lüders (Hark Bohm), old pal Meck (Franz Buchrieser), gang leader Pums (Ivan Desny), and most importantly, his doppelganger Reinhold (Gottfried John).
The action of the story covers only about two years’ time, but a great number of events happen to Franz during those twenty-four months. Luckily, German film wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder was on hand to both write and direct this monumental story of one man’s unfortunate attempts to be “straight,” as he calls it: honest, clean-living, and decent. For Franz, it’s a noble goal but an utterly futile one. The story is so rich in plot and meaning that it took a film of this length to contain it all. With Fassbinder’s unerring camera eye, his devotion to moving the camera so that even static scenes are never brittle or boring, and his handling of complex story elements so that things are always clear (sometimes too clear as we relive Franz’s fatal beating of Ida at least six times during the fourteen episodes), Berlin Alexanderplatz is a marvel of filmmaking artistry.
In the herculean role of Frank Biberkopf, Günter Lamprecht is revelatory. The emotional and physical range of the role is so extreme that one is amazed at his ability to maneuver the character through so many permutations over the course of the almost ten months it took to film this epic. Gottfried John has a less dimensional role as the villainous Reinhold, but he certainly attacks it with flair. Fassbinder favorite Hanna Schygulla beautifully plays the sympathetic former girl friend Eva, always there for Franz to go to for respite between his prostitutes and girl friends. And Barbara Sukowa’s china doll quality as Mieze matches Fassbinder’s interpretation of the character to perfection.
It’s an epic piece of filmmaking to be sure, and it’s not a film that can be fully digested with one viewing. There are ponderous moments as philosophical comments are read on the soundtrack while we watch something seemingly unrelated on the screen. There’s a two hour epilogue to the film, much of it surreal dealing with Biberkopf’s mental instability after he suffers a complete breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In his fevered mind, we’re subjected to various S&M rituals, orgies, torture and decapitation, a combination of nativity and crucifixion scenes, and a symbolic boxing match all accompanied by an eclectic blend of opera, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Dean Martin, and “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Though Fassbinder made many films in his too short career (he died of a drug overdose two years after this was shot), Berlin Alexanderplatz must rank as one of his finest achievements despite its lapses.
Berlin Alexanderplatz was shot on 16mm film, and this remastered version has been brought to DVD from a 35mm film print culled from a 2k scan of the original elements which then went through digital clean-up and color correction. That the image is grainy is to be expected though when opticals approach, the grain level increases to an irritating extent. Though obvious tears, dirt, and dust have been mended or removed, the image has been given a brown bath that gives the movie a very dated and monotonous look. Sharpness is average at best, there is occasional image ghosting, and mosquito noise is definitely present. Subtitles are generally easy to read though occasionally with black text on a white background, the white subtitles might need to be paused to read them with the white on white. Each segment of the film has its own index of chapter stops (and beautifully detailed in the enclosed booklet). The disc makes it easy to skip the opening credits of each segment and go right to the story if one prefers.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track does have a low level of hiss, but it isn’t usually obtrusive. The film features a great deal of talk which is handled just fine with the encoding, but when screaming or loud music enters the picture, there can be some distortion.
“Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz” is a 65-minute documentary filmed in 2007 detailing the making of this very ambitious project. It features interviews with the four principal actors, the film editor, the costume designer, the producer, and archival interviews with Fassbinder himself. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen.
“Notes on the Making of Berlin Alexanderplatz” was filmed in 1979-1980 during the production of the series. It’s a fascinating look at Fassbinder’s working methods as well as showing the inner workings of a very busy studio that was required for the project to be completed four weeks ahead of schedule! It runs 43½ minutes and was filmed in Academy ratio.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz Remastered” is a 31½-minute look at the considerable work that went into literally saving the original 16mm film from the brink of extinction and bringing it into a viewable format for both theatrical and home video release. This anamorphic featurette was put together by film editor Juliane Lorenz who is now the president of the Fassbinder Foundation.
History professor Peter Jelavich’s video lecture in which he compares the original book, the 1931 film version, and Fassbinder’s much more comprehensive take on the material was filmed anamorphically and runs 23½ minutes.
Phil Jutzi’s 1931 film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz is also included on the supplemental disc. Running 90 minutes and filmed in Academy ratio, there isn’t a frame of this film that isn’t marred by dirt, scratches, or debris. Still, it’s a fascinating condensation of the book’s plot with the four major characters intact and only the ending slightly altered from the book and from Fassbinder’s version. The film is subtitled and divided into 13 chapters.
A 72-page book offers film stills, a lengthy appreciation of the work by filmmaker Tom Tykwer, some interesting comments penned by Fassbinder himself on the original novel, more comments on the original book by writer Thomas Steinfeld, and a question and answer interview with the film’s cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the seminal works in the career of filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. To get through the entire 15 hours and 30 minutes requires diligence and attention to detail. Luckily for the interested viewer, there is more than enough quality on display to make the effort well worthwhile.