Monday, May 02, 2011

My Lost Weekend With Rainer Werner Fassbinder


So if you follow me on Twitter you already know this, but I spent all weekend - and I do mean ALL WEEKEND - watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15 1/2 hour 1980 German television film Berlin Alexanderplatz. It's been on my gotta-do list for years and I finally just decided fuck it,  I'll lock myself in my apartment, camp out with some pizza and make it happen. At times I thought I was going to lose my mind - all of my dreams Saturday night really were in German, covered in mud and shot through a gauzy haze - and there were periods where I doubted my resilience. If you ever plan on watching it - and you most certainly should - my advice would be to split it up over a longer period. Watch a couple episodes per night. Don't go insane. Sage advice, y'all!

A little bit about it: Berlin Alexanderplatz is set over the last couple of years of the 1920s in Berlin and tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, who's released from prison right at the start. Franz tries to stay on the straight path, he tries to find love, Franz tries and tries... and if you've ever seen a Fassbinder movie then you know how well that all works out for him. Fassbinder's friend and one-time lover Daniel Schmid had this to say about Fassbinder:

"He was an unhappy man who hurled himself compulsively into his work but had a low personal opinion of himself... The basis for his new friendships was always the same: You are a pig and I am a pig. Let's start our relation there, both of us convinced the other will betray. The two things all his characters know are dependency and rejection. Fassbinder depended on dependency and rejection."

All of that is inescapably true and yet somehow his work always feels so alive, doesn't it? As if every time his rock slides back down the hill Sisyphus rides along with it, drinking beer and cursing along the way. His characters are never special people. Hell if they're not downright ghastly they're at most average. Franz Biberkopf is an abusive drunk, an accidental murderer, a cripple, a man with no discernible skills except the ability to make every problem his own, and yet so monstrously indicative of the 20th century he looms immense. He's not quite the grease in the wheels of progress - he's more the clotted-up gunk that slips to the floor, dirtying up progress' shoes.

Sounds like somebody you wanna spend just under 16 hours getting to know, right? In the hands of Fassbinder and actor Günter Lamprecht you can bet your sore ass he is. Given that amount of time to play with they're able to hit a thousand character notes - he's infuriating, he disgusting, he's hysterical, he's sweet, sometimes all within five minutes - and it piles and piles up until there's so much conflicting information that he actually begins to resemble an actual human being. You watch him through the prism of so many situations, through the eyes of so many people. Watch Franz take on politics! Love! Religion! Fassbinder makes the most of every angle, and yet Franz never stops surprising or frustrating or amusing us. 

And it's that last aspect, the amusement, that I want to focus on. As that quote above from Schmid underlines, everybody's always on about the doom and gloom of Fassbinder. Not that he didn't earn it, good god did he ever, but Berlin Alexanderplatz has so much time to do so much that there is lots of happy to be had. It's an intimidating behemoth to be sure, but it's not nothing but misery.

So here are six of my favorite smiley moments.

1 - Franz has three beers and a shot - If you were going to submit a clip of Lamprecht's performance for awards consideration (ha, as if there's an awards body that would have any idea what to do with this thing) this would be the one I'd offer up in a heartbeat (although it's a few minutes too long). It's just a long scene of Franz ordering three beers and a shot, sitting down with his drinks, and then having a conversation with each one as he consumes them, one after the other, and it's hilarious and heartbreaking all at once.

2 - The door being slammed on Mrs. Bast - My love for Fassbinder regular Brigitte Mira goes back to Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (one of the first Fassbinders I saw, and my favorite) so I always perk up whenever she shows up in one of his movies, and she doesn't disappoint as Franz's nosy but genuinely kind landlady. There's a hilarious running gag of her constantly getting the door slammed in her face as she attempts to be a part of Franz's life that I never ever got tired of.

And at another point, she was so eager to be of help that we actually see this tiny, adorably tumor-ish woman do some sort of ballet jump through the air to get someone their coat that might be my favorite moment from the entire thing.

3 - Mieze and Eva talk monkeys and babies, in that order - Every time Hanna Schygulla's Eva showed up my heart skipped a beat, I do adore that woman, so all of her scenes are highlights. But I especially loved the one where she and Franz's little-girl true-love Mieze (Barbara Sukowa; more on her in a moment) talk about the john who bought Eva a cage full of monkeys, and how they both want a baby, and then Mieze starts jumping on the monkey cage like a maniac.

4 - Speaking of Hanna Schygulla, the scene where she and Franz mistake a harmless man reaching into his pocket for him being an assassin reaching for a gun is one extended high bit of hilarity, lemme tell you what. They wail and scream and freak the fuck out all while the poor fellow, frozen in his tracks, gets more and more scared of them.

5 - Franz in the red light district - Hmm, I might have to take back what I said about Brigitte Mira's ballet leap being my favorite moment, because there's a chunky hooker with an afro flopping her boobs back and forth and being made fun of by Franz for same that's duking it out for my ultimate affections. Plus I just loved the ultra-Fassbinder design of the space - it was the first hint of the glittery surreal horrors the epilogue would eventually descend into.

6 - Franz and Mieze clean the floor with each other - Man I did not think I would come to like Mieze at first! Her first impressions had me trembling with distaste, that oh god now I'm gonna have to spend time with this giggling little not-so-bright thing aren't I? But gotta give credit where credit's due, she and Lamprecht made the romance between two often unlikable characters work. With Mieze's childishness it could've just been too saccharine to stomach; with Franz's bloated oafishness it could've made you want to cover your eyes. And yet there was so much tenderness and devil-eyed flirtatiousness between them, nowhere better displayed than when Mieze's trying to scrub the floor and Franz won't let her and they descend into something that feels so genuine it's intimidating, how much you feel like you're invading these people's lives.

I don't even feel like I've made a dent in the things I could say with regards to Berlin Alexanderplatz here. It's one of Fassbinder's sloppier works (how could it not be, it's sixteen hours long!), but that only makes it more exhilarating. You're deep in the belly of his madness here, flailing from melodrama to sad-clown comedy to flat-out sadism, sometimes (usually!) in a single scene. There's narration over dialogue over written text over scenes shot through the ass-end of a fog machine. There are passages that feel so long and pointedly tedious that you think you can actually feel your fingernails growing.

And it's glorious. You'd think after sixteen hours I'd want a break from Rainer and his thing for a bit but I only want more, more, more. It makes me sad he had to go and be such a jerk and die so young. One day I'll reach the end of all he made and I don't know what I'll do. Grab a drink and ride the rock back down to the beginning, I guess. 


Adam said...

I did this all in a single day(!) back in 2007. It's one of those things I brag about still because by the time that obnoxious epilogue rolled around I was like, I've earned it.

I adore a lot of it, especially Parts II, V, and VI. But you're the only other person I know whose braved the whole thing. Well done.

Andreas said...

I went through the whole 15 hours a summer or two ago, but I did it over the course of about a month. I definitely want to watch it again though.

You nail a lot of what's awesome about Berlin Alexanderplatz and RWF in general: it's tragic and fatalistic, but it's still funny, delightful, and alive.

He packs such a range of content and emotion into those 15 hours that even though you see the same scenes over and over and over again, and even though barely anything happens plot-wise in a lot of the episodes, you really just want MORE. Fassbinder's rarefied world is so addictive. Those glittery screenshots are just more proof why.

Sukowa as Mieze may be a little too cutesy at first, but by the end she was one of my favorite characters in ANYTHING. So adorable and naive, yet keenly intuitive about everyone around her.

Anyway, yes, such a good movie/TV series! I'm tempted to watch an episode a week sometime and blog about it. Maybe a fun project for the future.

RJ said...

I enjoy how the image you chose for smiley moments immediately precedes a murder that is shown about 25 times throughout the course of the movie.

Jason Adams said...

RJ - yes! Thank you for noticing! It was entirely on purpose. Because while I'm aware I'm talking about the funnier stuff here, it's all surrounded by horror.

Andreas, beautifully said about Sukowa's performance. I still haven't seen Lola, the other movie she did with RWF. The DVD keeps not working when I get it from Netflix! Argh! Someday. And I've got a series in mind that I want to do with regards to Fassbinder but so far I've been too lazy to sort it out. He's such a rich field to mine.

Adam you do feel so accomplished by the end, don't you? There are highs and lows (and I agree, while there was a lot of great stuff to look at in the epilogue it was a disappointment; I've spent 14 hours watching these characters, don't go dilly-dallying off into wonderland! Give me some resolution dammit! "And he went nuts" is not sufficient.) but it's so worth the effort.