Berlin Alexanderplatz – V. A Reaper with the Power of Our Lord



It is time to meet Reinhold, a womanizer and a shifty seller of “fruit” who is in the money.

And tonight, Franz does.

If I thought that Meck looked like Hitler, well.  Reinhold does too, but more so.  One word: insidious.  They’re little Hitlers, the whole lot — but there’s something appealing about Reinhold.  Maybe that’s why he nauseates.

So Reinhold befriends our hero insidiously, using Franz as little more than a boot to the poxy, pouting Frauleins that Reinhold feels compelled to screw but detests.  First he palms off Franze (the similarity in the names is deliberate.  Give it some thought), then Cilly.  Other girls, of course, wait in the wings.  Always a charmer, that snaky Reinhold, and the women – they are meant for keeping until whim should dispose of them.  Peer Raben’s soundtrack turns ominous, the piano warbling, keying us up.  The point?  Reinhold is a douche, a real number, and we (and Franz) should fear him.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the director, has by now bared the function for just about all we see:  Franz can’t lose the bad people, the fascistic wolves at his every step.  Likewise, the women, those sad objects, can’t be other than who they are.  Don’t get me wrong.  Franz is very much his own man (trying to make good, be good, in these times, this place).  He has depths.  Nearly all the characters do, in Fassbinder’s purposeful camera-eye.  Yet at this point in the series, I’ve begun to value the surface more.  To that end, Fassbinder really has made a drama fit for TV.  The grubby amber tint, the small-box frame (1.33:1), the monaural soundtrack, the obviousness (and appropriateness) of the actors’ faces, the birdcage and the spotted mirror – even the monomaniacal focus on the trials and tribs of an ex-con in the Weimar Republic:  Such immediacy* lends itself to the miniseries format, offsetting the story’s crawl.  So – OK.  Berlin Alexanderplatz is a curious thing.  And yet, a question:  With so many untrustworthy faces all around, why can’t Franz learn from his mistakes?  He’s no dummy.  He even admits, at the end of “A Reaper with the Power of Our Lord,” that Reinhold “destroys people.”  Then, gee, man.  STAY AWAY FROM HIM.  STOP SEDUCING YOUR OWN BAD SELF.**  GIVE IN OR GET OUT.

Oh, but kind reader, that is the very precipice on which this episode teeters.  Our hero’s flirtation with danger and destruction (i.e., Reinhold)…  Ugh.  Over the course of the episodes I’ve seen, I’ll just say that Franz is bagging and shagging and huffing and puffing danger and destruction…  His addiction to these things has sealed his fate.  Does this make life/God/the director cruel?  Hmm.  I’m not sure if Fassbinder’s deliberateness has more to do with a statement and/or a vision of life he would like to make, or whether said deliberateness is merely the function by which he stretches the story to the number of episodes he agreed to make.  I could be over-thinking this.

To revisit an earlier point:  For all of its depth as a novelistic depiction of blighted life, Berlin Alexanderplatz works best, in Fassbinder’s hands, as a surface.  Giving it a glacial (literate) grist, he delivers what you might call a thinking man’s soap opera.  I don’t see it as either very deep or very entertaining.  Occupying, though, a middle ground between the two ends, it does fascinate.


Five episodes in, and with eight more to go, I want to take a step back.  Having discussed the fascination of Berlin Alexanderplatz, let’s extend that discussion to the fascination at its root, the one we have with practically all things Weimar.  What is it about this era that draws us to it?  Before this episode guide ends, I hope to know.  Can it be as simple as: the culture produced great art (from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, to Visconti’s Gotterdammerung, to Cabaret, to Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen and all of the films and directors mentioned therein; to artwork by George Grosz, to David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy [let’s add Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for its priceless absurdity]), AND so much pain, in an inextricable, endless loop of art and pain?  Can it be that in some ways the culture mirrors one I’m a part of now, in America?  Choked with ghastly reparations (due to the Treaty of Versailles), the Germany of the Weimar years hyper-inflated its currency as it struggled to be a progressive democracy.  Faced with a choice between the supposed order and stability that the Nazis represented and the seeming chaos of the communists, the country opted for order – and tragically, murderously, fell for the shallow safety of a pompous, deluded demagogue, a “savior” who really knew how to work a room, rousing the passions of a beaten people.  If you think I’m actively comparing Hitler to Obama, you should re-read this paragraph.  I just see historical parallels.  As a country utterly demoralized, Nazi (and Weimar) Germany seems to me an epoch, the last grave example of a desperate democracy (would-be or otherwise) that managed to scare the bejesus out of everyone.  As for how that impacts or explains my fascination with the Weimar era, I’m at a bit of a loss.

Rating: B+

*Reviewing Berlin Alexanderplatz, KC reminds us of director Douglas Sirk’s influence on Fassbinder.  Sirk was important to Fassbinder; I second everything KC says about this.  Theoretically, the relative tightness and cheapness of the TV miniseries format (yes, exceptions exist, everywhere, but movies are generally costlier) complements this reading of Fassbinder’s technique.  (On this point, I may change my mind.  You can’t rely on me for anything.)  Notice, too, how non-show-offy he can be, almost like a Hollywood stalwart from before the age of the Movie Brat (and Fassbinder was a Movie Brat):  Whole scenes may be long single takes, or one-take scenes with a few cutaways for coverage.  The camera may track but it’s not wild.  It stays intent on the people in the frame, be they under siege from a blinking neon light or making love on a bed behind a printing press.  That printing press is a great, odd detail, as is all the signage we see in various settings, including a Metropolis banner-poster you’ll miss if you blink.  Again, Fassbinder’s focus is on the people he wants us to follow.  Due to the budget or a stylistic choice informed by a limited budget, he paints the picture with just enough detail, he works to get it FEELING right, and he puts the characters front and center. 

**From the start, Reinhold and Franz eye each other as though they sense an instant connection there.  Does each see himself in the other?

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