Berlin Alexanderplatz: Remastered
This article is from 2007.
Pasquale Iannone offers a beginner’s guide to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 opus, Berlin Alexanderplatz: Remastered. It is a rare treat though, at more than 15 hours long, it’s not for the faint hearted
The recent deaths of art cinema colossi Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni – at the ages of 89 and 94 respectively – led me to wonder about some of the great filmmakers who did not make it to their fifth decade, let alone approach their tenth. This group includes directors Jean Vigo, Jean Eustache, Larissa Shepitko, Michael Reeves and the astonishingly prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in 1982 at the age of 36.
Fassbinder was, along with Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz and Wim Wenders, one of the key filmmakers of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, but this description is barely sufficient to characterise an oeuvre which is unprecedented in the history of film, both in quality and quantity. Beginning in 1969, Fassbinder made 33 feature films for cinema and TV, four TV series (a total of 23 episodes) and four feature-length video films – a total of 60 pieces for film and television in 13 years.
It’s a very impressive work rate, but what kind of filmmaker was Fassbinder?
Coming out of the Munich ‘anti-theater’ group, Fassbinder’s early films were undoubtedly indebted to the French New Wave. But his declared ambition was to make ‘German Hollywood Films’, that is to say films that were ‘wonderful and beautiful but which could nevertheless be critical successes’. For inspiration, Fassbinder turned to the films of Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh and, most significantly, the lush melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
Screening at this year’s EIFF in its full, restored 930-minute version is Berlin Alexanderplatz, the monumental opus made in 1980, both his most personal film and the summation of 13 years of unrelenting experimentation in a variety of media, genres and settings.
But to give up over 15 precious festival hours for a single film is madness surely?
Absolutely. ‘You may laugh,’ said Fassbinder in 1980, ‘but I believe my life would have turned out very differently if I hadn’t carried around with me, in my heart, my flesh, my soul, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Having read the novel during his ‘almost murderous puberty’, Fassbinder re-read it upon embarking on his own career and was determined to adapt it for cinema, a process which took over a decade. During this time, many of the themes and much of the flavour of Döblin’s novel would filter through into his many feature films.
Published in 1929, the novel tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, who, on his release from prison, is confronted with the poverty, unemployment, crime and bourgeoning Nazism of 1920s Germany. One of the first German novels to adopt the technique of James Joyce – with its rapid shifts between interior monologue, collage of quotations and interior monologue – it is a post-Ulysses city-novel that ranks alongside John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Between 1979 and 1980, Fassbinder adapted the novel into a TV film in 13 parts with a two-hour epilogue.
But if it is structured in 13 parts, why see it all over two days rather than spread out over several weeks like a traditional TV series?
Crucially, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a TV film, not a TV series. Susan Sontag perhaps put it best when she observed that: ‘In Berlin Alexanderplatz, cinema, that hybrid art, has at last achieved some of the dilatory, open form and accumulative power of the novel. The more one can watch of the film over the shortest time works best . . . exactly as one reads a long novel, with maximum pleasure and intensity.’
Filmhouse, 623 8080, 16–22 Aug, 6pm; 25 Aug (Package 1), 1pm; 26 Aug, 2.30pm (Package 2), £30 (no concs), individual screenings £6.50 (£4.55).