Berlin Alexanderplatz – II. How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?

birdberlinalexanderplatzThrown by the first episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz, I settled into this, the second one, quite comfortably.  Filling the space between episodes by going about my daily routine, I found that everything – EVERYTHING – I saw on Netflix or basic cable paled beside the memory of “The Punishment Begins.”  With this realization came another:  Not only did I long for entertainment as meaty as that first episode, I wanted to see what happened to Franz Bieberkopf as his story unfolded.  I wanted to be there.  I don’t normally go from one heavy, thought-provoking work of art to another.  I take breaks; or, to put it another way, as my wild moods swing, so do my cravings for artistic food.  With a sweet tonic of Bava I rinse a palette of Bergman.  (OK, that’s an exaggerated example, but you get me.)  This carries over to my reading habits.  I can’t read a Faulkner novel and a Philip K. Dick novel side by side, nor do I feel like reading more than one PKD book a year.  (For a paranoiac like me, paranoia that deep, that sharp, deserves nothing less.)  Much of “The Punishment Begins” was hard going, but it floored me.

Two days later, I checked up on Franz.

“How is One to Live If One Doesn’t Want to Die?” fuels our desire to see him turn his life around.  We join him and Lina, his live-in love, at a table in their chosen dive.  He counts, not (presumably) for the first time since their coupling, their remaining marks (geld? coins?).  Should Lina sell herself so they can make ends meet?  No – that is out of the question.  So Franz hustles another way, selling tie clips on the sidewalk, barking his product like it were so much magic in a bottle.  Lina watches from across the street.  One of Franz’s ex-flames lays a crisp bill on his wares.  This adds insult to injury.  The ex-lovers do not speak; and the encounter throws Franz off of his game:  Later that day, he tells Lina that he’s not cut out for the gig.  She should do it; she’s better at it.  If memory serves (I’m watching the film with the utmost reverence.  Until I have seen it in full, I don’t want to replay any of it.  Otherwise I feel, however inanely, that I’m cheating.  I’d be giving myself an “out” for not being the attentive viewer I claim/want to be)…  If memory serves, Franz does not pocket the money his long-ago love gives him.  Perhaps, his pride at stake, this move is understandable.  More likely, it’s stupid.  Festering between two world wars, Germany is in a severe financial and spiritual drought.  Times are tough.  The lean, mean streets will get leaner and meaner before they kind up.  This fight, these times, will leech on the characters; will afflict our hero, for they spare no-one.  That’s the central conflict of this episode – Franz against hard times, against what some characters refer to as “the new world.”  And, already, we knew this from the first episode.  Moreover, we knew that this historical “fiction” is a character study.  Set against “the new world” of a Germany in rapid decline, Berlin Alexanderplatz pits Franz Bieberkopf vs. Franz Bieberkopf.  And he’s not simply an allegory for his times.  Here, in one hour, “How is One to Live” depicts Franz’s attempt to stick by Lina and to stay afloat, in a relatively straightforward manner.

The episode charts a number of close calls, and for this reason, I grew to like Franz in a way I had not expected.  Test #1 was the lady from his past, on the street.  Test #2 is his latent homosexuality – or, I suppose, his fascination with things taboo, homosexuality a considerable taboo in the period in which Berlin Alexanderplatz takes place.  Franz resists, though.  He doesn’t want to sell books of dirty drawings, or (as far as we can tell) reproduce the acts they show.  Test #3 is harder to pin down.  After Franz and Lina beer up at a nightclub, he meets a damnably drunk newspaperman.  Soon Franz is in the subway, hocking the newspaper, which is sympathetic to the then-nascent Nazi party.  Again, past and present collide:  A communist that Franz used to know takes issue with his Swastika armband – with his seeming ignorance at the cause he’s working to promote.  We too, as viewers, find this ignorance uncouth – and not just because Nazis are scum.  It is the succumbing to said ignorance that betrays Franz’s effort at improving his life.

“How is One to Live” climaxes in the dive in which the episode starts.  I felt I was watching a tenser, realer antecedent for the standoff in the tavern in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.  (In both scenes a person’s Nazi-based sympathies are questioned.)  Forced (again) to defend his selling of the newspaper, Franz heads off a group of commies bent on humiliating him.  Call it test #3.5.  Our common Golem is up for the challenge:  He has poetry in him — but he sweats.  Intuitively Franz knows that ORDER IS RIGHT, NECESSARY, and GOOD.  But why the men cannot see this, cannot see that he only wants the best for him and his country – he belts a tribute to the Fatherland – confuses him.  Perhaps the confusion catalyzes his rage.  Perhaps his confusion is his rage.  Still.  He stops short of kicking ass, because they (and we) see that Franz is not as ignorant as he seems.  So what if he’s unwittingly tied to the Nazis?  Franz is a survivor.  Life’s defeated him, yet it has given him the gift of perspective.  He lumbers on, determined to raise himself and his love and his country to the ideals they are, at least in his head.

So closes the second episode.  As I write, I am poised to praise the miniseries.

Do we see the command of technique?  Berlin Alexanderplatz was shot in 16mm.  The scrubbed starkness, the depth of the dark colors and the brightness of the lighter ones, is a thing to behold.  The period detail, too.  (I read that Fassbinder used sets left over from The Serpent’s Egg, a Bergman film.)  Most importantly, we do not catch the actors acting.  The world we have watched, we have been living.  The sporadic narration — the stats that overlay certain scenes and the inner thoughts of characters, all of which are phrased and inflected in a flat third-person — now fits.  It makes a kind of sense.  I am reading a film.  Yes.  Not many filmmakers, dead or alive, have the balls to be so nakedly novelistic.  (I think there is a tendency among modern filmmakers to avoid the expository/scene-filling voice-over.  I’ve seen it put to great use [Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon] and to shame [Blade Runner, the first U.S. cut].)   Placement of the camera is also key:  Often it shoots the action from just behind or next to a piece of furniture, or beside a wall, as though the camera did not want to invade lives being lived – as though we had chanced on something raw, something we could not take our eyes from.  Whatever we call Fassbinder’s method, I can only begin to describe it, and – it begs be seen.

I am hooked.

Rating: A

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