Eternities Between Many and Few: Part 2

June 23, 2008  |  By
Filed under: Conversations

[Continuing our month-long discussion of Berlin Alexanderplatz]

Brandon, Dom, Suzanne,

Forgive me for saying so, but I think you’ve been tiptoeing around what all of us experienced as a profoundly disturbing passage of film – the last forty minutes of episode eleven, wherein Franz tries to murder Mieze, the person he loves most, in exactly the same way, in exactly the same place, as he murdered Ida. Indeed Fassbinder insists on this disconcerting repetition, replaying Ida’s murder three times in the previous episodes, investing it with an ominous and totemic power.

If these scenes don’t erase my great enjoyment of the series so far, they certainly transform, violently, the terms of that enjoyment. It’s not just the beating that Franz inflicts. Unbearable as it is, we at least know it is coming. What is so horrible is first the character of Mieze’s anguish – a strangulated screaming that goes on for what feels like minutes. Is any moment in cinema so raw and devastating? Perhaps only Michael Haneke has come close.

Worse still is what happens next. Choking on blood, Mieze immediately forgives him, and they embark for the countryside where first they fell in love. The scenes here verge on the blackest of comedy – Mieze, with split lip and clawed neck, defiantly orders ice cream from her stunned waitress. The profound horror of these moments is in Mieze’s choosing to share in Franz’s crime – her deciding that somehow, to follow Suzanne’s phrasing, their suffering was mutual.

Even as I understand that this is a fiction, I simply cannot bear her choice. Yet it speaks to the power of Fassbinder’s mini-series, that it gets so under my skin.

To answer quickly a question Dom posed to me during the screening, about the character of the political rally Franz and Willy attend in episode nine: Could it be that these strange creatures were anarcho-syndicalists? Syndicalism was a going concern in Germany in the late 20s, though many like Rudolph Rocker and Milly Witkop fled the country in the early 30s, after the Nazis came to power.

–Julian

7 Comments

  1. Suzanne Says:

    Julian, I agree that none of us have been able to land squarely on the very horrific and difficult to watch & experience last episode of the night, where Franz beats Mieze so awfully. I have to begin though by disagreeing with the next part of your statement—that Franz is ‘trying to murder’ Mieze. One of the most complicated aspects of this character, Franz, who we’re all so attached to in some way by now (and how in so short of time could we be any more attached to anyone than we all must be to the charming and alluring and unfathomable Mieze), is that his brutality somehow isn’t exactly MURDEROUS. Or at any rate intentional or an act of agency. It’s been touched on everywhere, I mean by all of us, this flailingness, this non-agency of Franz, being buffeted by unmitigable, unseeable, uncontainable forces, emotional within and social without, that cause him to act, but somehow unconsciously? Something Jasper said the other night too, which was I think again in answer to this question of Dominic’s, about whether or not it’s jealousy that drives Franz, was exactly about the social pressure on the individual, that Franz (oh, I am really going to botch this, someone step in please and say this more clearly) is just a conduit for these external social forces and in no way an experiencing agent or a person who knows what he feels/does. Which, I wish I knew how to say this more clearly, is somewhat terrifying or nauseating to consider, in the frame of Fassbinder’s film (as in Brecht’s post) as an examination of just how does one get to be a Nazi anyway?

    And of course this frames Mieze’s forgiveness, and the “secret” of their ‘mutual suffering’ in another, more terrible light also.

    It’s interesting maybe to note here then that I think you make a mistake about Mieze’s forgiveness: it isn’t at all immediate. She leaves, I think, and it is EVA who insists that Mieze return and offer her forgiveness. So then who is the figure of Eva in this context? What social force? I keep saying she’s a mother figure. (At any rate both Franz and Mieze are infinitely childlike, acting out, screaming, wailing, flailing, tussling, wrestling, spitting; Mieze’s long screaming tearful wail on her knees in that scene looks exactly like a two year old’s temper tantrum.)

  2. Suzanne Says:

    Also, I keep thinking that one reason perhaps for Fassbinder’s so-often repeating the scene of Ida’s murder is to try to impress on the viewer, who can’t help this attachment to Franz, that he’s done this so-terrible thing, that the thing he’s done is terrible. It’s just hard to keep in mind, isn’t it, when he’s talking so cutely to the schnapps and the beer. Or being tender with Mieze.

    What does any/every one make of the texts/voiceovers that accompany each iteration of Ida’s murder? I only remember the last one, the story of Abraham leading Isaac up the mountain, showing Isaac the sharpness of the knife, describing the blade, etc?

  3. Elise Says:

    dear friends and comrades in crime and punishment,

    I have been reading the posts with interest, having missed viewing installment two, but having seen the first and third programs of this epic.

    It strikes me that perhaps one of the most disturbing things about this feature of Franz that has been articulated variously as his ‘lack of solid subject position’, ‘impotence’ ‘non-agency’ etc… is its sheer recognizability as a position (being in fact a non-position) that most all of us occupy to a certain extent as social beings. That is, the extent to which even when we *think* or perceive ourselves to be taking up a clear social role (socialist, nazi, pimp, gangster, call girl, landlady, proletariat, filmmaker, writer) that in fact we are ‘subject to’ as much as ‘subject of’ these roles–that, as I think Lauren put it in her post about language, we are ‘conduits’ for forces from outside us, and this condition is one of the necessities of survival (to some degree).

    Regarding Cythia’s perception that Franz is in an infantile (perverse) state, (which omigod I also recognize), I wonder what constitutes the social maturity many bloggers point to as the ability to assume agency–or put another way, to resist becoming a nazi, a victim of nazi’s or even an anarcho-syndicalist, to the extent that doing so requires one dissolve one’s individual language experience into the rhetoric group mind. To this end, I think love is held out–and I wonder, too, along with Brandon about the connections between Franz’s earlier desires towards national socialism and his desires to be loved.

    These questions form a backdrop to the brutality of those repeated scenes of Franz erupting into fits of blind rage against his love objects or, against the possibility of being abandoned by them. As horrified as I was, I had to keep asking why this reiteration of these scenes, again and again, with different voice-overs and nuances and I don’t think that it’s just so that we don’t forget that cuddly Franz is a killer–and I can’t believe I’m saying this or don’t know if I believe for sure what I’m saying but it’s occurred to me that i want to read his eruptions of violence as the actions of an animal trying to become human–e.g. although we don’t know *what* Franz actually feels in those states–we know that he *is* feeling something strongly, something from which he cannot escape, and while he is in fact possessed by those feelings rather than in possession of them, their eruption again can be read as both bridge and breach of his ability to know love.

    Franz’s violence, even if an infantile distortion of the desire to stop (destroy?) what it perceives to be the agent of its PAIN is for me a human grappling with the (im)possibility of human relations, held in stark contrast to the cold, calculating and dehumanizing violence of national socialism which seeks on a mass level to exterminate entire classes of persons and in doing so eliminate the possibility of relationship with them.

    I read the multiple iterations of the outside flooding Franz, the songs, lullabies, newspaper stories, political arguments, and oratories not only as a sign of him being an empty sieve without agency but also as a process of digestion through which an organism learns his environment and comes (perhaps) to understand more fully his relation to it. That is, I think the one who appears to be devoid of subject position could be no less devoid of agency than a person whose subject position appears solid and it is actually a representation of his being occupied by a social force more completely to the point where, as that calcifies into an identity he (she) is actually less able to learn that is less able to grow up, that is more likely to become a thing.

    For some reason the figure of Meize seems to stand outside this equation, and I am curious about that, as I am about many other things, but will stop here, for now, and wait for the final installment.

  4. Julian Says:

    I am humbled by the depth of these comments, which have so much to say about the weird state of Franz’s psyche. I do recall now Eva persuading Mieze that she must return to Franz. “He’ll never forgive himself if you don’t,” she says. I found it bloodcurdling: why in the world must she do anything for his sake? But who knows what complex ethics obtain in the compact between pimp and whore.

    Eva’s betrayal does make me wonder if the question “just how does one get to be a Nazi anyway?” might be laid not at Franz’s feet – despite hawking a Nazi newspaper early in the series, Franz is no brown shirt – but at the feet of Frau Bast and Eva. Those women who forgive, support and excuse him – those Germans whose “upbeat” character makes room for any deed. (How very funny that, for me, it is not Reinhold that is the villain, but Frau Bast! LOL)

  5. cynthia Sailers Says:

    Hi Suzanne, Julian, Elise,

    Since each of these comments contextualizes so nicely the last 45 minutes of episode 11, I will just throw out a couple of thoughts that come to mind. These last 45 minutes have actually heightened my intensity and investment in B.A. (and Franz), by locating an overwhelming brutality in individuals. Up to this point, I think I’ve been slightly indifferent to the diffused, ubiquitous aggression of B.A., and/or the shallow, borderline qualities of characters such as Reinhold and Pums, cold, figureheads of mafia organizations. (I’m still waiting for someone to comment on Pums’s wife, the woman intent on dispersing aspirin? Or whose primary function is dictation, i.e., the ear of mafia activity). But here we have various threesomes, between Eva/Franz/Mieze and Mieze/Franz/Reinhold and then more tenuous threesomes of the landlady/Mieze/Franz, which all link up in various ways to Franz’s crime. This are some of my favorite of Fassbinder’s capabilities in the drama department, the suffocating, stage-like internal dynamics between a few characters (e.g. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), or maybe why I just prefer Bergman’s chamber plays to Fassbinder’s films. Except Fassbinder seems to preface the codependence between characters so brilliantly that we’ve been labeling “exploitative” in this film.

    I also wonder about the repetition compulsion of Franz’s attack on his second lover.
    Julian, is it only three times Franz’s memory of killing Ida is replayed?

    It feels like the memory of killing Ida replays throughout all the episodes. What is Franz working out in these remembrances? It doesn’t seem like Franz has mastered this repetition compulsion nor can he prevent himself from committing the same crime. He has not yet internalized any function that could stop him from destroying the abandoning object. In this case he has Reinhold who steps in with some agency to stop him, (or to save their male bond?), but also maybe with a lecherous eye toward Mieze. That would seem to be the case, but what of their slightly homoerotic, boyhood play of under the covers, which seems to get my sympathy with what it means to be shamed in front of another of the same sex. Then there is the landlady who watches again, such a petrified character.
    Who cannot hate her for the symbolic foreshadowing of German passivity and allegiance to the paternal figure of the Nazi party? She is in full allegiance with Franz, a leech of his activities, a quasi-doting mother, and a futile witness with no real power or agency to help Franz from his own destructive ways. I wondered, additionally, what the audience is expected to get from the visual repetition of this crime, to see Franz fail again—do we feel more compassion for him this time, in which he is the animal Elise mentions who, ironically, becomes more human by being in touch with his destruction and intolerance of the loss of the other. At this point in the film, we see how really vulnerable he is to women; he flips into the helpless little boy always traded in for a more potent man.
    But then Elise also asks the more important, larger questions about how one resists not falling, into powerful movements, such as the Nazi party, in which there is the illusion that all will be loved the same…

  6. Julian Myers Says:

    Cynthia, Ida’s murder played _at least_ three times in those episodes, four if you count Franz and Mieze’s grotesque drinking match (a reenactment of Ida’s death, I think, and a rehearsal for Mieze’s.) On the “petrified character” of Frau Bast, you say, wonderfully, “She is in full allegiance with Franz, a leech of his activities, a quasi-doting mother, and a futile witness with no real power or agency to help Franz from his own destructive ways.” I couldn’t agree more.

    I also like your evocation of “what it means to be shamed in front of another of the same sex.” Reinhold’s place in the narrative is a knot worth further consideration. Why _did_ he throw Franz from the car? Why did he hide in the bed? What would have been the positive denouement of that scene, had Franz not been humiliated before him as he was? For my part, I treasure Reinhold’s appearances on screen. He’s such a weird and compelling cluster of drives. He’s the main character of my (imagined) Alexanderplatz II.

  7. Dominic Says:

    A link to other commentary on B A that might be interesting to people:
    http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/2008/01/111-berlin-alexanderplatz-parts-xii.html

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