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
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
"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