June 07, 2008

“Dallas with Nazis”

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”.

StephenI 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.
JulianI 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’.

Comments (5)

  • Jumping in to comment because I can’t make the screening tonight and am sad in advance, but I keep thinking about Franz Biberkopf’s language. Suzanne’s observation about Franz’s poetic and oratorical outbursts mixed in my head with thoughts from Stephen, Cynthia, and others about F.B. as one without a stable subject position. Now I’m having all these questions about his language use – how, before Franz re-integrates himself through violence, he’s bubbling over with snatches of songs and language bits. And how he seems to get dragged under by words, into phrase whirlpools. (Like the encounter with Eva where he jams up repeating “I don’t want it to be like it was before.”)

    It interests me that, If I’m not misremembering, certain phrases or rhymes come up in both FB’s disassociated moments and his more fluent moments. i think “Die Wacht Am Rhein” is one – first rattling around in Franz’s head, then emerging in the bar confrontation. It makes him seem like the object of his own language, that he’s carrying these overpowering language-pieces around until he finds a situation in which he can try to utter them as master. And that made me wonder if F.B.’s language (or his violence), are meant to originate with his psyche, seeing how shifty and shaky he is, or if he is partly a conduit for language/violence from elsewhere.

    I don’t mean to diminish the impact of the acts of sexual violence that F.B. is author of – but I’m wondering if there is a pre-history or source for F.B.’s bits of language, in the context of these questions of agency/power that keep coming up, and related to the shifts in the character from babbling to oratory to self-hypnosis.

    For some moments of language audience-hypnosis, I was entranced/dazed by all the conversations involving flat catchphrases or gnomic altered catchphrases (“Even the most sensible man will one day come to his senses”). And the overwhelming repetition of “Shoelaces!” in over-excited voices in the shoelaces scene, and the calm controlled affect of the Fassbinder voice-over narration, and the language of the 1929 form of Viagra.

    I’m curious about how all these different levels of language come up in the novel –

  • I loved these responses, for all their variousness in tone and content, their perspectives. Just some notes off the cuff:

    It’s interesting that two strong forms of analysis seemed to emerge, one pertaining to Franz’s desires as they pertain to National Socialism, and one pertaining to his, as Cynthia put it so aptly, “infantile, perverse” sexual desires. What I want to wonder about is the connection between them. It seems to me that Franz’s desire for order/peace could reflect a response to the trauma he experienced fighting in war, but which he (hysterically) finds himself overturning whenever such “fetishized glimmers of hope” (as Stephen put it) actually obtain as possibilities.

    In some way then, Lina provides exactly this sort of stabilizing force. Quick to conflict when she needs to defend her man (the terrific scene where she batters the pornographer comes to mind), in general she “turns away” from violence (as when her uncle is battered by Meck), including the neck-suck gesture. Is this, then, where Franz’s perversity emerges? His inability to cohabitate with one who more or less provides little-conditional love?

    I wonder with Cynthia whether or not Franz can take up any position. It’s also interesting to me that perhaps National Socialism might seem to provide Franz with another stabilizing subject position to assume, that is, is it a chance for Franz to be “German” at least? But even the relative stability of this position is rejected—Lina (a Pole) might be willing to toast to Germany for the Germans, but Franz can never wholeheartedly do so.

    Finally, I’m having trouble condensing these associations—but Suzanne’s point that Franz achieves subjecthood after committing acts of (sexual) violence on women is strong and haunting. Is this a way of “mastering” the trauma of violence Franz experienced in wartime, or a form of ressentiment deriving from Franz’s feeling inadequate in the market economy? How is Fassbinder’s interpretation of Doblin dealing with this violence? Normalizing it through psychoanalytic or economic discourse (lol)? Making it parodic, even in the discourse of the women who are subject to Franz’s violence (when he grabs the neck of the widow, she thanks him)?

  • It’s interesting maybe to make the comparison between Lina and Eva. Stephen/Dominic suggest that Eva wafts in and out of Franz’s life in a soft-focus cloud of “unsullied sexuality”—except we understand that in fact Eva’s a high-class call girl—and I keep thinking it’s that Franz was her pimp/lover in his former pre-incarcerated life. And she’s more like a mother figure at this stage of the film than anything else, buying tie-clips when Franz is hawking them unsuccessfully on the street, and offering to purchase shoelaces from him when he turns up accidentally at the expensive apartment of one of her johns. I don’t know that I’d describe her influence as calming, I think it seems more demoralizing or emasculating. Lina on the other hand’s portrayed as the non-innocent innocent, tongue-in-the-cognac is totally kittenish! and then cradling a madonna statuette in her arms like a doll when she’s moving into Franz’s apartment. Lina’s kind of the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold/gives it away for free/love junkie; the men come and the men go (the last one stayed three weeks)(but left behind his bottle of whatever the 1929 version of Viagra is).

  • In the same vein, I loved the increasing fuzz of Lina’s fuzz-halo-hair as things (control, stability, the relationship) really began to fall apart. Someone mentioned at the bar afterwards (I can’t remember who now) how uncompelling they found Lina, finally: as character, image, actress. I’m ambivalent about Lina, although her mute devotion at the end of the third episode, lying on the abandoned lower bunk where Franz went when he left, occupying the space of his loss, was totally compelling.

    Ditto the sexual encounter between the widow and Franz: mysteriously compelling. I’m not sure if that *move*, the fetishistic neck-grabbing, had already become parodic, ridiculous, at that point in the serial (the way episode two ends with Franz clutching Lena’s neck and episode three lurches open with her release), but in the context of that encounter, between the grief-stricken, isolated upper-class widow and the ex-con, shoelace-peddling doppelganger of her dead husband, Franz’s incisive, violent and service-oriented action of desire felt, well, hot.

    Lots to be said here about Franz stepping into a position of class and other sorts of power and virility in that moment, and how there is also a certain safety or performance in a gesture for which he will be paid, finally, in a roundabout sort of way. The perversity of the pimp playing the prostitute.

  • We’ve focused on the protagonist here, but for me much of the fun of Alexanderplatz is in the co-stars and bit parts. I was transfixed Lina, Franz’s girlfriend, played by Elisabeth Trissenaar and her fuzz-halo of hair. She was brilliantly odd. Remember her lapping at her cognac like a cat in her first scene! I also loved Hark Bohm as Otto Lüders, Lina’s uncle, a door-to-door shoelace salesman (who knew people used to do this?). His Arto Lindsayish looks pegged him as a geek, which rendered his hissing misogyny all the more worrisome and delicious.

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