For those of you just tuning in, we decided to get a few people together from our BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ viewing support group to talk a little bit about what we’re seeing. It’s a lot of film and with so much and so many ways to talk about it, we nominated Brandon to get us started, and everyone added a bit just to get the conversation going. Chiming in here now are Cynthia Sailers, Julian Myers, Stephen Hartman, Dominic Willsdon, Brandon Brown & myself. Among us there are some poets, a poet/translator, an art historian, an analyst, a curator; none of us have before now seen the film. Please join us.
Brandon: The opening scene depicts Franz Biberkopf being released from jail after serving a four year sentence. He pauses, however, on the threshold between the jail and the busy street, and as he encounters the great din coming from the traffic of the street, plugs his ears, assuming a pained gesture. At this moment, the title of the first episode (The Punishment Begins) appears on the screen, and directly afterwards, Franz attempts to go back into prison. On an allegorical level, the “punishment” is identical with the establishment of human beings (as in the biblical story) as laborers in a world of objects (and other humans). Prison, which for Franz was an experience of the worldless, by contrast produced less pain.
Later, we learn that Franz, in prison, kept to himself and talked to no one. This moment, then, on the threshold between the prison and the city, marks the emergence of Franz from worldlessness into worldliness. As he assumes presence in the space of appearance, he is confronted with a world of objects which he cannot seem to navigate (honking cars nearly hitting him) or even comprehend (the forks which do not puncture eater’s mouths).
The majority of the first three episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz, then, depict Franz as he enters the exchange market by assuming a variety of social roles, including consumer (of prostitutes as well as beer) and laborer (vending shoelaces as well as Nazi propaganda.) The “betrayals” he is subject to, the absolute violence which marks his encounters with others and especially with women, the inability to apprehend objects (such as a swastika armband) as anything other than instruments for obtaining the means of subsistence: these are the hallmarks of the “new world” which Franz, the convicted murderer, crosses into from the safety of the prison walls. Despite his frequent insistence on the hardness of the hard time he served, it is clear that the objects and labors in Berlin are the true objects of risk, and these are what, we know, shall “lay him low”.
Stephen: I agree with Brandon. There is so much to say about this lush film. My way into the film is to locate the story in the psychoanalytic frame of its day. I read Franz as a hysteric: someone, as Brandon says, who lacks “the inability to apprehend objects” and to whom history happens without agency. As our hero wafts between subject and object states, unable to apprehend self and other, in a terror about sexuality, castrated by unemployment, vexed by genuine commitments, and soothed by suckling on maternal women (on whom he is dependent and with whom he is mostly impotent and ashamed), he floats in and out of consciousness. Having been massively dissociated in prison, he emerges into semi-consciousness only to fall into the determining embrace of others: an insane Hassid (a dybbuk); a series of husky-voiced prostitutes; a pornographer; a paternal Nazi; a cruisy sausage vendor (again a Jew); a blond red; a fallen Christian…and others who seduce him up only to cut him down. Rage overtakes him, and he completely gives himself over to violent nationalism. Then, every now and again, (as Dominic points out), Eva, an occasional, mysterious angel whose sexuality is not sullied, calms him, awakens him (or lulls him back to sleep). As of yet, there is no convincing father, no lasting identification, only threat and drift with occasional fetishized glimmers of hope.
I particularly love how the narrative floats through a sequence of atmospheres, (the underground station is the one I find most gorgeous), like a nightmare that keeps returning all through the night. What a fantastic way to speak about how the subject emerges and yet can’t escape from history–trapped in the frame of a dissolving film.
Cynthia: Who is Franz Biberkopf, this serial installment of a man? Why am I going to be invested in him for four weeks? I’m not a big fan of Fassbinder’s films because of the trope of the woman character, often really simplistic, the ambitious prostitute, the business woman, they seem to be sadly all the same.
In the women’s bathroom, during the intermission, all of the conversation seemed to be questioning Franz’s sexuality. Is he gay? Is he really impotent? We were trying to figure out to what degree he really can penetrate. He’s unemployed; he’s not really able to penetrate much. Other questions were about his brutishness, and the vampiric nature of his biting and grabbing and sucking. Something about this ambiguity seems to allow him to be read as a more complex character. I’m not that interested myself in his ambiguous sexuality or not, I’m reading it as more infantile, perverse.
I’m more interested in the ways his psyche ruptures or seeps through—he has multiple social positions, the Nationalist, the criminal, the unemployed, the proletariat, the salesman, the abusive man-but then his own psyche seems to leak through. My question is, can he really take up ANY role, or any identity?
Suzanne: A couple of observations: First, that several times during the first three episodes, Franz says he can’t speak, or that he doesn’t speak very well; he then goes on to speak beautifully, oratorically, poetically (sometimes by quotation or song).
It seems to me that both Franz’s impotence, and his speechlessness, are “cured” in the first episode, by RAPE. (Cynthia said, “by being bad”.) Soon after his release from prison, and after being unable to have sex with a prostitute, Franz visits Minna, the sister of the girlfriend he’s been doing time for murdering. Arriving at her door, he only mumbles, then he rapes her, then he shouts: “Franz Biberkopf is back!” It’s worth noting that the scene which follows (I think) is the flashback to the murder scene.
And, two metaphors of ‘strength’: While Franz rapes Minna, she says in voiceover, “with men like this, there’s nothing you can do, they have arms of iron.” Later, Franz and ‘Polish Lina’ are at a dance hall, where Franz meets the Nazi who’ll have him selling papers the next day. The song playing over the dance-hall scene carries the refrain, “A woman can never know the strength of the man she loves”–(Moral) weakness & betrayal just ahead. It’s the beginning of the end for Franz & Lina.
Julian: I will confirm Stephen’s impression of Alexanderplatz as “a sequence of atmospheres.” The movie gives gives the impression, confirmed by the gauzy, fever dream look of the film, less of a modernist epic, than a sequence of melodramatic zones of action. This is modernism by way of Douglas Sirk and soap operas. “Dallas with Nazis” was Dominic’s neat description. Indeed Dallas had its debut in April 1978 as a five-part mini-series – as Fassbinder began filming. Both Dallas and Alexanderplatz make the case for the mini-series as a distinctive form; what the novel was for the 19th century, the mini-series may have been for the late 20th.
Like Dom, I was struck especially by the two confrontations at the end of the second episode: The challenge from the Jewish “sausage-vendor” (a joke there I think) in the underground station where Franz is hawking copies of the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter; and the near-brawl with the communists in the bar afterwards. After a less-than-rousing version of The Internationale, one of the communists challenges our hapless, murderous anti-hero to a fight. Brandishing a chair to defend himself, Franz has a meltdown worthy of the Cabaret Voltaire: Singing a chaotic rendition of patriotic war-anthem Die Wacht Am Rhein, and spouting half-understood nationalist calls to order, he seems a pathetic and egoless character, and is smugly dismissed by his leftist tormentors.
But of course he’s a sociopath and murderer. Even those who know he beat his fiancee Ida to death with a cream-whipper, don’t seem too bothered by it. “What a lovely fellow!” cries Frau Bast, who saw him crouched above her corpse with bloody fists.
From Alex Ross’s great recent study of avant-gardes in 20th century music, The Rest is Noise: “One night in 1928, Joseph Goebbels walked around the Tauentzienstrasse cabaret district and returned home to write: “This is not the true Berlin… The other Berlin is lurking, ready to pounce.”
Dominic: I can’t believe Julian quoted me on that ‘Dallas with Nazis’ line! That was me being a bit flippant. But it is true the film is more like a mini-series than an experimental epic. That’s its difference from the book (which I started reading yesterday). The film is more centered on the characters and more plot-based, in a way that’s more traditional, and more TV.
I’m interested to see if the film deals with the politics differently from the novel. You’d think so, given that Döblin is writing in 1928-9, during the so-called quiet years of National Socialism. We’ll see.
I don’t think Franz’s (maybe temporary) support for the Nazis is just about having a job (selling papers), as Brandon says. I think it’s somehow heartfelt. Franz wants order, because order means peace. The young Communists didn’t experience the war as he did, he thinks, so they don’t fear violence as he does. But then the next scene in the book (is it different in the film?) is the flash-back to Franz violently killing Ida. For me, it’s as if Franz believes the Nazis are the kind of people who know it’s necessary to control people like himself-if Germany is also going to ‘go straight’.