July 02, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz: Epilogue: Redux:

Another illuminating post from Brecht Andersch, our projectionist and Berlin Alexanderplatz expert-in-residence, as we wind our way down.

Hanna Schygulla has said that Fassbinder told her he identified profoundly with all three main characters of Alexanderplatz; “I am Biberkopf, Reinhold, and even Mieze, too.” He had discovered the novel at the age of fourteen, and it served as a mirror to this budding genius, reflecting back the splits within his own psyche. He used his experiences as petri-dish experiments in order to acquire both self-knowledge and an understanding of his world, and his findings became increasingly disturbing: humans, through their own natural needs – love, security, self-protection, etc. – were, consequent to their acquiescence to the powerful, or to the power of the collective, the source of their own oppression. The only answer lay in further, deeper self-knowledge – but how to achieve this in a nation of “Stupidheads” (with whom he by no means disassociated himself), in which the previous two generations (to which his parents and grand-parents belonged) had been participants in mass-murder? His solution to this conundrum was to make films (often for television) which would deliver shocks to the psyche, by means of stirring up subconscious energies, which would be forced to emerge as psychic boils in need of painful laceration, or, for those more self-aware, a forcing of the viewer into direct confrontation with Self.

Franz, Mieze, and Reinhold are all aspects of the collective German psyche. Franz, our sometimes squishy-soft and sweet every-man, does everything in his power to prevent true self-knowledge, which eventually leads to setting his two loves (the halves of his split personality) on collision course. That these two are so oppositional in nature – Mieze, a pure spirit of sorts, “gentle as a feather”, whose self-willed innocence prevents her from assuming responsibility for herself – and Reinhold, who has given himself over to an evil psychotic misogyny (he has an anvil tattooed to his chest because “someone must lie on it”) – indicates a failure of integration, a collective psyche at war with itself, and, deep inside, a center that cannot hold. The later crimes of Germany, and fascism in general, like Mieze’s murder, have their root causes in failures and/or refusals to see. The response to the trauma of WWI – an attempt to stay “strong” (one of the many charges repeatedly hurled at Franz in the dream-play Epilogue), a wide-spread holding on to a simplistic and self-pitying national identity/ideology, would cause Germany to fall prey as a collective to its latent psychoses.

Over the course of 13 and 1/2 hours, Fassbinder has pulled out all the stops to make Franz attractive, even – despite his occasional murderous rages – lovable. In the book, for example, the characters of his landlady and the owner of his pit-stop bar are barely fleshed-out, whereas Fassbinder casts exceedingly appealing actors in these roles, and has them express affection, and more, for Franz: Frau Bast (played by Brigitte Mira, who starred in Fear Eats the Soul) says admiringly, early on, to Polish Lina, “There’s something about Herr Biberkopf…” Polish Lina herself, in the book resembles a character appearing later in the film, Franzë. Döblin’s nickname for Lina is “Fatty”. Fassbinder casts the attractive star Elisabeth Trissenaar in this role. Eva, nonexistent until relatively late in the book, is turned into a protective earthly angel for Franz, makes her appearance in the film’s first episode, and is played by Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder’s most famous leading-lady, and the most iconically beautiful and sexy German actress of their generation. Lastly, but most importantly, Fassbinder has cast as Franz Gunther Lamprecht, an actor who exudes charm and humanity like no other, and who delivers a complex performance that, once seen for the duration of the film, is never forgotten. By the end of episode 13, many hearts in the audience have broken for Franz and Mieze. In the Epilogue, however, Franz, and the film’s audience, are, in the context of a dream-play, immediately subjected to a blistering critique of Franz by all the other characters, an attack which barely lets up over the course of almost two hours. What gives?

For me, the most cogent method of understanding the Epilogue is via Jungian dream analysis, in which all elements of a dream represent aspects of Self, or of different “selves” subsidiary to the whole. Since all the characters in Alexanderplatz represent one modern German archetype or another, and Franz, as our central everyman, fits the role of unifying ego (of sorts), it’s fairly easy to proceed. Franz, in the asylum, experiences a flood of hallucinatory images and sounds. As often happens in dreams, the familiar natures of people, places, etc. are stood on their heads, revealing latent or repressed characteristics. One after another, the film’s many characters turn up to harangue Franz, often accusing him of responsibility for the deaths not only of Ida, but Mieze also, of egocentrism and, over and over again, of a ridiculous attempt to remain “strong” in the face of adversity, of self-willed blindness, a failure not only to see, but a failure to even recognize the existence of vitally important realities over which his eyes, brain, and soul have skipped. Reinhold, no longer so evil, is his greatest accuser, while Mieze, no longer quite the innocent, continues to slip through his fingers. It is made evident from the beginning that Franz, in the asylum, is undergoing some kind of psychic “death”, and slowly it is revealed that he is to be reborn as a kind of brain/soul-dead zombie capable of casually wearing a swastika-armband. All this is complicated by the Epilogue’s being riddled with anachronisms, most obviously in the form of pop music from the 60s and 70s. But Fassbinder has titled this last episode “My Dream of Franz Biberkopf’s Dream by Alfred Döblin”, so really we are seeing aspects of Fassbinder’s own psyche as activated by Döblin’s novel and recent German history. The Epilogue is an auto-critique of a film artist whose many conflicting selves were never quite reconciled, and whose own inner-Reinhold had been at least partly responsible for the suicides of two former lovers. By making Franz, a character poised in age somewhere between his parents and grandparents, highly sympathetic, then revealing his eventual acquiescence to Nazism, and then finally by conflating Franz’ character and perspective, and subsuming, to some extent, those of all the other characters featured in the Epilogue, with and into his own, Fassbinder confronts his audience with a crazy fun-house mirror in which all its latent and/or repressed fascistic or merely negative tendencies (and the excuses for and evasions of responsibility of) are revealed to the German audience of his time.

These are still potent and valuable revelations. For Fassbinder, fascism was a natural result of individuals evading moral vision and responsibility, of their acceding to the collective, and taking on its pressures and values as their own.

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