For its first 13 episodes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz is most decidedly a masterpiece—this despite numerous nerve-trying flaws and longueurs that could only tickle the fancy of extended-running-time masochists like Susan Sontag. From my limited experience, Fassbinder seems a fitfully brilliant filmmaker, his moments of insight so potent, so profound, that they effectively veil his much more frequent idiocies and obviousness. It is beyond any critic’s ability to proclaim true genius (I doubt we’d know this elusive beast of burden if it was staring us head on), but one thing we’re good at is forgiveness, especially of those artists with whom we fall head over heels in love. We are no one but ourselves, so I don’t consider such effusive joie de cinema inherently problematic—it is its own form of criticism, striking all manner of self-indulgent notes, subject as much to brilliance as to mediocrity, a labyrinthine jumble of interior feeling made flesh. Yet such feeling can be rendered with disinterest, hence dishonesty, and it is exactly in this respect that Fassbinder’s magnum opus is undone.
Until its self-described two-hour epilogue, Berlin Alexanderplatz is an engrossing psychological portrait of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), a Weimar-era worker bee whose slow corrosion of self both parallels and paves the way for the impending rise of Nazism. He’s a vividly realized allegorical golem, at moments passive and acquiescent, at others viciously in control. Emerging from a four-year prison stint at film’s start, he plugs his ears and contorts his mouth in silent scream (the on-screen title: “The Torment Begins”), though he is no mere victim of the pogrom’s progress slowly infecting the German id. In retrospect, I’d say that Biberkopf is more of an accumulative symbol—he wears his ideologies (Nazi newspaper seller, drunk, underground criminal, pimp) like the latest fashions, discarding them when they violently fester or cease to be useful. The residue of his experiences (multifaceted, oft-contradictory) nonetheless remains, so the impression in the moment is one of revelation: with each narrative step forward Biberkopf seemingly gains in clarity (the length of the work is a benefit, allowing for a novelistic density and, at times, a mesmeric depth of character), though Fassbinder is, in fact, merely setting up his metaphor-slathered patsy for an empty-headed last-act kill.
To his credit, Fassbinder’s highly problematic directorial intentions don’t emerge from the literal nowhere. The bibilical story of Abraham and Isaac is crucially invoked, played in voiceover counterpoint to a scene of a younger Biberkopf strangling his lover Ida (Barbara Valentin). This is the only glimpse we get of Biberkopf’s past (the only extra-narrative detail), and Fassbinder returns to it again and again over the course of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the same matter-of-fact shot-sequence replayed (each time with a different aural accompaniment) so that it burns irremovably into the psyche. This is the wellspring, the moment in time that births the character of Biberkopf and sends him flailing forth on a sacrificial ascension up the Teutonic mount. Yet it is finally lazy psychology, in toto suggesting that all of Biberkopf’s travails (and, implicitly, Germany’s) can be traced back to a singular point.
I don’t think Fassbinder entirely believes in this bill of goods he’s selling us, but he seems incapable of resolving the complex undercurrents of Berlin Alexanderplatz, preferring to indulge his (not incorrect) instincts toward self-destruction. In conception, the film’s two-hour epilogue is ingenious, a descent into absolute hysteria and madness wherein Biberkopf wanders through a politically and spiritually charged psychosexual dreamscape, complete with anachronistic musical cues from the likes of Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, and Kraftwerk. Yet the experience of watching this intentionally incongruous coda is excruciating, and to no defensible effect beyond a shrug of the shoulders and an acknowledgement that literalizing the metaphysical is not Fassbinder’s forte. This is the sequence that helped me to understand Phillip Lopate’s otherwise erroneous dismissal of the film (“flat and indifferently realized, a TV mini-series directed by the yard,” he writes) in the closing paragraphs of his essay “A Date With Fassbinder and Despair.” I would personally urge Lopate to go back and re-view certain parts of Berlin Alexanderplatz, some of which rank with the finest work in cinema, though in light of where it all finally goes (a haphazard succession of sub-Anger sexual imagery, half-hearted slaughterhouse/Christ motifs, and the kind of head-slappingly pretentious apocalyptic imagery brilliantly skewered by The Critic) I’d understand his hesitation to do so.
For me, the best scenes of Berlin Alexanderplatz revolve around more interpersonal matters, specifically in Biberkopf’s relationship with the treacherous Reinhold (Gottfried John), the man who indoctrinates him into the criminal underworld and who eventually kills Biberkopf’s prostitute lover Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). When the duo first meets in the fifth episode, they agree to share several revolving-door lovers (when Reinhold tires of his latest conquest, he passes her onto Biberkopf). It’s a brilliantly sustained roundelay on Fassbinder’s part, aided and abetted by an incessant Windham-Hill-from-Hell underscore and by the metronomic rhythms of an endlessly flashing neon sign. In ultimate effect, it is second only to the film’s best scene (captured in a distanced, yet empathetic single take) in which Reinhold murders Mieze. Fassbinder recognizes this as the high point of Berlin Alexanderplatz—Reinhold and Mieze move as if on a woodland proscenium, helplessly trying to avoid a violent, practically preordained confrontation. When it comes it is awkward, messy, yet possessed of a cosmic significance, an act at once unintentional and inevitable. Even the mist in the fog-shrouded forest descends as if on heavenly cue. It is telling that Biberkopf is nowhere to be found (he spends the majority of this episode off-screen) and even more revealing that Fassbinder appends the tail-end of this sequence to the final moments of his ill-advised epilogue, as if trying—desperately, regretfully, impossibly—to recapture and reclaim a long-lost moment of clarity.