Berlin Alexanderplatz – I. The Punishment Begins

berlinalexanderplatzSo here we are.  The first episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour miniseries on “depravity and insanity” in the Weimar Republic.

For this episode guide, I will don a blogger’s cap, spleening my thoughts, my impressions, as though I had forgotten how to edit them into coherence.  Readability.  I guess I’m kidding.  But really: my intent is to record my immediate response to each episode, one episode at a time.  I’m sure I will offend.  Many passages, I suspect, will feel repetitive.  The cumulative effect may echo that of Fassbinder’s test of endurance, his obsessive quest to oppressively render one man’s downward spiral as obsessively as possible.  Have I exceeded my quota of wordiness?  Kind reader, you thought I could just barrel straight into a brilliant analysis of a supposed masterwork.  You (perhaps) thought wrong.*

I girded myself for this first episode.  Both mentally and physically, I laid myself down, the better to let this experience wash over me.  My workday was done; I had just worked out; I was tired, relaxed, and ready.  Thus, lying in bed, my head propped against a pillow, I started “The Punishment Begins.”

The opening sepia credits situate us.  It’s a rather exciting evocation of time and place, a hell-train that careens through a montage of Weimarian stills, a blasted newsreel that announces only that this is the time and place.  And we are in sunny Berlin.  And we are face to face with our hero, Franz Biberkopf, as he is discharged from prison.  He is crazed by the sounds of the city – he Screams – and a prison guard assuages him of his worries, at least for now:  All one needs do is cross the threshold.  The abyss (love) is just (a kiss away) over that line, past that door.

Stop.  Ponder the way that Fassbinder’s camera focuses intently on Franz’s gait toward the gate.  At first I did not know that he was being released from prison.  Our man appears to greet the day with slight bemusement; he hum-drums to the borderline.  Suddenly a prison guard appears and WE HAVE CONTEXT.  Before this knowledge, we (the viewer) simply watch Franz up close, walking silently from point A to B, a tight tracking shot that, yes, lasts longer than it should.  This tussle between necessity (of cinematic exigency) and indulgence (of a scholarly kind, turtling to focus on each little moment, making it count and doing so by exhausting the possibilities inherent in each little moment) will be the one by which this miniseries-cum-film lives and dies.  The life-as-prison metaphor is like a grapefruit smashed in my face – but don’t ask me to explain how or why the metaphor, super-obvious, works.  Perhaps it is the way the actors act:  Reduced to an overgrown babe, an almost infantile cowering at his exit from the box (the womb) in which he’s been reduced to a mere statistic, Franz is a raw, curious nerve — wide-eyed, gruff, uninhibited.  Already the depths of the acting suggest that Franz was, pre-prison, a child out of control and now, post-prison, after confinement for killing a whore, still a kid, reacting without filters, his body, his face, all expression.  Welcome to Fassbinder’s map of the pre-Hitler Berlin.

Think I am going to cover this episode brick by brick, beat by beat?  Ha!

Really, it is all episodic.  And as glacial as some of the episodes-within-an-episode are, be it the odd philosophical meeting with a Hasidic Jew and the concentrated telling of a parable in a dark, dingy apartment, or the visitations with a bitter woman who finally sobs at having and losing Franz for his damned way of making people “unhappy,” or Franz’s ministrations at the window of his pad or on the ground, a sick animal who almost has to chant to no-one in particular that he is in trouble, he is lost, he will make an effort to be better, to be honest – all of this reaches me like a slow blooming haze, the conviction that we (the viewer) must grovel and bleat like Franz, must hump madly the angry women of this hateful world, must surrender ourselves to wretched, ironic parables and plain, inscrutable symbols (at one point Fassbinder inserts an algebraic equation over snow white), in order to GET WHAT’S GOING ON, and WHAT’S GOING ON WOULD MAKE ANY MAN CRAZY.

The moments remain moments, then.  Like little fishies you can marvel at, or lump in with the rest of the scenery and (possibly) admire.  At the end of this episode, I understood quite clearly what I had seen, yet knew not what to say, what to make of this 84-minute opener.

The plot thickens.  Slowly.  The man, an ex-convict now trapped in a different sort of cage, ordered by the police to not set foot in what sounds like two dozen districts, will — to the extent that a man of his disposition can, both unabashedly open to the world and despondent at his utter insignificance to it – make the most of what he has.  He has committed himself to his latest whore, (she a sweet-faced open book), he has reconnected with certain old friends and faces (the landlady; the former lover’s sister; the drinking buddy; another former lover; the browned, yellowed stench and stew of Berlin City), and he has positioned himself for the rest of his life.  Franz seeks to do better.

Ask not, reader, for a sense to this journey between walls.  Life is hell.  Don’t expect resolution.  Life goes on.

The punishment begins.

Rating: B

*Curiously, for all of the praise critics have showered on Berlin Alexanderplatz, no review (I am sure I will find exceptions if I keep digging) amounts to more than the same hyped, un-explicated blurb: essentially, this is hard stuff to take but it will blow your mind.  Almost as a matter of principle, I couch my reviews and articles here on the Exploded Goat in a fair amount of research.  I’m not interested in saying what I have to say without having familiarized myself with what other people have said on the same subject.  Basically, I don’t like to write in a vacuum.  This episode guide I’m constructing (with or without KC’s input) is a vast experiment I’ve never tried.  I will attempt to come at it with a sense of my own viewing and reading past and next to zero precedent for either Fassbinder’s films (I’ve only seen Ali-Fear Eats the Soul) or German lit.  Or any sense of what makes the miniseries “good.”  It’s a cold reading**, as drawn out and diary-like as my writing typically is not.  And by the time I’m done with the experience (it won’t be a creative diet that excludes all else, hell no) — I might have gained something.  Perspective?  Who can say?  Maybe I’ll just have had the experience.  Of one thing we can be sure:  By the time I’m done, the dead Fassbinder, he a fecund, coked-up libertine in life, will have finished five films in the afterlife.

**And by reading it I mean just that.  No skipping forward, no turning back.  Reading it as a text (I saw a Peter Jansen interview with Fassbinder.  The director voiced his interest in writing a novel.  He may have accomplished that via Berlin Alexanderplatz, a film whose novel someone else, a Mr. Alfred Doblin, wrote in 1929.  Could it be that, in the miniseries format, Fassbinder found the perfect medium through which to get his penultimate vision across?)  And…  Reading the f*cker at night, when I’m in bed and have adequately decompressed from the day’s doings.  I do all my closest reading then.  Would that I could wake having digested each episode for all its worth, prepared to expound on it as no blogger has (or wants to).  Me, pretentious?  Get outta here.  At any rate, once it is done, I should like to see how this episode guide stands – whether the sum is greater than its parts, and whether, like the film itself, it was worth the running time.

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