Biberkopf: “Stupidhead”

June 16, 2008  |  By
Filed under: Essay

[Joining our ongoing discussion of Berlin Alexanderplatz is BRECHT ANDERSCH, our projectionist, who is seeing the film with us for THE SIXTH TIME. Brecht has, not surprisingly! a lot to say, please click "more" below for the full article. Welcome Brecht!]

Palo Alto, 1984. I’m employed for the first time as a projectionist at the Bijou Theatre, a repertory cinema run by two hippie-era utopians who grant full rein to this young cinephile’s incipient madness, with 24-hour access to booth and screen. Late into the night, I’m able to project films on the big screen for myself alone, and one of the first is Berlin Alexanderplatz, a film I’d initially avoided as being merely “made for TV”, and therefore of minor interest. A few episodes into it, I find myself beguiled, seduced, then totally transfixed. I watch it over the course of several very late nights, and by the end, it’s become my favorite film for – among other reasons – its ability to venture into every cinematic terrain I find interesting: classic Hollywood narrative, European Art Cinema, Experimental Film.

As I project it at SFMOMA, I’m now seeing it for the sixth time, and after 24 years of it being a part of my life, I’m taking the time to re-read the novel and study the film in an attempt to delve even deeper into its hallucinatory, ecstatic, murky depths.

On Fassbinder: Biberkopf means “Stupidhead”. Fassbinder read the novel as a teenager, and casually identified with it, eventually realizing later that it had filled-in much of his world-view. He played the lead in his first feature film, Love is Colder Than Death, as a character named “Franz Biberkopf,” repeating this homage later in Fox and His Friends. Fassbinder’s films are riddled with various Franzes; and cut together by another: editor “Franz Walsch” – is a pseudonym for Fassbinder, combining Döblin’s character with one of Fassbinder’s filmmaking idols, the great Hollywood director of Westerns and gangster pictures, Raoul Walsh. Clearly Fassbinder had taken Döblin’s German underworld everyman to heart. And Fassbinder needed an everyman to get to the issue which haunted him all his life, and which is behind his many works laden with resentment against his parent’s generation: how does one get to be a Nazi, anyway? Fassbinder saw fascism everywhere, including within himself – this led him on the path towards melodramatic empathy. If one could understand these drives within the human psyche, first by filmmaker, then by audience, it might be possible to transcend, transform…

As Godard put it, Fassbinder took on the entire weight, the entire burden of European history. The theme of Döblin’s novel had been the inability of the Christian world to deal with the obdurate existence of Evil, the horrific potentiality of which Döblin, as a German-Jewish psychiatrist, could sense all around. The novel, in a sense, is reportage, notes evidencing the first rumblings of swirling turmoil, jotted down in a jaunty manner chiming with much of the cynical, yet upbeat tone of Weimar culture. Fassbinder’s film, on the other hand, is a melancholy, meditative autopsy: an attempt to go directly into the dark heart of collective crime and guilt. Towards these ends, both novel and film employ a network of mythology: stories from the Old Testament, especially of Adam and Eve in their perfect garden being intruded upon by that damned snake, the multigenerational blood-guilt House of Atreus saga (an element, if memory serves correctly, jettisoned, or severely pruned by Fassbinder) and the tale (invented by Döblin, or perhaps from the European Jewish tradition?) of Zannovich, a simple soul who through basic human goodness is able to heroically surmount every problem, until it’s revealed that maybe he wasn’t so good, and perhaps not every problem was solved… The ancient tales provide the framework of the novel/film’s world, and the more recent folk-tale of Zannovich sets up the basic conundrum of the narrative: how can your basic everyman, the man-on-the-street, solve the BIG questions: Good, Evil, Justice, etc.

Cinematically, B.A. is a dream-play of the movie-going experience, in which Fassbinder was immersed from his earliest days (In the first episode, Franz passes the Marienbad Kino, evoking the Resnais universe of memory and loss). The 16mm/television frame is the same as the classic Academy ratio, standard word-wide until the introduction of Cinemascope and other wide-screen formats beginning in ’53. The lighting is expressionist/film noir, as Fassbinder would have seen in much of the European cinema of his childhood, or – and more likely – in the Hollywood films flooding the European market, especially Germany, at that time. The cinematography is reminiscent of Douglas Sirk (his ultimate influence and mentor, as well as friend) and his collaborations with the great Russell Metty, and even more especially von Sternberg, in whose collaborations with Dietrich techniques such as the use of nets and stockings over the lens to create “star-patterns” had been perfected. This web of associations must be explored by Fassbinder in his attempt to seek his matrix, and consequently understand the Third Reich, modern Germany, his generation, himself. (This might be a good time to mention that Fassbinder’s mother plays Frau Pums, first seen hiding behind a door with a Luger – the film takes place in the late twenties, the time of her youth.) The hazy, grainy, often dark, small-gauge (“Shitty 16mm material!” cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger often complained) look of the film perfectly evokes the mood of exploration of a burdened Self.

The length of the film – we’re dealing with some big subject matter here, no? To understand how Nazis come about, it’s necessary to dwell at length in this cauldron, to let the poisoned potion seep in, do its work… But there is pleasure here, the pleasure of duration. In what other film does one experience a character’s contemplative sojourn through hell for an entire hour, followed by an entire hour taken up with the casual exchange of girlfriends by two newly-minted friends? Then on to the next episode, next development! The hours click by, and slowly one realizes one is in the process of soaking up an entire world…

Just want to mention, before I sign off, my profound admiration and fondness for the bonding agent which keeps the whirligig of Alexanderplatz together, the magnificent performance by Gunter Lamprecht as Franz. This slovenly, shambling giant oozes humanity from his pores – no doubt the reason Fassbinder cast him – and makes the difficult, stupid-ox Franz – one-time girlfriendslaughterer, occasional rapist, off-and-on pimp, cognac-swiller, beautiful woman deserter, resorter to nationalism, and regular dispenser of the poetry of the common-man, just a tad lovable, perhaps? Can one imagine another actor pulling off the scene in which he inhabits the imagined characters of three beers, and a feisty shot-glass of kummel? Whatever one thinks of Franz, Gunter Lamprecht is quite the mensch…

2 Comments

  1. james wagner Says:

    2 cents;

    Biber is beaver
    Kopf is head

    Biberkopf is literally beaverhead.

  2. Brecht Says:

    You’re absolutely right. My understanding is that in the Berlin slang of Doblin’s day, the implied meaning of “Beaverhead” was “Stupidhead.” Of course, in the American English of today it would mean something totally different…

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