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The Genius of Berlin

Berlin Alexanderplatz

directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Criterion Collection, seven DVDs, $124.95

Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Klaus Biesenbach
an exhibition and screening of the restored film at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, March 18–May 13, 2007, and at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York, October 21, 2007–January 21, 2008.
Schirmer/Mosel, 664 pp., $90.00

Alfred Döblin’s great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, is pretty much untranslatable. Much of it is written in the working-class argot of pre-war Berlin. A translator can ignore this, of course, and use plain English, but then you lose the flavor of the original. Or he can go for an approximation, adopting a kind of Brooklynese, for example, but this would not evoke Döblin’s louche Berlin milieu so much as Damon Runyon’s New York.1 John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, set in eighteenth-century London, was successfully reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill into a Weimar Berlin masterpiece, but that wasn’t a translation; it was a transformation, of place and time.

Franz Biberkopf, the hero of Döblin’s novel, is a pimp, not a bad sort, but given to sudden helpless rages. He whipped one of his girls, Ida, to death with an eggbeater. But that is not how Döblin’s epic tale begins. It begins when Biberkopf is released from Berlin’s Tegel prison, paralyzed with fear at having to pick up his life again in the infernal metropolis. He meets a poor bearded Jew, who tries to comfort him with some Yiddish wisdom. Biberkopf’s spirits are further revived by a rough sexual encounter with Ida’s sister. He quickly finds a new girl, called Polish Lina. This time, he vows, Franz Biberkopf will be a respectable man, ein anständiger Mensch; this time, he will stay away from crime. But he can’t. In Döblin’s words (my translation):

Although he does all right economically, he is at war with an outside force, unpredictable, something that looks like fate.

Biberkopf wants to believe in human goodness. But the part of the metropolis he knows, concentrated in the mean streets around the proletarian Alexanderplatz (“Alex”) in east Berlin, grinds him down. He is punished for his naive trust in others.

Biberkopf’s fate, a sorry succession of shabby deals, drunken brawls, petty crime, and murder, is the stuff of a pulp novel or B-movie. At key moments in the story, he is betrayed by men he regards as his closest friends. Otto Lüders, the uncle of Polish Lina, gives him a share in his business as a door-to-door salesman of shoelaces. Biberkopf has sex with one of his customers, a grieving widow, whose late husband he physically resembles. In exchange for her moment of consolation, she gives him a fat tip. After he tells Lüders about his good fortune, Lüders proceeds to rob her. When he hears about this, Biberkopf goes on a drunken binge. But he still trusts his friend Reinhold, a petty mobster, who can’t bear to stay with the same woman for more than a week or two and insists on passing on one after another to Biberkopf. Since he grows fond of the women, Biberkopf calls a halt to these sordid transactions. Reinhold feels insulted.

Soon after, Biberkopf is tricked into taking part in a heist, and Reinhold almost kills him by pushing him out of the get-away car, hoping he’ll be run over. Biberkopf survives minus one arm. A new girlfriend, Mieze, moves into his room, passing on to him the money she makes in the streets. Reinhold, out of malice, envy, and contempt, wants to take Mieze away from Biberkopf. When she resists Reinhold’s advances, he strangles her. Biberkopf, blamed for the murder, goes temporarily mad, but he is not prosecuted and he emerges a saner, more mediocre, less delusional man. He is offered a job as a security guard in a factory. In Döblin’s laconic words: “He accepts. There is nothing more to say about his life.”

The greatness of Döblin’s novel lies not in the plot but, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder observes in his essay on the book, in the telling.2 Franz Biberkopf is one of the modern world’s richest literary characters, as memorable as Woyzeck, Oblomov, or Madame Bovary. We get to know him not just from the outside, as a fat, muscular, working-class Berliner, a lover of schnapps, beer, and women, an “unpolitical” man, a fixture of the bars and cheap dance halls around the “Alex,” but from the inside too, in a constant stream of interior monologues filled with his dreams, anxieties, confusions, hopes, and illusions.

Döblin has often been compared to Joyce, and Ulysses is sometimes cited as his model. Döblin always denied this, however. He wrote:

Why should I imitate anybody? The living language I hear around me is enough, and my past gives me all the material I need.

But he read Joyce after he had begun writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and said that the Irishman’s work had “put the wind in my sails.”3 In fact, both writers, living in the age of Freud and Jung, were attempting to do something similar, to break down the barriers between conscious behavior and subconscious drives by delving into the churning magma of their heroes’ chaotic inner lives.

In a typical passage, Biberkopf talks to himself:

You swore, Franz Biberkopf, to stay decent. You led a shitty life, ran off the rails. You killed Ida and did time for it. Terrible. And now? Nothing’s really changed, Ida’s called Mieze, that’s all, you lost an arm, careful, you’ll end up being a lush, and everything’ll start all over again, only worse, and that’ll be the end of you…. Bullshit, can I help it? Did I ask to be a pimp? Bullshit, I say. I’ve done all I could, all that’s humanly possible…. You’ll end up in jail, Franz, you’ll get a knife in your belly. Let them try. They’ll first get a taste of mine.

Biberkopf is not the only one in Döblin’s book to be turned inside out. All the main characters—Reinhold, Mieze, Lüders, a gangster named Meck, Eva, Biberkopf’s former lover, and many more—reveal themselves in a mixture of salty Berlin speech and private thoughts. But it is not just the human characters whose consciousness, or subconsciousness, is opened up for the reader, but the metropolis itself. Berlin Alexanderplatz is constructed as a collage of often random images that flicker into view, as though one were clattering through the teeming streets on an electric trolley, taking in advertising slogans, newspaper headlines, popular songs, bars, restaurants, hotels, neon signs, department stores, pawnshops, flophouses, cops, striking workers, whores, subway stations, and so on. Again, Fassbinder put this very well:

More interesting than the question of whether Döblin was acquainted with “Ulysses” [is] the idea that the language in “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was influenced by the rhythm of the S-Bahn trains that kept rolling past Alfred Döblin’s study.

Creating a collage of fleeting, fragmented impressions as a way to describe the modern metropolis is not unique to Döblin, of course. Walther Ruttman’s experimental documentary film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, made in 1927, did exactly that, through a montage of images as fast and cacophonous as the city itself. So did George Grosz, in his drawings of Berlin, which don’t simply break up the view of metropolitan life into a jumble of impressions, but make the city dwellers look transparent, as though one could see through them to their most private desires, often of a violent sexual nature. And in their different ways, Picasso, Braque, and others were doing the same, fragmenting perspective in Synthetic Cubism.

Döblin adds his own all-seeing authorial voice to the patchwork of speech, songs, police reports, private thoughts, commercials, and other big-city noises. His voice is as complex as those of his characters. Sometimes it is didactic, like Brecht’s theatrical texts, or drily analytical like a doctor’s analysis of his patients. Döblin was in fact a doctor, and practiced as a psychiatrist in Berlin, where he heard many crime stories firsthand. Sometimes the voice is ironic, even sarcastic, and often it is given to metaphysical musings, quoting from the Bible, especially the stories of Job and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Sacrifice is one of Döblin’s great themes: death as a necessary condition of rebirth.

Döblin was the son of a Jewish merchant in Stettin. While in American exile in 1941, he converted to Roman Catholicism, influenced, he said, by his reading of Kierkegaard and, more surprisingly, Spinoza. The questions of fate and personal choice, of man’s place in an impersonal universe of unseen forces, natural as well as technological and political, are a philosophical leitmotif running through the entire story of Franz Biberkopf’s downfall and final redemption.

How to translate this great literary stew into a film? The first, not inconsiderable attempt was made in 1931, by Piel Jutzi, with a script co-written by Döblin himself. Biberkopf is played by Heinrich George, one of the most admired actors of the time. Jutzi’s Berlin-Alexanderplatz bears some resemblance to Ruttman’s documentary film, with its wonderful images. But the many layers of Döblin’s expressionist novel cannot be compressed into an eighty-nine-minute feature film. George was a great actor, and the movie is a precious document of what Döblin’s Berlin actually looked like, but the richness of the novel is lost.

When Fassbinder made his fifteen-hour-long film of Berlin Alexanderplatz for television in 1980, Döblin’s city was mostly gone, destroyed by Allied bombs, Soviet artillery, and East German wrecking balls. And what little was left, in the east, was hidden behind the Berlin Wall, and thus out of bounds for Fassbinder and his crew. A documentary approach was clearly impossible. And even if it had been possible to reconstruct the Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder felt that

you could tell how it really would look out on the streets better from the kinds of refuges people created for themselves, what kinds of bars they went to, how they lived in their apartments, and so on.4

So he recreated the city as a kind of theater set, confined to a few interiors—Biberkopf’s room, his local bar, Reinhold’s apartment, an underground railway station, and a few streets—built in a Munich movie studio. Since panoramic views or even long shots of the city were impossible, Fassbinder chose details, close-ups, window frames, blinking neon signs, bar tables, and stoops, a technique we are familiar with from television soap operas; think of Seinfeld’s Manhattan, constructed on a Hollywood backlot.

Fassbinder’s film was in fact made very fast and very cheaply, using 16-millimeter film. As Susan Sontag points out, the length of the work, consisting of fourteen episodes, lends itself particularly well to the cinematic translation of a novel. The viewer, like the reader of a novel, has the time to immerse himself in the narrative, become thoroughly familiar with the characters, live in the story, as it were. Limiting the number of locations (in the book Biberkopf dwells in various places, not one, and frequents several bars) is another common feature of soap operas; after a while you get to know these places—think of Seinfeld’s coffee shop, or his apartment—as though you have been there many times yourself. In some ways, the concentrated form of the soap opera is closer to theater than to cinema. This can be a virtue, as it is in Fassbinder’s masterpiece. Highly stylized, it manages to combine theatricality with intimacy, which perfectly suits the tone of Döblin’s narrative.

  1. 1

    Eugene Jolas, who translated the novel in 1931, was an interesting man, an American who knew James Joyce and was active in modernist circles in Paris. But his translation is inadequate. He chose to use American slang: “Now I getcha, wait a minute, m’boy….” And so on.

  2. 2

    Fassbinder’s essay, written in 1980, is included in the catalog of the P.S.1 show, along with an essay by Susan Sontag, “Novel into Film: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1983).

  3. 3

    Quoted in the 1965 paperback edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz (Munich: Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag).

  4. 4

    Interview with Hans Günther Pflaum, reprinted in The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, edited by Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 47.

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