! Critic Judy Stone
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Berlin Alexanderplatz

There is no question that "Berlin Alexanderplatz" is a masterpiece, the culmination of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's unprecedented, extraordinarily prolific career.

From the age of 15, Fassbinder was drawn to the doomed character of Franz Biberkopf, a former cement and transport worker who is the protagonist of Alfred Doblin's influential novel, "Berlin Alexanderplatz."

We meet Biberkopf just as he is released from prison in 1927 after serving four years for the murder of his prostitute-mistress, Ida. It is the beginning of his naively good-humored struggle to avoid pimping and petty crime, while inexplicably attracting a succession of women who live on the periphery of the underworld.

Franz is an amiable clod with little sense of guilt for what he has done wrong and little resentment toward those who wrong him. His simple travails and serio-comic sexual triumphs are as mesmerizing in Fassbinder's treatment as Doblin's 1929 book was to a generation of Germans.

Fassbinder brilliantly unfolds Doblin's view of post-World War 1 Germany as a human slaughterhouse, haunted by unemployment and inflation. Within that grim picture, Doblin saw Franz as a big "good-natured sheep."

"I am Biberkopf," Fassbinder often insisted, despite his own inexhaustible talent and the thirst for alcohol and drugs that led to his death at 36. When I met Fassbinder in Munich during the shooting of "Berlin Alexanderplatz," he told me that was the first book he had read "in which the city is the theme and not just a location. The main character is ruined by believing in the good of man instead of realizing that society can't be good. He is ruined by the exploitation of his feelings. No, 'feelings' is not the right word. He is ruined by the exploitation of his love and friendship. This is the theme in all my films."

Biberkopf's ghost hovered over Fassbinder's first film, "Love is Colder than Death" (1969). In it, Fassbinder himself played an ex-convict named Franz who tries to resist new involvement in crime. In "Fox and His Friends" (1975), Fassbinder stars as a self-destructive character named Franz Biberkopf, a lower-class loser in a homosexual circle riddled with its own peculiar snobbery and pretensions.

The Biberkopf of "Berlin Alexanderplatz" is both a victim and a victimizer, with only the dimmest perception that he is playing either role. He is scarcely out of prison for a few hours when he has Ida's not-too-reluctant sister down on the floor scarcely resisting the feral bite on her throat that is Biberkopf's fierce prelude to sexual satisfaction. Women are always welcoming him , and although he has vague urges to stay faithful, he rarely does. When he meets Reinhold, a tortured crook who can't bear being with a woman for more than a month, Franz agrees to take each one off Reinhold's hands with only the slightest degree of comprehension or shame about his own duplicity.

Displaying the same lack of perception, Franz persists in regarding Reinhold as his dear friend even after he involves him in a robbery and throws him out of a speeding van to get rid of him. Reinhold's first betrayal results in the loss of Franz's arm, but the worst is still to come and ultimately leads to Franz's total disintegration.

As Franz, the heavy, sluggish-looking Gunter Lamprecht turns in the performance of a lifetime. His plodding attempts to stay honest by peddling tie clips, shoelaces, sex books and Nazi newspapers are presented with stolid self-sufficiency, but the expressions on his face are marvelous when he has ponderously thought his way through to some utterly banal observation about his life and times.

Every performer in Fassbinder's repertory seems inspired, and they all show new dimensions of their talents: Gottfried John as the sexually agonized Reinhold; Hanna Schygulla, extraordinarily beautiful as his loving and still loyal former mistress, a whore who now has richer digs; Elisabeth Trissenaar as the adoring Lina, who tries to help him stay on the straight and narrow path; Brigitte Mira as his steadfast and accommodating landlady; Hark Bohm as the sinister, self-serving Luders and Frank Buchrieser as Meck, Franz's erstwhile "father" figure.

Fassbinder has magnificently re-created the bleak atmosphere of Berlin in the late '20s, the dark ambience occasionally transformed with flashing neon lavender and amber glows in the expressively moody cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger.

Overall, it clocks in at 15 hours, but I'll bet the viewer will be hooked from the first episode.

San Francisco Chronicle October 13, 1983