Even An Oath Can Be Amputated

June 14, 2008  |  By
Filed under: Conversations

Hi readers! It’s Brandon, just here in small print to say how happy I am that this conversation is continuing here on OPEN SPACE, pertaining to Fassbinder’s epic (and ever more enjoyable) Berlin Alexanderplatz. Comments are not only welcomed but highly encouraged. Enjoy!

Much of our discussion of the first episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz explored Franz’s character as a subject from psychoanalytic and socioeconomic perspectives. A crucial point of departure for all the bloggers and commenters is the fact of Franz in relation to others, which overwhelmingly take the form of social/sexual violence. It’s difficult to imagine a conversation about this work that doesn’t center on Franz to the moderate exclusion of the other characters, though one viewer last night suggested to me that the conversation on the blog was, in her view, excessively judgmental of Franz as a character in a narrative. I noticed some sense of that concern in the comment box, where a marked effort to discuss other characters emerged. I am also interested, back to Franz, to know what our more psychoanalytic-minded commenters and bloggers will have to say about the very explicit themes of castration and impotence as they emerge in the dialogue and, indeed, in the physical tribulations of Franz and others.

The second round of episodes, screened last night, seemed very different than the opening ones. In these four episodes, Franz has to negotiate with an oath, the promise-to-self he makes in the opening of the film to “never again” return to his former role as a pimp. That this oath will be subject to intense temptation and finally reversal is adumbrated in the Job story, with Franz clearly representing Job. His companion, despite the fact that he takes the name “Satan,” actually plays a stabilizing role, attempting to help Franz emerge from drunken chaos.

Job, tempted to deny the power of God, maintains his faith in a sort of given promise. Franz’s relationship to his own oath tends toward complication in these episodes. The triangulations he negotiates with Reinhold are at first determined as behaviors of loyalty and friendship, but when Franz asserts his desire to end the series of “handovers,” Reinhold’s mode of persuasion centers completely upon what material objects he can tempt Franz with (a silver watch, etc.) Franz then plays the role of prostitute, or one (vast) step removed from breaking his oath.

Likewise, he refuses the overtures of Pums, despite his apparent naiveté as to the true nature of Pums’ “fruit” business; but, again, under the flag of “loyalty” to his friend Reinhold, finds himself dangerously close to trespassing. The moment that is truly interesting to me, however, comes at the end of this set of episodes. The thief in the bar, whom David Brazil accurately described as a “sophist,” demonstrates that language is a tool of power, and that power has, well, the power to determine names, and therefore meanings, for any given worldly presence, “arms” as much as “oaths.” This sophistry works like a charm on Franz, who through his tribulations did not consider that the meaning of his oath might be subject to reappraisal in terms of its very words. The reversal which seems to have taken place at the end of episode seven is a classic mode of sophistry, in which Franz has found a way to both break his oath and not break his oath at the same time.

My quick comment for now is related to Dana’s question from Thursday — does the film leave Franz and wander around Berlin, capturing aspects of Weimar era life, as the novel does? No, not really, as someone else said already, and in fact I have been struck by just how little Fassbinder tries to emulate the 1920s ‘portrait of a city’ genre that includes Doblin’s novel, Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, Ulysses, and aerial films like Man With a Movie Camera, and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. I like that it doesn’t. The portrait of city became a cliché long ago (one of the few great later examples is Wenders’ Wings of Desire). The frame of Fassbinder’s film is very narrow, and the staging is theatrical rather than cinematic. This is partly to do with him having had a low budget (in fact the sets were left overs from an Ingmar Bergman production), and perhaps partly to do with being made for TV — although we’ve since seen how TV mini-series can be quite as cinematic as theatre films (e.g. Angels in America). In B. A. the action is almost always closely walled in, even in the exterior scenes. It’s a story played out in a set of boxes. It’s like a puppet theatre, draped in gauze curtains and lit from outside (off-stage) in amber and rose. The one scene that stands out as being not boxed, wide-screen, full-scale, open-air and day-lit, is the scene in the square right outside (or was it inside?) Tegel jail – the first scene of the film – just before we see Franz dodging traffic (a standard “portrait of a city” cliché). I think there was a flash-back to the scene in a recent episode. It seemed as if it was spliced from a different film.

So much of our discussion has questioned Franz’s ability to apprehend the other and to experience something like empathy, not to mention self. I suspect Franz’s episodic depersonalization foreshadows the immanent colossal implosion of German culture and the dissociation from violence that will attend it. As in so many of his movies, I suspect Fassbinder wants to draw our attention to the disavowal of psychic trauma in postwar West Germany.

I noticed last night just how often Franz is dissociated. He seems to drift into a vacant (sometimes violent) clownish state every time he has to take in the experience of an other. This can be mild dissociation: when he reads the headlines (mimicking the radio always on in the background) but doesn’t ingest them. (Eva says, “how can you read that!” But it makes no impression on him). Or massive dissociation, years of lost time in prison after killing; a crazy (amazing to watch) drinking binge after imagining Otto raping the woman Franz betrayed. Indeed, he spends so much time betraying women that one can imagine he is a complete jerk. But it isn’t clear that he can take their experience in sufficiently to warrant contempt so much as pity. And, to his credit, he is struggling to take the other in bit by bit so as to reckon with himself. He has had more success with alcohol, so far, than women!

In walks Reinhold, a borderline who (to use jargon) evacuates everything bad about himself into the object of his desire. Though, since the feminine object of his desire is really the hated feminine part of himself, he needs to enlist and, ultimately, destroy a male accomplice to love/hate. Will this doppelganger somehow teach Franz to learn to take others in by being, himself, expelled. Once thrown out of the moving car, and having lost an arm, will he become more human? Why does he ask Meck about losing his father? Is he beginning to comprehend loss?

I’ve been reflecting on my experience in the theater the other night: Franz’s story becomes this quickly moving sojourn through so many allegorical theater sets (and set pieces?), that somewhere into the second hour I found I wasn’t reading the narrative (literally, the subtitles) attentively anymore, but wandering back and forth between episodes even while they were unfolding. Doblin’s novel’s so often called kaleidescopic, (and so often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, on which it was partly modeled), & I think more than one of us has already asked how or how not Fassbinder’s film is representing that. We’ve talked among ourselves, at the bar, and maybe here online, about the fact that Fassbinder shot the whole film with a ‘lady’s stocking’ over the camera lens, and what effect this has on the look of the thing. Most particularly, it’s the way light gets refracted in goldish sunbursts off of any reflective surface: bottles (of which there are infinite number), windowpanes, mirrors, glasses, teeth, sweat, the human iris, all shine with this incredible glinting melodramatic, sultry, dangerous light. We talked at the bar especially about the scene where (is it ‘Otto’?) visits Franz with payback money for the amputated arm: Otto’s spectacles are thick orbs that make his eyes look enormous (bug-like), but half-hidden behind multiple—yeah, kaleidescopic—infinitely repeating reflections. I think that the narrative too has “just” (over the last four hours) done the same infinite breakup/refraction. And there’s so much structural and visual doubling and redoubling and refracting: Franz & Reinhold, Franz & Franze (the girlfriend who’s doppelganger for Franz) Franz as ‘dead ringer’ for the widow’s dead man; I feel there are a hundred threads I could take up to follow, in structure, in plot, in set, in allegory. Our conversation in the blog posts and the comment boxes and in the bar is starting to look like this too. How great. More in coming days. xo

Episode 4, beginning the second installment of Berlin Alexanderplatz, depicts the emergence of the social narrative in the form of gossip through the mouth of a salon owner. This voice over continues while the camera’s voyeuristic gaze watches Franz’s progressively destructive drinking binge, his deprivation and isolation from the outside world, although not without its humor (Franz throws his empty
beer bottles across the room, crawls around the floor. A real pig sty). Not only do these gossip lines create more overtly the “types” of characters we’ll see in Fassbinder’s films, e.g. “She’s just looking for a man. You know what I mean,” but the themes of vulgarity, excess, stinginess, fats/nutrition, bodily infections, cheating, indulgence, divorce, and the exploitation of the other. Gossip streams out, disseminating knowledge like Franz’s toxic sweat, always the problem of the other-”she’s a real gossip,” always referring to someone else. And, I think, Frantz responds, “whose business is it what I do?”

Franz cannot remain a separate entity from these social forces for long. He is soon folded into the gossip stream, implicated. Gossip frames (or in the sense of Franz’s pleasure in eavesdropping, “commingles” with) the slaughter scenes. I hadn’t realized until looking at my notes that the voice over is interrupted by the poetic and/or didactic montage of stills on how to slaughter a bull (is this Fassbinder’s voice now?) and the allegorical slaughter of the lamb. But then the gossip returns, in which Franz is now the object. It is reported a woman returns. Eva. He exclaims he doesn’t want to be a pimp anymore. Is this his resistance to the exchange of commodities for human emotion?


  1. Dominic Says:

    I must be missing a lot that’s in the background. I saw episode 4 again this afternoon and only then noticed that it ends with the camera holding on a poster announcing ‘Carl von Ossietzky Condemned’. This must refer to his conviction for publicizing secret German rearmament (in violation of the Treaty of Versailles) and campaigning against the government’s toleration of paramilitary groups. See the link here:


  2. Fabrizio Says:

    What does it mean?

    hard to say about losing a testicle, a ball,

    laughter floats through the room whenever the subject is mentioned

    guess that is funnier than losing your gall bladder?

    why can’t it be a statement of a physical condition rather than something requiring analysis?

    In Doblin, the entire Job – Satan sequence exists solely as dialogue,
    the candlelit card game is Fassbinder’s addition

    In Doblin we simply read most descriptive passages, few are in quotes.

    Biberkopf presents them, as dispassionately as they appear in the book. It isn’t about his understanding them, or ‘ingesting’ them, or even having an opinion about them. He is simply the mouthpiece device through which we get the information as originally presented by Dublin

    these are not gossip lines, they are the bits giving us Berlin at that time
    inside heads
    and out of mind.
    No more toxic than life itself

    The first time Reinhold appears in the café people in the audience laugh . . . . at what?

    Because he may have feminine attributes?
    In the book Reinhold is not a handsome character, he is sloppy, shuffles, his socks are always hanging over his shoes.

    Biberkopf has always been lost . . his early relationship with Meck may have had some father-son aspects, so when he loses Meck he may feel like he is losing a father. Expresses that idea by asking Meck if he ever lost his father.

    The fabric of book and film:
    refraction – kaliedescope – reflection – dispersion

    all centrality sprinkled into bits and shards
    dos Passos
    Virginia Woof
    whose head am I in now?

    the slaughter house scene – lacks the intensity and vividness, shock, of Dublin. Only scene thus far to be less powerful than the book

    Allegory for Franz himself

    That lamb (sacrificial?) substituting for Dublin’s calf. To help make his allegorical point?

  3. Tony Says:

    This is a diversion but I think an important one

    I was particularly struck by the music on the sound track – the way it changes in relationship to the events and its evocative nature. For example haunting piano music appears to dominate in the romantic and erotic scenes and a jazz score in other situations. Have not really tracked it systematically as I’ve been too engrossed by the movie but would welcome some discussion on the music, and any information on the score, composer etc – is it available too?

  4. Suzanne Says:

    Fabrizio, I am so much appreciating your comments. I think the laughter at the appearance of Reinhold is because of the coy and sultry way he’s sucking on the straw (a grown man? in a bar? in 1929 Berlin?) and giving the eye to Franz. It’s so cruisy, as Stephen said. And pure Fassbinder. No?

  5. Fabrizio Says:

    I don’t understand why we have two different blog pages here. Seems cumbersome to have to enter each one separately.

    Anyway, this was posted last week on the other page: re music

    The comedic aspects of the passing of the women, the scene with the newspaperman (the new reciipient of Franze),

    the dishwater coffee and laughable trumped up quarrel are accompanied throughout by a most ominous music undercurrent, implying that someone will get hurt, perhaps even killed.

    Often music is in opposition to the scenes, a Brechtian technique, but in this case, to expand the emotional state, rather than to prevent one.

  6. Lego Says:

    are there discussions associated with the screening? thank you!

Add a Comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Follow the comments on this post using the RSS 2.0feed.