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


Franz gets a job. Franz is poor, and needs money. He doesn’t want his girl to work. He sells tie holders. It does not last. He tries to sell homosexual pornography, but it makes his girl angry. He goes to a nightclub. He meets a friendly Nazi, and Franz starts to sell his Nazi paper. Some Communists that Franz is acquainted with do not like it, confront him in the bar, and threaten to beat him up. Franz is big, and scary, and makes the commies back off, by going a little nuts.

All of the second film/episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz depicts the struggle between Franz’s self-respect and his need for work. Most of the work he does or tries to do involves selling things, which he isn’t accustomed to. His attempts to sell tie holders make him sound like a sidewalk agitator. He can’t even try to sell pornography before his interest in one story, about a man arrested for bringing a young boy into a hotel room, sends his girlfriend out of the room, and almost out of his life.

Berlin Alexanderplatz tells its story in connected vignettes. There is not a discernible plot, but rather a series of interrelated scenes that advance mostly by happenstance. Franz decides he wants to sell papers, by chance bumps into a Nazi publisher and so sells that. He isn’t a Nazi, nor is he particularly riled by Jews, but an attempt at intimidation by Communists (including an old friend of his) makes him defensive – not because of a clash of ideology, but because he feels disrespected. The Communists should understand he’s a man who needs to try and get by, and give him some leeway, as the Jewish hot dog merchant who works near him does. Their insistence in intimidating Franz is, for him, a category error: He’s just selling a paper. It has its own opinions. After all, it’s not pornography.

The scene where he reads the pornographic story to his girlfriend is interesting. She’s been shown to be jealous, and not too bright, and can’t see any way that he can take the story other than as an interest in young boys. That isn’t his interest at all (and I’m interpreting here – the show is mostly opaque as to its characters’ interior lives). He sympathizes with the man’s explanation: “Did I steal? Did I break and enter?” He was following his nature and doing what he had to do, but because of other people, he needs to be punished, and may even kill himself. Perhaps there’s a parallel in the story the Hasid told in the previous episode: a life can only be happy when looked at in small parts, truncated. Inevitably the full story ends up a tragedy.

Berlin Alexanderplatz‘s unconventional (though not at all avant-garde) narrative style is offset by Fassbinder’s lush visual style. Influenced by classical Hollywood (particularly the melodramas of Douglas Sirk), Fassbinder films emulate the sumptuousness and unreality of the Hollywood film. There is hardly a shot of a person’s face that doesn’t include a catch-light that sparkles in the actor’s eyes, and on-set lights shine like diamonds. It’s a gritty story filmed without the 70s stylistic touches that imply grit: handheld cameras, natural lighting, muffled conversations.

The final scene, roughly twenty minutes spent in the bar, where Franz is threatened by Communists, provides his central conflict of character. He believes the Communists are childish agitators who don’t understand anything about life. They call him a Fascist, and demand he hand over his armband. Again, Franz is not (apparently) a Nazi. He isn’t explicitly political at all, but he demands respect to live as he wants. Just as the letter at the end of the previous episode kicking him out of Berlin showed the world will not let him live where he wants (despite the last-minute reprieve), this confrontation shows the world will not let him earn a living the way he wants. It demands he pick a side, ’cause no-one’s on his.


About Kent Conrad

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