For lack of a less obvious metaphor, Berlin Alexanderplatz is like an ocean: vast and deep, for sure, but also internally turbulent, its tides ebbing and flowing, constantly lapping against its barely-there borders. At 15½ hours (divided over fourteen episodes), the film was practically guaranteed immortality in the annals of film history, if only for its length alone. Yet there is far more to appreciate about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s magnum opus than the sheer undertaking of it all, even if its quality wavers throughout, rising and sinking like the tides, some of its moments among the best in cinema and others decidedly more trying.
If one is to take the film as a whole—a challenging act for almost any viewer, given that most of us are accustomed to digesting our art in three or four hour long chunks at a time—Berlin Alexanderplatz is a sprawling, multi-layered, multi-character study, full of organs and constructs that would seemingly stretch out for miles if uncoiled from their tightly packed arrangements. It is a work representative of what is nowadays being made possible in the union between film and television (of the ever-growing terrain of cinema), fusing the relatively compact, carefully manicured narrative of the feature-length film with the more episodic approach of the television format. Together, the two multiply (rather than simply add upon) their myriad possibilities.