Conrad’s View – Berlin Alexanderplatz – I. The Punishment Begins

Before the punishment of my review/examination begins, an annoyingly autobiographical preface: I’ve had the Berlin Alexanderplatz box set for half a decade. I tried to watch the first episode years ago, and did not succeed. Jack and I are running through this together, to try and see how our tastes/insights line up, and hopefully to provide interest and enlightenment – or at least a starting place for thought – to you, the reader.

My intent is to run through this film/series as if I had just caught it on television – say, a PBS marathon, and I had no external information beyond that. I do not know the reputation of the film, I have not read the novel or read about the novel. It takes place in the bad years between the end of World War I and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Weimar Republican times. Beyond that, I am approaching the series fresh.


 The Punishment Begins

The title card of this first insallment of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz shows Franz Biberkopf holding his ears against the sound of the modern world. He is just out of prison, and completely bowled over. The noise of the city, the crush of the people (implied, rather than shown), the height of the buildings, the ability to move “freely” and do whatever he wants overwhelms Franz.

He is captured first by a Hasidic Jew who wants to tell him a story about some friend of his. This Hasid is interrupted by his brother-in-law, who tells the end of the story: the friend is arrested, hangs himself in prison, and is dumped in a pauper’s grave.

The first episode of BA proceeds like this – Franz goes to a place, meets someone, and isn’t sure how to interact with them. Like a man sinking into a bath, his first attempts are scalding, constantly overwhelming. He picks up a prostitute, but can’t get it on with her. He goes to his old home, where he still has a room waiting for him, but doesn’t react to anything the landlady says.

It is not until he sees the sister of his old girlfriend that he comes to life – by raping her (though consent for the act seems to be retroactively given, making the activity more ambiguous – think Straw Dogs). It is only after that he can finally cry out, “I am free!”

Recitation of the plot is pointless, as even when Franz has minor successes (picks up a new girl, gets an order to be kicked out of Berlin rescinded by signing up for supervision) there is a sense of futility to it. Hanging around the neck of every action, decision, hope or transgression is the knowledge that “the punishment begins.” Franz is out of prison, but this is not going to be the story of a redeemed life, just of a man without hope and a chance.

The shabbiness of his condition extends to the film’s visuals, which are a constant reminder of the desperate conditions of its characters. The homes look like places to hide out in, not live in. At Franz’s abode (kept for him for the four years he was in prison by his oddly attentive landlady), a red blinking light from some nearby establishment glares through the window, reminding him (and the audience) again and again that there is no comfort, no escape, no real rest. Franz, and by extension everyone around him, is in a state of constant tension, where every small relief is swiftly stamped down.

That does not mean Franz has no friends. The aforementioned landlady feels like a weird surrogate mother. Another friend finds him, a lurking figure with a pencil-thin mustache who just seems sinister, though he hasn’t done anything (yet). His girlfriend-in-law/semi-rape-victim kicks him out but doesn’t want him to go. That Hasid takes an immediate liking to him, perhaps because the just released Franz seems more damaged than himself. Why Franz has friends is a mystery, because he’s in jail for killing an old girlfriend. The scene that depicts the murder is strange – it includes a voice-over that might be the director himself*, explaining how the exigencies of physics forced the girl’s chest to cave in after being struck. An accident of nature more than an act of intended violence. He didn’t mean it, it’s just the way he is.

* There are several voice-overs in the film. Some are omniscient, likely the director, some are from characters’ points of view. The effect is often disconcerting, though never (apparently) intentionally ironic.

It is, admittedly, the first episode of 13, the first 70 minutes of nearly 900. Very little story is transmitted, and the first, very real question I had after watching this episode: does it need to be so long? Could it have been covered more quickly, and will I get more out of my 15 hours watching this show than I would have watching, say, the 98-minute version that was made in the 30s?

This can’t be answered this early in the proceedings.


About Kent Conrad

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