June 01, 2008

"The Punishment Begins"

But some of us have strange pleasures—how about fifteen and half hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s legendary BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ?

Beginning this Thursday and continuing each week the month of June, we’re showing (in collaboration with the PFA & the Goethe Institut-SF) the West Coast premiere of the remastered, brand-new 35mm version of Fassbinder’s retelling of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel: optimistic but explosive criminal Franz Biberkopf leaves a prison stint with a hope for making the straight life, and with ‘an absurd faith in love.’ The dark epic serial of Berlin Alexanderplatz chronicles the destruction of that hope and that faith.

Called the “Mount Everest of modern cinema” by Andrew Sarris, Dominic Willsdon & I have been saying that the 15-and-a-half-hour endurance test of Berlin Alexanderplatz will be fun in the way mountain-climbing is fun: grueling, terrifying, emotional, and exhausting; but also fantastic, exhilarating, & great for a chat with your cohorts once you’re done. So, together with my friend the poet Brandon Brown, we’ve been working on getting a group together for a Berlin Alexanderplatz film-club for the duration. We’ll watch the four-hour program each Thursday night and then head out from ‘the literal and moral darkness’ (that’s Dominic) for the well-deserved drink. And we’ll see if we can follow up Friday afternoons with a group discussion here on the blog.

Would you like to join us?

If you can’t turn out every Thursday, the programs repeat on following Saturday afternoons, and you can still keep on with the conversation.

Program One, this Thursday June 5 at 6:30pm in the Wattis Theater, and again on Saturday at 2pm: Part 1 —The Punishment Begins — Part 2 — How Is One to Live If One Doesn’t Want to Die? — Part 3 — A Hammer Blow on the Head Can Injure the Soul — Part 4 — A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence

More detailed info on Fassbinder and on the film below. We’re looking forward to seeing/meeting/watching with you—



There’s a shortish piece on Fassbinder’s life & work here; here’s A.O. Scott’s NYTimes piece on the film; and if you don’t mind a plot spoiler, there’s a discussion, and lengthy synopsis, here.

Here’s the PFA’s description of the film:

“Restored in 2006, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the summa of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s art, and the culmination of his lifelong relationship to Alfred Döblin’s monumental novel of Berlin in the 1920s-a book the filmmaker said was “embedded in my mind, my flesh, my body as a whole, and my soul.” Fassbinder pours knowing tenderness into the characterization of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), an unemployed lumpen worker who earns his living as a thief and pimp following a stint in jail for murdering his mistress. Franz is a jovial if explosive figure in the Alexanderplatz district of Berlin, a man with optimistic dreams, a determination to “go straight,” and an absurd faith in love. Berlin Alexanderplatz chronicles the destruction of this faith, amid the poverty, hypocrisy, and violence of Berlin in the years just before Nazism took full hold. Unable to find work, Franz takes up with the hustler Reinhold (Gottfried John), who becomes his “best friend” and then betrays him in a number of important ways. Franz is also involved with several women during the course of the drama, but when he meets the young prostitute Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), he declares her “his most beloved in all the world.” It is upon losing her that Franz succumbs to despair-and allows himself to be transformed into a “useful member of society.” The film’s famous epilogue is Fassbinder’s comment on that.

With a hundred leading and supporting actors, including members of Fassbinder’s excellent stock company (along with Lamprecht, John, and Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla is featured as Franz’s friend Eva and Volker Spengler as the gang leader Pums), Berlin Alexanderplatz is filled with the characters and stories of Döblin’s Berlin. And at fifteen and a half hours, it comes closer than most film experiences to the engagement that a good novel offers. The beauty, richness, and cohesion of Fassbinder’s style can here be fully appreciated as it links one chapter to the next.”


&, Fassbinder on politics and Berlin Alexanderplatz:

Comments (12)

  • […] Fassbinder works are usually divided in tree periods: The avant-garde films (1969–1971), which most important work is the movie ‘Love is Colder than Death’; German melodramas (1971–1975), marked by movies such as ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ (1972), ‘World on a Wire’, ‘Fear Eats the Soul’. And International films (1976–1982) with the movies ‘Germany in Autumn’, ‘The Marriage of Maria Braun’ and his masterpiece ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’. (TFF, 2010) _Berlin Alexanderplatz_ […]

  • Yes, I think we agree. My concern was that by thinking you know a character, especially at this stage, you reduce that space of which you speak. It is essential to keep that open as long as possible in order to plumb the depths that Dublin and Fassbinder are providing. Judgement is another restrictor as well.
    Looking at a painting of roses one might say “Oh, I just love roses”, or “I have never really liked roses.”
    Neither attitude would say anything about the painting.

    Spokesperson in the sense that much of the descriptive passages of Berlin at that time as made by Doblin Fassbinder has put into the mouth of Biberkopf.
    Other descriptive passages are heard as if on a radio, or being read from a newspaper.

    It is interesting that in the Job episode in the fourth book it appears just as dialogue between ‘Job’ and ‘Satan’. Interesting that Fassbinder sets it to a candlelit card game.
    At its conclusion we see Biberkopf at his lowest, and finally he is told that he must help himself.
    Later in subsequent scenes he is much better. Has lost some weight, has positive energy etc. So, are we to conclude that he did? Help himself? If that is the case his character is now even more complex. He may be part beast, but he is not simple.

    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.

  • I’m responding to Fabrizio’s comment: Interesting how eager viewers are to analyze and define the characters. I think that greatly reduces the possibilities of the experience. Attitudes like “He is a real bastard.” “He doesn’t have a sense of his own identity.” etc. really say nothing except about the viewer.

    I disagree.

    I think opening up a space around his identity (to explain his confusional states, his dissociation–the ruptures of a clearly defined subjectivity), as well as to suggest ways he fumbles to find himself in social positions allows for more possibility in understanding his character. The classic problem of the label:the criminal. I’m also curious what you are thinking when you refer to him as a “spokesperson for his era.”

  • more on the slaughterhouse:

    Fassbinder replacing the single calf slaughter by a lamb.

    The whole scene is very much allegorical to Biberkopf himself.

  • I think it might have been guilt. If the letter he had received was from the widow ‘buying shoelaces’ who subsequently got abused by his cohort, due to his confiding his experience with her, perhaps he assumed responsibility for that and did not want to see her. Lina. In the book she is constantly referred to as ‘Stout Lina’, or “Fat Lina”. Interesting that in the Fassbinder she is slender and beautiful.

    I am reading the book simultaneously with the film viewing and it is quite a unique experience. Usually one reads the book first and then is disappointed in the move. I saw the first 3 episodes and then began the book. I was so glad I had done it that way, the book was so enhanced by bringing the film experience to it. It is amazing the thoroughness of the Fassbinder, he obviously was very devoted to it.
    Last nights viewing was proceeded by a little reading. The Doblin imagery of the slaughterhouse scenes, first the hogs and then the steer, was excruciatingly vivd, and the film did not come close. This is the first time I have felt that.
    The plus about doing the book and the film at the same time, is that you are never in the position of God, i.e. knowing how it is all going to end.

    Interesting how eager viewers are to analyze and define the characters. I think that greatly reduces the possibilities of the experience. Attitudes like “He is a real bastard.” “He doesn’t have a sense of his own identity.” etc. really say nothing except about the viewer. Biberkopf is a spokesman for an era, an extremely complex character, man and beast. I prefer not to categorize him at this point, it is like trying to make a line drawing of Everyman.

    Working on a piece called Berlin Sanfranciscoplatz which I will probably post on YouTube since I cannot post it here.

    and now . . . . back to the book

  • I have a plot question. In the last episode, why does Franz run out on Lina and disappear? I just got to that part in the book and I still don’t know. In the book he receives a letter, but it doesn’t say what it says. Did I miss something, or are we not supposed to know yet?

  • Fabrizio says:

    I have just begun the book, probably won’t catch up to this coming Thursday’s viewing.
    There don’t seem to be many bloggers here! Wonder if that means there was also a small turnout for the post screening drink around the corner. It was just too late for me, but I am very interested in sharing thoughts on this.

  • Fabrizio says:

    I don’t see him as cruel, more as lost. Cruelty implies a consciousness in harming others, whereas Biberkopf really has no control over his passions and feelings. Interesting to compare him with Eugene O”Neill’s Hairy Ape, a character unable to understand his own emotions, relatively simple, even endearing.

    The use of nursery rhymes in these first 3 episodes is very interesting. Comments?
    Also music box sounds. That giant disc of music spinning behind him –

  • The mood is so dark,moody, and atmospheric that the film is almost unbearable but I stayed for the entire 4 hours glued to my seat.Franz Biberkopf is cruel but somehow endearing.

  • Margaret Fabrizio says:

    I heartily recommend viewing the original film made of the Doblin novel. Directed by Phil Jutzl in 1931, it is available at Netflix under the Fassbinder series, Bonus Materials (disc 7)
    Beginning the Fassbinder series last night I was very glad that I had see the Jutzi a few days earlier. Very interesting comparisons. Looking for the book.
    Punishment is not a word I would use here. More likely: fortunate

  • I found this Berlin Alexanderplatz webpage with interesting info on both the novel and the film.


  • i’m ready for my punishment.

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