' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Friday, March 01, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

As part of its Settle In series, “six films that test the limits of runtimes,” the Gene Siskel Center here in Chicago recently screened “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Based on the famous 1929 German novel by Alfred Döblin, the 1980 adaptation written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder was originally presented as a television miniseries in West Germany, 13 parts plus an epilogue running 902 minutes. That’s nine-hundred-and-two, a little over fifteen hours, if you’re keeping score, which I certainly was, and My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and our friend Chad with whom we went to see it were probably keeping score too. It was too long for the Gene Siskel Center to condense into a single day, in fact, prompting two showings on Saturday and Sunday, February 3rd and 4th. That was the day after Groundhog Day, of course, which in many respects has become as associated with living the same day of your life over and over thanks to the Harold Ramis 1993 movie borrowing the holiday’s name. And it was appropriate that our showing of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” coincided with Groundhog Day weekend since, honestly, Sunday felt a lot like Saturday. Our alarm went off at the same time, we caught the train downtown at the same time, the movie started at the same time (11 am), the three of us stood in the exact same place at each brief intermission, chatting and stretching as we geared up to go watch some more, we essentially ate popcorn (which was made free) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “I think I’m tripling down on the popcorn,” Chad said at the second intermission on our first day and My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I followed suit. It was only two days, I know, not the seeming lifetime that Phil Connors lived in “Groundhog Day.” But then, have you ever watched a 15-hour German movie about the doomed Weimar Republic over the course of two days? It feels endless.

I don’t mean this as a criticism. Rarely, if ever, has my experience watching a movie so effectively mirrored the movie itself, not just its immersive nature but the almost punishing emphasis on repetition and the habituating plight of its main character, Franz Bieberkopf (Günter Lamprecht). He is released from prison as the movie opens after serving four years in the murder of his girlfriend Ida and into a Berlin that is a mess of conflicting interests and ideologies, and Franz himself is nothing less than a walking, talking confliction, a hectoring brute, and a happy buffalo, in one astonishing sequence falling off the wagon by drinking three beers and cooing to each one like it’s his little newborn baby, as amusing as it is devastating as it is gripping, more gripping, in fact, than most movies these days in total (see photo above). As it demonstrates, Franz is determined to stay on the straight and narrow but can’t, swept along in the economic, political, and social maelstrom, and never quite smart enough to realize he’s stupid, making the same mistakes again and again. Fassbinder underlines this in ways as small as the relentlessly blinking neon light outside Franz’s apartment, or the roughly sixteen-thousand glasses of kummel he imbibes, and big, like the murder of Ida, seen in flashback over and over, and not just a flash but the whole gruesome thing, a sin for which he cannot atone. All this might call to mind the Biblical Job, but the real parallel is the Book of Ecclesiastes, which the narrator essentially quotes mid-movie, “Man’s fate is like that of the beasts,” adorned with images of a slaughterhouse, equating Franz Bieberkopf, and man in general, with animals biding time until they are butchered. 

The epilogue, then, when it arrives, is as discombobulating as it is refreshing, in a sense. Driven to madness, and into a mental asylum, much of the concluding Part XIV is a trip into Franz Bieberkopf’s psyche. There is so much happening here, and it is all ripe for literary study, but as movies in this vein often are, it’s best just to let yourself go and feel your way through the aesthetic punchbowl. What has very much been in a movie set during 1929 suddenly feels of its own time in the hairdos and disco balls and angels that are like less glam versions of Ziggy Stardust, as My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife noted, yet not of its time either, with Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen and Velvet Underground on the soundtrack. Released in 1980, it was a year ahead of MTV, and if you told me Fassbinder’s epilogue inspired a legion of confounding Bonnie Tyler-like MTV music videos, that reading would be as good as any. Whatever it is, it’s what I was in the mood for, whether I knew it or not, having been in a movie theater for virtually two days straight, my knees and back beginning to ache, filled to burst with popcorn, my mind swimming from a Voodoo Ranger IPA, ready to leave but still needing to stick it out, I felt like I was starting to hallucinate and so does the movie, two moods merging as one. When we came to, Franz Bieberkopf seemed not found, though not quite lost either, more like the fleshy antithesis of “2001’s” Star Child, reconciled, and without thought, sleepwalking toward, well, 1929 Germany, you know what.

Afterward, standing on the sidewalk outside the Siskel Center in the darkness, the weekend somehow going by in the blink of an eye despite spending it watching a 15-hour movie, Chad, who had proposed the idea in the first place, thanked us for accompanying him on the journey, before noting, circumspect but not necessarily critically, “I probably wouldn’t do it again.”

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