The title of Berlin Alexanderplatz alone has an almost mythical quality for cineasts due to its length, which is around 15 hours, and the fact that it was the project that director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was desperate to do for his entire, insanely productive, but short career. Fassbinder reportedly read the source novel by Alfred Döblin at least two dozen times in his brief life (he died in 1982 from a drug overdose, aged 37). He would even often have a character named Franz Biberkopf in his films, as an homage to the main character of the novel.
The film, or TV series, or whatever you may want to classify Berlin Alexanderplatz as, is set at the end of the 1920s in Berlin, contiguous with the Weimar era. The impending rise of the Nazis is in the viewer’s mind from the get-go. The novel was written in 1929, and is full of references to the Nazis–the source novelist fled the country in 1933.
The story centres on the truly unlikable and monstrous Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), who at the start of the series has just been released from prison, where he had been sent for murdering his girlfriend. The world of Berlin in the late ’20s probably isn’t the best place for a con to go straight, and because of the recession (due to austerity imposed on Germany after its loss of the first World War), jobs are hard come by. He quickly falls back on his old, criminal tricks.
Naturally like almost everything Fassbinder ever did, the “hero” doesn’t find a happy ending, even though here it’s probably the best he could hope for under the circumstances, the events that transpire over the previous 13 episodes.
Biberkopf’s descent into crime and destruction starts when he starts working for Pum, who leads a criminal enterprise, and he becomes a friend of Reinhold. All of Fassbinder’s obsessions flash onto the screen: love, melodrama, power, politics… Biberkopf is most certainly Fassbinder’s avatar here, but so is Reinhold in a way, and all the women of Biberkopt’s life.
Fassbinder, like Biberkopf, flirts with Nazism in one episode, but many episodes later he is a committed communist. Fassbinder was despised in Germany by all political factions. He would describe himself as a “romantic anarchist,” which to him meant radical independence from all political parties.
It’s a mammoth work that really set the template for the modern auteur-led mini-series. It was shown weekly on German TV, and eventually released in the US as a 15-hour feature with 2 or 3 parts per night and, eventually, had subsequent television screenings. It’s also a perfect example of a slow-burn film or television series, because it’s not until the infamous surreal epilogue that the story comes together. This segment is a brilliant stand-alone film in its own right, and would probably work even for those who haven’t seen the previous 13 episodes. It really needs to be seen to believed. Those 13 other episodes are a pretty straightforward period drama.
It’s a startling mix, and the fact that Fassbinder throws in Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin songs often onto the soundtrack plus the increasingly bizarre imagery just intensifies the sense of “we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”
Fassbinder was considering doing a theatrical-length film of Berlin Alexanderplatz with Gérard Depardieu as Franz Biberkopf and Isabelle Adjani as Mieze to counter the 15-hour version, but he would be dead within two years. Still, but did make a staggering four more features and a documentary. In fact, Berlin Alexanderplatz marked the only year of his filmmaking life when he only directed one film or TV series, with three or four projects in a single year being a typical workload, nevermind the many plays he wrote.
Berlin Alexanderplatz may not be my favourite of Fassbinder’s films, and I have around another two dozen to watch, but everything he was about is in there. It”s got the melodrama, the politics, his complicated sexuality, the abuse of power and much more. Fassbinder once said “Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It’s a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other.”
The disc includes an array of documentaries on the film and Fassbinder, including the 2015 Fassbinder: Love Without Demands feature. Tony Rayns supplies a newly filmed appreciation, which is 44 minutes in length, and there are the original recaps, the Berlinale 2007 trailer, and a 60-page book with new and old writing on the film.