October 24, 2005
Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1980
How does anyone begin to encapsulate the audacious, manic, insightful, resonant, humane, and allegorically loaded tone of the epic work - the quintessential "anarchy of the imagination" - that is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's adaptation of Alfred Döblin's thirteen chapter, Weimer Republic-era German Expressionist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz? Told from the perspective of an unemployed, hard-drinking, low-level pimp and convicted killer, Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the film begins with the ominous chapter title, The Punishment Begins as he is paroled from a correctional institution after serving four years for accidentally strangling his lover and prostitute Ida (Barbara Valentin) during a drunken rage over her decision to leave him. By the conclusion of the last chapter, it is inevitable that Franz would again be placed into some form of involuntary state institution, bringing the story, not to a narrative full circle (as indicated by the juxtaposition of end and beginning in the chapter title) but rather, to a coaligned point of precession within a receded and collapsing spiral as Franz, now an unemployable "half man" is again alone and without a devoted, self-sacrificing woman who will dutifully provide for him.
This dysfunctional cycle of systematic erosion also reflects the film's recurring theme of converging human economics where emotion and desire serve as real, transactional currency: from Franz's history of exploitive relationships with a succession of lover/prostitutes, to Reinhold (Gottfried John) unloading his unwanted mistresses onto the obliging Franz (unwittingly carrying their own payoff bribes from Reinhold to their new lover/pimp - a pair of boots or a fur collar for a winter coat - as pre-arranged errands to set up their introductory encounter), to Eva's (Hanna Schygulla) "gift" of her protégée Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) to Franz after he is crippled during a burglary getaway automobile "accident". This pattern of commodified intimacy is also revealed in Franz's impulsive decision to offer money to a lonely widow one afternoon after a chance sexual encounter at her apartment while selling shoelaces door-to-door, his actions revealing his instinctual equation of affection with money. In this respect, the liberation of the (sexual) body (a theme explored through the post World War I photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's Remembrance of Things to Come) juxtaposed against Franz's increasingly lopsided economic and emotional dependence on the women in his life represents a broader national allegory for the Weimar Republic's ever-worsening national debt and hyperinflation (caused by payment obligations for war reparations), reflecting an irresolvable social equation - an inescapable, behaviorally entrenched bankruptcy - that cannot be set right. In essence, Franz's seemingly surreal black market world of stolen fruits, open door brothels, and handed down lovers is a reflection of the inconcrete (and ephemeral) basis that underlies the broader, national economy itself. Like Franz's retaliatory, sacrificed limb, it is an unsustainable economic cycle of national disarticulation.
With Franz's life and reality fractured, Fassbinder's addition of a thematically opaque, dream sequence montage provides a break in narrative tone as (perhaps intentionally) severe and wildly incongruent as the epilogue of F.W Murnau's Weimar-era film, The Last Laugh. Weaving through Fassbinder's voluptuous, expressionistic, stream of (sub)consciousness metaphoric imagery (something like a chronicle of Querelle foretold) of Kenneth Anger-like Bacchanalian ritual, transfiguration, erotic fantasy, curative masochism, and nuclear holocaust, the film converges towards a more conventional - and consequently, more absurd - alternate "happy ending". Set against an eclectic soundtrack of Kraftwerk's Radioactivity and the liebestod, Mild und leise, wie er lächelt from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - a sublime piece that articulates the transfiguration of love into rapture through the necessary process of death - the inspired design behind Fassbinder's jarring and idiosyncratic epilogue begins to cohere as an abstract elegy of twentieth century world history as seen through the inwardly focused lens of repercussive consequence resulting from Germany's political transformation from Weimar Republic to the Third Reich: the cold and rude awakening that signaled the death of the illusory dream of eternal halcyon days that once seemed possible with the end of the Great War to end all wars.