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The Genius of Berlin

Berlin Alexanderplatz is also a story that seems perfectly natural to Fassbinder himself. He first read Döblin’s book when he was fourteen, in the grip, as he put it, of “an almost murderous puberty.” Confused about his homosexuality, deprived of his father, who left when Fassbinder was still very young, and generally living in a state of adolescent terror, he read Berlin Alexanderplatz not just as a work of art but as a book that could help him deal with his personal anxieties. Because of this, he reduced it, on first reading, to a theme that is certainly there, though perhaps not quite so predominant as Fassbinder made it out to be: the violent, sadomasochistic, but always intimate relationship between Biberkopf and Reinhold. Fassbinder sees a purity in Biberkopf’s love for his friend, a purity that is dangerous, even terrifying, but needs to be cherished despite, or perhaps because of, the deep suffering involved. This reading of the book helped the young Fassbinder cope with his own demons. In his life as much as in his films, love was often mixed with violence: two of his lovers committed suicide.

Biberkopf, a man in search of love and dignity in a squalid world, was in some ways Fassbinder’s alter ego. There are references to Döblin’s novel in several of Fassbinder’s earlier movies. In his first feature film, Love Is Colder than Death (1969), Fassbinder himself plays a pimp called Franz. He has a prostitute-lover named Joanna (Hanna Schygulla). But his deeper feelings are for a petty gangster named Bruno (Ulli Lommel). The power plays, the jealousies, the cruelty of love, the complex inner lives of marginal figures, all these reflect Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Franz turns up once more in Gods of the Plague (1970). Like Biberkopf, this Franz, played by Harry Baer, has various liaisons with women after being released from prison. But again, the most intense relationship is with another man, a violent gangster by the name of “Gorilla” (Günther Kaufmann). In Fox and His Friends (1975), one of Fassbinder’s few treatments of openly gay life, he plays a naive carnival worker named Franz Biberkopf, who wins the lottery and is viciously exploited by relatives, lovers, and friends. The German title, Faustrecht der Freiheit (First Right of Freedom), hints more directly at one of the themes that runs through Döblin’s novel too: the struggle for survival of a man who wants to be decent in a dog-eat-dog world.

Fassbinder might have played Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz, but he chose instead Günter Lamprecht, who gives one of the most memorable performances in the history of film. First of all, he looks the part: large, shambling, like a performing bear, his pudding face a map of confusion, barely contained violence, and sweet innocence. Much of the movie is shot in close-up, registering every emotion. A drunken pimp who hero-worships a thug and beats up his lovers is not at first sight a prepossessing figure, yet Fassbinder, through Lamprecht’s performance, gives an affectionate picture of Biberkopf. The story is brutal, but the telling is full of tenderness. We learn to love this sad loser.

If Biberkopf is the Job-like character, constantly tested by increasingly savage misfortunes, Reinhold, played beautifully by Gottfried John, is a Satanic figure, a brute, but a fascinating, even seductive brute. John, too, is often filmed in close-up, usually from a low side angle that brings out his sly malice. As is often the case in life, his slight physical disability—a stammer—adds something to his dangerous charm. Reinhold is described in the book as slim and disheveled, a sad-eyed man with a “long yellowish face” who walks “as though his feet are always getting stuck.” John slinks and slouches, snakelike; you expect him to to start hissing at any moment.

The third extraordinary performance is by Barbara Sukowa as Mieze, the provincial girl who came to Berlin “to have some fun” and ends up being Biberkopf’s whore. Her mannerisms—the licking of her fingers to smooth her eyebrows, the coltish hopping onto Biberkopf’s lap, the giggly flirtations, the fits of hysterical screaming—are marks of a kind of innocent sluttishness, if such a thing can be imagined. Dressed in white, she looks the picture of innocence, just waiting to be sacrificed in this wicked world. When Reinhold tricks her into taking a walk with him in the dark, ominous, Hansel and Gretel–like woods outside Berlin, he takes off his shirt to show her his tattoo of an anvil. Why an anvil, she wants to know. “Because someone has to lie down on it,” he says. “Why didn’t you have a bed tattooed there instead?” she wonders. “No,” he says, “I think an anvil is closer to the truth.” “Are you a blacksmith?” she asks. “That, too, a little…. No one should get too close to me…they will get burned right away.” And she does. She flirts with Reinhold, then she curses him. Reinhold strangles her in a rage.

In these emotional cocktails, it is hard to get the balance just right between brutality and charm, sweetness and callous self-regard, innocence and sauciness. The brilliance of Fassbinder and his cast is in the way they manage to express all these feelings in a work that is so tightly structured, formal, aesthetic. Fassbinder composed every frame with the eye of a painter, and manipulated his actors rather like a puppet master. Almost every scene is filmed in artificial light: yellow streetlamps and headlights glowing in the misty night; grays and sulphurous greens in the stuffy subway stations; oranges and shades of brown in the apartments. The only bright colors penetrating the gloom come from flashing neon signs. The sun shines rarely. To give the light a diffuse, 1920s feel, reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg’s films, Fassbinder covered the camera lens with a silk stocking. The woods are filmed through a haze. Indoor scenes are sometimes lit through a veil of reflective particles stirred by rotating fans to blur and soften the light even further.

By pressing his characters into confined spaces, framed by window panes or iron bars, crowded by furniture and objects in cluttered rooms, or reflected in mirrors, Fassbinder creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia, of people feeling caged in the metropolis. His great hero, the director Douglas Sirk, who often used similar effects, might have been an influence. The paintings of Max Beckmann, of human beings stuffed into narrow attics or pushed together in tiny dance halls, could have been another source of inspiration. The last shot of Biberkopf, before he goes mad, after he finally realizes what his friend Reinhold has done to his lover, Mieze, shows him laughing hysterically through the bars of a birdcage hanging from the rafters of his room. (The original inhabitant of this cage, a canary, had already been squeezed to death by the despairing Biberkopf.)

We would never have been able to appreciate the full beauty of Fassbinder’s film if it had not been remastered for the new DVD collection and the Berlin and New York exhibitions. The original screening on television certainly didn’t do it justice, and it is only now that the colors look the way Fassbinder intended. For a director who worked as fast as Fassbinder, often finishing one shot in one take, the control of his material is stunning. We owe the pleasure of seeing this new version largely to Fassbinder’s editor, last partner in life, and heir, Juliane Lorenz.

Fassbinder did not play Biberkopf. He played Döblin. The narration is in Fassbinder’s voice, tender, ironic, poetic, and entirely faithful to the book. But the movie is far from a literal translation of the text. Fassbinder made the story his own. First of all, he added a character who wasn’t there in Döblin’s version: Frau Bast, Biberkopf’s ever-loyal, all-understanding, blindly loving, warmly maternal landlady. She is the consoling presence, always ready to excuse, to clean up, to arrange things. Frau Bast is also rather nosy. Like his Biberkopf, Fassbinder himself was deeply drawn to mother figures, first of all his actual mother, Liselotte (Lilo) Pempeit, who acted in several of his films, including Berlin Alexanderplatz, where she appears as the silent wife of a gang boss. In 1970, he actually married one of his muses, the singer Ingrid Caven. Juliane Lorenz was only the last of his devoted women, who did everything from buying his groceries to cutting his films.

The most important departure from the original text, however, is Fassbinder’s attempt to eroticize the male relationships, especially the one between Biberkopf and Reinhold. In his essay, Fassbinder makes it clear that the two characters in Döblin’s book were “by no means homosexual—they don’t even in the broadest sense have problems in this direction.” But in the last delirious episodes of the movie, when Biberkopf lies in the mental institution and Reinhold is in jail, where he falls in love with his Polish cellmate, Fassbinder makes explicit what in the book is barely even hinted at. In the book, Reinhold has strong feelings for the Pole. Though not impossible to imagine, there is no suggestion that these feelings are physical. In the movie, the camera lingers sensuously on the Pole’s naked body as the two men kiss on their bunk bed.

The epilogue of the story, when Biberkopf goes through hell inside his own head, is described in some detail in the book. Biberkopf has visions of Death slashing him with an axe. In the movie, it is Reinhold, stripped to the waist, wearing black leather boots, who wields the axe, and, in another sequence, a whip, which he takes to Biberkopf while another man crawling on all fours is whipped by a blond beast. This looks less like Döblin’s vision of hell than an orgy in a 1970s Berlin leather bar, an impression heightened by the sounds of Lou Reed and Janis Joplin instead of Peer Rabe’s melancholy score, hauntingly played through the rest of the film. And there, peering at the scenes of sadomasochistic carnage, half hidden behind a door, is Fassbinder himself, in dark glasses and a leather jacket. The idea, no doubt, was to bring the movie up to date, to show that political decadence and sexual violence were no less relevant in the 1970s than in the 1920s. The effect, however, is to make these scenes look oddly dated, not timeless but rather typical of the underground theater scene from which Fassbinder emerged in the 1960s.

Perhaps he went over the top in this hallucinatory epilogue, but if so, he went bravely, gloriously over the top, with all guns blazing. Some of Fassbinder’s visual inventions are brilliant elaborations on Döblin’s own imagination. The religious imagery, for example, already heavily present in the novel, which is, after all, a kind of passion play, is filtered through Fassbinder’s peculiar perspective in the last part of the movie: Biberkopf nailed to a cross, watched by the women he has killed or abandoned; Reinhold wearing a crown of thorns; and one especially striking scene of Frau Bast as the Virgin Mary cradling a puppet of Biberkopf with a Nazi armband. A hint, perhaps, that Biberkopf, once he recovered his sanity, would become a perfectly normal little man, and thus, in Fassbinder’s words, “no doubt become a Nazi.”

Döblin could not have known quite what was in store for Germany just a few years after he published his novel. But the specter of Hitlerism is already hovering over the work. Biberkopf and his gang show a total contempt for politics, especially the politics of the Social Democrats, who were hanging on to the last threads of the Weimar Republic. The political meetings, described in the novel, of anarchists and Communists are pregnant with latent violence. Fassbinder did know what happened, of course, and hints at the future by having brown-shirted storm troopers march through the last scenes of Biberkopf’s delirium. We also hear the sounds of the Horst Wessel Song clashing with the Socialist International. It is fitting that he should end his movie on this note. The novel, in Fassbinder’s words,

offered a precise characterization of the twenties; for anyone who knows what came of all that, it’s fairly easy to recognize the reasons that made the average German capable of embracing his National Socialism.

Fassbinder ends his essay, written in 1980, with the hope that more people will read Döblin’s great book—“For the sake of the readers. And for the sake of life.” I share that hope. Those who are not blessed with the good fortune to be able to read the novel in German can still enjoy Fassbinder’s great film. But it is high time for the book to find a new translator brilliant and inventive enough to do justice to the text in English. Of course it is untranslatable, but that is no reason not to try.

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