Sunday, November 20, 2011

The German Ulysses and Biberkopf Fever

When I was in high school, my English Lit teacher announced to the class that she had never read James Joyce Ulysses. However, she promised herself and the class that she would do so before she died. I never followed up to see if she kept her promise. My encounters with Ulysses have left me empathetic. Joyce's steam-of-consciousness style leaves me bewildered. So it is with some trepidation that I checked out Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). Referred to as the German Ulysses, I have not yet started the book. I am finishing up Don DeLillo's Running Dog about a fictitious search for a porno film with Hitler made in Berlin bunker as WWII ended.

My interest in the novel is spurred by recently seeing the film at PFA.

Berlin Alexanderplatz starring Günter Lamprecht; directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; German with subtitles; (1980)

At 15½ hours long, Berlin Alexanderplatz was screened in four installments.

I'm not sure what to write about Berlin Alexanderplatz. It's so epic (in length and ambition) that a blog post seems particularly inadequate. The film follows its protagonist (Franz Bieberkopf) as he endures tribulations of biblical proportions. By the end of the film, Bieberkopf loses his true love, his kindred spirit, his right arm, his mind, etc.

Giving the briefest of synopses, Franz Biberkopf is released from prison in 1927 and reintegrates himself into his old neighborhood (the Alexanderplatz district of Berlin). In fact, Franz moves into his old flat...the same flat where he killed his lover/prostitute for which he was imprisoned. For the next 15 hours, a rogues gallery comes through the flat - whores, killers, deviants and the morally bankrupt. By comparison, Biberkopf is a saint although he does rape a woman in the first episode. Slowly but surely, Biberkopf is drawn into the moral quicksand.

Berlin Alexanderplatz focuses on the ups and downs of Biberkopf's life. Given the length of the film Fassbinder is able to show Biberkopf in many different moods. Günter Lamprecht as Franz Biberkopf gives an incredible performance if for nothing else sustaining Biberkopf for so long. The key relationship in Berlin Alexanderplatz is not between Franz and one of the number of women who share his bed but rather between Biberkopf and the stuttering Reinhold Hoffmann. Gottfried John's performance as Reinhold is stupendous. A truly pathetic character, Reinhold is more weak and cowardly than evil although the end results are the same. Despite bedding a steady stream of women, Reinhold is vaguely homosexual which is confirmed in the epilogue. This shades the Biberkopf/Reinhold relationship with a homo-eroticism which left me wondering if I was imagining it or it was deliberately included by Fassbinder.

There were 13 episodes and a dreamlike epilogue. Most of the episodes were 60 minutes long. I enjoyed all of it although the epilogue veered into the surreal as we see Franz's madness brought to screen. Fassbinder did a nice job recreating Weimar Germany. Fassbinder skills are on full display as he keeps the plot moving while accretively building a masterpiece. Scene by scene, Fassbinder and
Lamprecht flesh out Biberkopf and add nuance and insight into the character. At 15 hours, it is easy to say that Fassbinder could not help but develop a complex character. However, Fassbinder takes the audience for a roller coaster ride as we rise and fall with Franz Biberkopf. I cared for Franz, was frustrated with him, disappointed with him, et al.

At 15½ hours, many people will find Berlin Alexanderplatz plodding. There were time where I felt that way. If one commits to the film, I think it will be a rewarding experience.

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