RWF: My Dream from the Dream of Franz Biberkopf

June 28, 2008  |  By
Filed under: Conversations

[Or, the other side of the mountain. The BA roundtable/support group on the last round of Fassbinder's epic masterpiece. We'll wind down our discussion over the next few days. Ms. Heidi at Engineer's Daughter says everyone deserves a t-shirt; I'm like to agree that all of you readers do too.]

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Brandon
Well, we watched Berlin Alexanderplatz.

I found everyone’s responses last week to be, to varying extents, trying to come to terms with the violence Franz displays against Mieze. The violence and initial recuperation took place at the very end of our screening. Even if indeed some of the bloggers may have been “tip-toeing” around it, everyone (including commenters) seemed to be trying to situate the crisis in terms of Franz’s character. Was it jealousy that provoked his outburst? Does Franz have enough of a subject position to really comprehend “jealousy” and act accordingly? Is Franz’s brutality derived from an abandonment complex, a repetition compulsion?

The epilogue to Berlin Alexanderplatz, “My Dream from the Dream of Franz Biberkopf”, far from providing reductive, controlled answers about Franz, instead infinitely complicates those (and other) issues. I find it so compelling, about the finale, that at the very moment that the film departs from the detached narrative frame, we go into the interior of Franz’s psyche. What we find there is Franz, yes, but moreover we find all the others. And part of what all the other characters of the film reappear to enact is a detailed history of brutality, with reference to Western civilization from ancient (say, biblical) to contemporary (and contemporary with Fassbinder, not “Franz”) times; but very specifically what we find in Franz Biberkopf’s psyche is a history of German violence.

Throughout the film there are several rebirths by blood. The rape of Minna which somehow restores “Franz Biberkopf” after prison, the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice motif, the “new” old Franz who emerges only after his arm is severed; Franz himself is sacrificed over and over again in the dream. Franz, who has meted out violence throughout the film and laughs loudly at reports of violence done to others, is now the object of violence. He is crucified, humiliated over and over again by Reinhold, slaughtered in a slaughterhouse/concentration camp, and is even the medicalized object of the psychiatrists.

What strikes me about these sacrifices is that the “rebirth” for which sake they are supposedly committed is very simply the entry of Franz Biberkopf into the repetitive worldlessness of laboring. It’s as if the central problem for Franz, both at the beginning of the film (what “work” will he do) and throughout (“what can you do with one arm?”) really is an inability to work, both in the sense of “function” and “labor for wage.”

It is obvious for anyone who has seen the last two episodes and epilogue that there is far too much to say, and that the tone of reconciliation I’ve displayed in this post is actually impossible. I really look forward to other observations and trajectories!

Julian
I suppose I’ve found the question of whether Franz “can have enough of a subject position…to act,” to be somewhat circular. Franz is a character in crisis, but I am not convinced that his crisis is best articulated in psychological – as opposed to political, moral, or ethical – terms.

Can Franz act? Of course he can. I imagine Fassbinder answering this question in the epilogue. During a flight of madness in Buch mental facility, Franz is confronted with Ida, who is cringing and limping as if she is being beaten. Distressed, Franz asks her, “What is causing your pain? Who is beating you?” She replies, “You are Franz. “You are beating me. “You killed me.”

In your discussion of the epilogue I find more to agree with, especially in your observation that Franz’s central problem may be “an inability to work.” It’s a reading that helps me understand why Franz’s encounters with Communism and Syndicalism, ideologies in which labor is anything but “repetitive worldlessness,” are so fraught. I’ll watch that playground debate with renewed attention next time.

Episode thirteen I had a hard time with. After Mieze’s murder – an enervated fairytale starring Reinhold as the ambivalent Big Bad Wolf – I thought the last episode veered into TV cliché: in particular Meck’s confession and that final scene, where the sad pimp “goes mad” and kills the bird Mieze gave him (the stunted symbolism is Franz’s, but still).

By contrast the epilogue was wonderful: psychotic, crass, bizarre, gaudy, and macabre. Where Brandon saw it as a history of violence I saw it instead as a flash-forward, to the war, the Holocaust, the bomb, the GDR, gay liberation, sex clubs, televised boxing, Kraftwerk, Elvis and disco. The appearance of Margit Carstensen (her of Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant), as an angel of death, was a treat. I can’t imagine a better, weirder, or more profound ending.

Perhaps from the top of this “Mount Everest of Modern Cinema,” it might be fun to look back at where we began. It’s a long way down!

Stephen
Wow! This has been an amazing ride. Thanks to Dominic and Suzanne for organizing the film and discussions. I agree with Brandon that the epilogue launches the psychological investigation of Franz into the public realm.

I can’t resist commenting on the scene where the three psychiatrists are debating whether to treat Franz. We have a well-meaning, if not naïve, psychoanalyst intent on Franz’s submission to the talking cure to address his mental block, a nay-saying, smug, pharmacologist who wants to zap him with ECT to reign in psychosis (and then relax into his newspaper), and a vain nose-hair trimming behaviorist who argues that trash is trash, so why bother? (It could be the scene at any HMO). None of them is ready to entertain Franz’s experience. No one thinks about the social construction of Franz’s condition. No one really takes responsibility. This debate among “critics” precedes the most outrageous, campy, hallucinatory shenanigans yet to come in the film.

The three doctors could just as well be commenting on the film’s narrative/visual arc. They would reserve “two thumbs up” for the costume drama that preceded the epilogue, and they would like to return Franz to an agreeable if not gauzy frame. They are also, in the diagnoses of Franz, cynically noting—but passively accepting—Germans’ strategy to account for the holocaust (and Americans Hiroshima). How dissociated and barely capable of assuming responsibility for the horror is the post-war industrial giant—blocked, medicated, why bother…wouldn’t a Hollywood ending be nicer than the glossy operatic mess we are forced to deal with when we allow ourselves to fall apart? “Come close to the light and see death so that you can become human,” says the reaper Martin Luther / Abe Lincoln impersonator. Try as he might, this is something that Franz can’t yet do, saddled still with the burden of his own guilt and Reinhold’s off-loaded evil. (He is barely getting by in Bush America). Our every German dies before he can be cured for our sins.

Cynthia
I want to take what Julian says regarding episode thirteen to revel in its soap opera qualities. But also because, as someone points out, B.A starts with a murder and ends with a murder. If the epilogue is chaotic, impressionistic, “bizarre, ” the episodes leading up to it, pound the same problems between authorities and power, impotence and murder, playfulness and aggression, etc. Episode 12 begins with Mieze washing underneath Franz’s bedclothes, right at his groin. We bask in Mieze’s ways of being the playful coquette. Never so clear as to what she wants or how far she will go. Following, she makes an appointment to go to the countryside with Meck, eventually finding Reinhold in the place she fell in love with Franz (the soap opera narrative line). But she is not sure how to lure information out of him. “How long have you known Franz? Reinhold asks, “is he still yours… Who am I? Who is this Mieze? She tackles him. Is Franz so enigmatic to her that she may sleep with Reinhold to find out about him? It appears she will go all the way for his information, although she says, “okay Reinhold. Let go of me…you’re lying on me so heavy again.” Reinhold is like a political oppressive body, one can get up temporarily, only to be seduced and overtaken again.

It’s hard to separate the psychology of individuals from group psychology, of how people just fall into line; as Mieze says, “everything’s getting dirty.” Reinhold exchanges information for sex and so when he does not get what he bargained for, and because he doesn’t “assault women,” he lamely suffocates her. Before this happens: Mieze is laying on Reinhold, licking his chest. I am reminded that Franz has both Mieze and Reinhold in his heart. Reinhold so poignantly says, “I was just considering what you are doing to me.” It is the tragedy of B.A. that people cannot take this question to its furthest point, cannot recognize how social and political forces are acting on them, how their own autonomy is being divested with meaning, and more simply how the other impacts them.

I want to reemphasize the gross value of this, in both an economic and political sense (of trading dead, lifeless, objects, “goods”) and the psychological sense of losing oneself, the intolerance (we see in Franz/Reinhold) of their desire and the delay in the fulfillment of those desires. In both the case of Franz and Reinhold, they must snuff the Other out. And while the murder of Mieze is elaborated in episode 13, we see its tricky progression, Reinhold is even more impotent, in a way, than Franz. He annihilates Mieze with the same questionable cluelessness/cruelty as Franz does with the bird. This is the more dangerous form of murder, we’ll see in the larger political movement, of a numb form of annihilation, as individuals conform to group illusions ‘to create the pure man.’

Dominic
I finished the book. There is no epilogue, but the final phase of the novel that corresponds to Fassbinder’s epilogue begins on page 319 (in the Continuum paperback). The story of the epilogue is very much carried over from the book, and Franz’s madness is similarly represented as a terrible clash of all the forces that have brought him to this point. And he dies, and is reborn. There are also the intimations of war we see in the film (by the way, Julian’s idea that Franz’s dreams the post-war world made the whole epilogue make sense to me). A major figure in Döblin’s last 50 pages is a personification of Death. In the film the figure who comes closest to this role is Fassbinder himself. The book is every bit as compelling as the film. But I find that Döblin’s ending is hard to take. His introduction (which I read out at the first screening) foretold that Franz would emerge the other side of his suffering with an understanding of the meaning of his life. What is this understanding? It’s an awareness of the need for solidarity with others. And the awareness comes through work. Franz gets a job.

Suzanne
“Mieze, Mieze, Mieze” and “bitte, bitte, bitte” are the refrains I keep hearing in mind since Thursday’s screening. At a complete loss for a method, in a just a few words’ time, of encapsulation of my experience of the last overwhelming round of BA, I’ll name a few of many moments still very present with me now, on Saturday morning, and let us get on into the comment boxes. These are: the long shot of the just-strangled Mieze lying limp on the forest floor, like a lost blond doll or child; Mieze curled up in the too-small wooden box they buried her in, looking so much like a sleeping, but cold, but dead, but dirty, child-prostitute-doll, the gold-dust effect we’ve seen previously only in the whore-of-bablyon sequences (and when Franz is playing cards with Satan) sparkling over her face and shoulders; Franz on his knees in the dirt in the opening street-scene of the Epilogue underworld/fantasy, trying to embrace the as-if-just-dead body of Mieze; and Reinhold’s embodied, sensual and gentle embrace of his gay prison lover, so different from the dead (and deadening) suffocating grasp of Mieze that Cynthia describes above.

5 Comments

  1. Julian Myers Says:

    Dominic, can you say why you found Doblin’s ending hard to take?

    In the film this ending plays somewhat differently, doesn’t it. For Fassbinder Franz’s non-reconciliation with the world of labor is doomed, but also valiant (as in, “Ne travaillez jamais”). When he finally gets a job watching over a parking garage, it read to me as the ultimate nullity and defeat. Perhaps his tragedy is in failing to politicize his disinclination to work? In not working hard enough at not working.

  2. Dominic Says:

    To be honest, I can’t quite recall how differently it plays in the film. Franz does also get a job in the film, as Brandon already noted… it’s the same job, he’s an assistant doorman, he parks cars. A few times in the last 50 pages of the book, Doblin telegraphs the rebirth to come, as if to say, hang in there, keep reading, our hero is about to be redeemed, just a few more pages… He was one of the major socialist writers of his time, but the redemption through work is so late, so quick and so slight that I can’t help feeling that it deliberately lacks conviction. It’s bathos, I guess. But if he’s being straight with us, it’s still the case that the 20s (and 30s, even the 40s and 50s) was a time when politics and labor were entirely intertwined. Nowadays that isn’t so; and I don’t think it was so for Fassbinder. I like your ‘not working hard enough at not working’.

  3. Elise Says:

    Well. I watched our grande finale saturday, and then went careening out into San Francisco’s daylight for the dyke march, still nauseous from the interminable bender of Franz’s dark night of the soul in the nut house. “And I turned and saw the injustice of everything” (final episode) “with eyes not made of sugar and dirt all mixed together” (epilogue).

    For me, the preoccupation of these last segments, the improvised dream-sequence of the epilogue in particular, turns not so much on work as on vision–Fassbinder’s camera giving Franz a near-prophetic peek into the future where his own conflicts are writ large against and within those of the collective. In this sense I don’t see the opposition of psychological verses political explanations/interpretations for the “wrong” that is being taken up and confronted here, rather I see the impossibility of extricating one from the other.

    Surely, as Julian so aptly put, Franz can act. (Thanks also Julian for that little utube clip of Fassbinder). The question rather, as it is for any social being, is to what extent can he (any of us) consciously choose our actions and what’s more, consciously reflect on the consequence of those actions, not just for ourselves but for their impact on other(s). While this may be “work” I see it fundamentally as a task of vision. And so Franz’s “job” that he gets in the end, described at first as “gate keeper” and then as “watchman” rests on his ability to use his eyes–not only to see, but to discern and understand.

    “I’ll keep my eyes open now” says the voice-over. Emerging from his madness (which is actually what makes him sane) Franz will be put to the test in the world–Will he be able to see, that is to recognize and understand the evil coming toward him, as well as his own capacity for harming and murder? Did he learn from his confrontation with Ida’s ghost that the violence he inflicted on her continues on as consequence of his act–or will he recognize the swastika that he once donned to sell newspapers, and discriminate its meaning in the world, beyond the utilitarian fulfillment of his own needs? He has grappled. But has he learned how to learn? This question brings me full circle–

    “You have to be able to see the world and go toward it” Franz is told upon release of prision.

    “Hunger is how you’re broken if you don’t behave as you should” he observes at the onset.

    “It’s not good to live in a human body,” he observes at the end.

    And, “a man cannot exist without many other people.”

    Yet his reckoning seems to turn around another realization–that his “crime” was in “safeguarding” (man’s fearful desire). In Franz’ prolonged struggle with his “madness” he attempts to wake from a childlike slumber of endless suffering. After his own punishment, he returns to stand as witness to Reinhold’s crimes and yet forgives him. Does this forgiveness come from the inability to hold another accountable (he seems to feel that Reinhold couldn’t help himself) or is it the result of his understanding his own and Reinhold’s culpability and need of punishment? Has he learned to negotiate a world of risk that national socialism proposed to remedy with the final solution?

    “The black night is coming.” The world is far from well. Will Franz keep his eyes open? Or, to quote Fassbinder’s question to us–Will he (we) stupidly and unconsciously go along with it, like in the past?

  4. cynthia Sailers Says:

    Elise, your post(s) captures something so nicely here (I just re-read it and can’t get my mind around what it was entirely…maybe it is also a sense from the email you just sent), about the physicality of the film, how you’ve embodied it, the hunger, the sweat, the poetic aspects, the ways we hold each other accountable or not… Over the weekend, I also watched the Juliane Lorenz documentary. I had several reactions. Initially, that my responses had been too heavy handed over the last four weeks, trying to see some larger, group formation/identity issues and missing more of the subtleties of the film. I don’t know, even as Julian noted the limitations of our psychological readings, I thought, how interesting, I felt like I was expanding my readings out, maybe too forcibly. I also thought of the physical aspects of the film as most of the actors discussed the embodiment of their characters. Hanna Schygulla forgets if it were she or Mieze who get pregnant in the film. She thinks it was Mieze. The mix-up explained as the whole “mine-yours” thinking. Günter Lamprecht (Franz) keeps talking about how he had to be fat for 11 months, having a horrible holiday break while the others got to relax and “be in the sun”; he had to stay pale and keep up his potbelly. Gottfried John (Reinhold) reveals his anxiety about the homosexual scenes, which I have to say felt somewhat homophobic. For example, would he still keep his lady if he played these scenes, etc. I’m sure all actors focus on the labor of the role, but I was still struck by the kinds of anxieties these actors talked about as foreground to other topics, working with Fassbinder, politics, aesthetics, etc. They seem deeply invested in their character. There are also wonderful bits from the costume designer, who looks like she was 19 when she worked on this film, and how she had to convince H.S. that she had to give up how she usually had a waist, waists were not in, in this period (something like that). And some of the thinking around where to place Franz’s arm.
    One other part of the documentary I liked was Hanna Schygulla described the main characters in the film, how she remembered them. She describes Eva, a constant figure in Franz’s life, a kind of motherly girlfriend; Reinhold as someone who just destroys things but doesn’t know why; Mieze as someone with a screw loose, who can love anyone and everyone; and Franz’s as someone who believe everything is good. I can’t remember now if these were descriptions from Fassbinder or her own. They seemed simple, but capture some core of each of them, that I think my stabs over the past month, at say Reinhold’s destructiveness felt overly complicated, foreclosing something more unknown, enigmatic, about him.

  5. Julian Myers Says:

    I think I may have been wrong when I said, above, “psychological – as opposed to political, moral, or ethical – terms. For of course there is no such opposition. As Stephen suggested in week two – and as Brandon, Cynthia and Elise have made clear above – it is the relationship between individual psyche and collective politics that matters most. For the record let me point to a book relevant to a psychological account of Mr. Beaverhead (a joke there?): Klaus Theweleit’s wild two-volume study of the journals of the Weimar paramilitary freikorps, called Male Fantasies. I read Male Fantasies as a young punk and found it coming to mind often as I puzzled over Alexanderplatz.

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