Posts Tagged crime

L’important c’est d’aimer (Zulawski, 1975)

Foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth the hell,
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view in thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.

– Lady Anne, Richard III

Tragedy is an addiction, and few films can claim to understand this existential malaise better than L’important c’est d’aimer. The brainchild of Andrzej Zulawski, surely the most idiosyncratic of all great Polish directors, this is a work that heedlessly severs all connections with the cerebrum in full-throttled pursuit of its fleeting heart; the latter a diaphanous fugitive in an entropic wastescape of savaged dreams and slaughtered desires. Notorious for the delirious excesses of his cinema, Zulawski here exercises a modicum of visual restraint that reaps wrenching rewards. Feverish eroticism, perhaps the hallmark of his oeuvre, is thus supplanted by fervent emotionalism – though the director’s provocatory emphasis on expression above all else remains uncurbed, giving free rein to the temperamental convulsions that both define and plague his characters. In his attempts to decipher these characters’ feelings, Zulawski tangos with forces that are as cataclysmic as they are cathartic, as profane as they are profound. Accordingly, the film hinges upon an axle of erratic extremes; a torrid farrago of quietly potent melancholia and explosively crude melodrama that’s driven by both corrosive animalism and redemptive humanism. But even if his cinematic canvas keenly revels in all this chaos, the director’s overarching intent is never beyond doubt: within its feculent panorama of degradation and sleaze, his film pulsates with empathy, with sensitivity, with spirituality. As its English-language title so boldly declares, everything boils down to That Most Important Thing: Love.

In a world populated by a bizarre brood of gangsters, perverts and raging queens, Zulawski narrows in on a trio of tormented losers – all three damaged beyond repair, and reacting against their latent misery with differing (but equally calamitous) methods. Maybe life has failed them, or maybe they have failed themselves; either way, the rotten stench of disappointment intoxicates the film, incapacitating the characters’ respective psyches. (Love becomes synonymous with pain, and masochism therefore assumes a healing potential.) Corruption is rife, with all individuals subservient to a cycle of exploitation that rears its head in the form of debauchery and leaves its legacy with the glorification of debt. Zulawski’s piteous love triangle is therefore rendered motionless by each participant’s woeful belief that they owe something to another, a misguidance that exposes their fragilities and leaves them open to catastrophe. Even so, any attempts to emancipate oneself from these chains are rapidly, viciously curbed by the malevolent entities that lurk within the film’s darkest precipices. And while passion freely consumes the wannabe-romantics and instils in them a desire for change, it’s not enough to counter the noble allure of self-sacrifice: as Nadine, the tragic heroine of the piece, offers her body to her devoted admirer Servais in recompense for her own debt, the latter denies his sexual impulses – choosing instead to preserve the purity of his love in a realm where such ideals are nothing but archaic.

Zulawski’s enrapturing opening sequence, in which a softcore porn shoot momentarily lapses into tenderness before devolving into a violent brawl, initiates an undercurrent of self-reflexivity that channels its way throughout the story at hand. When Nadine, the film-within-a-film’s reluctant star, is instructed by the tyrannical director to not only have sex with a bloodied (and presumably dying) character, but to also scream “je t’aime!” whilst doing so, the actress stumbles – for she, too, is guilty of sanctifying love. It’s here that Servais, then an onlooking photographer, announces his presence by capturing the fading star at her tearful, lowest ebb: “I’m an actress… I do good stuff. I only do this to eat.” Instantly enamoured with his subject, and also able to relate (the ensuing scenes divulge his own complicity in the very same industry) Servais implants himself into the mundaneness of Nadine’s everyday existence. There, we encounter Jacques, her neurotic cinephile of a husband (their marital home is littered with publicity photos and movie posters) who feebly disguises his perpetual sorrow with an endless series of tics and quirks. Quickly, swiftly, a crisis is born: the creator of images and the lover of images both vying for the affections of the image herself. Meanwhile, Zulawski uses Servais’ devotion (the photographer borrows $20,000 to finance a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in the hope of salvaging his beloved’s career) to contrast the highbrow world of the theatre with the lowbrow world of pornography – only to then realise that, of course, there is nothing to contrast.

As his drama unfolds, the febrility that one associates with the director’s imagery remains somewhat tempered, his visuals appearing to capitulate to those staples of classical cinema: narrative and performance, here unerring in their potency. But although the content of his frames is subdued in comparison to his more opprobrious efforts, Zulawski’s camerawork is surely the most fiendish that it’s ever been – a wilful, almost gleeful exponent of the fatalism that haunts the film; perhaps even an antagonist in its own right. Restless and constantly roving, his camera performs a frenetic, interrogatory dance around its victims, as if to hound out their clandestine feelings before laying them bare to the barbarism of the outside world. This beleaguering ballet is interspersed with jarring close-ups of our protagonists’ vulnerable visages in moments of torture, their defencelessness devastating amidst the stylistic onslaught instigated by their director. Coerced by the camera into a series of claustrophobic corridors and stairways, it’s little wonder that these characters react so illogically to the saga that overwhelms them. And yet, Zulawski has the audacity to turn a blind eye to the ailments that he inflicts upon his creations, frequently cutting a scene as the height of its sentimental prowess – as if he can no longer bear to contain the anguish that he so readily nurtures. The effective simplicity of these tactics endows his work with an emotional architecture that’s every inch as baroque as the more visibly ornate stylisations that would follow. Though, as reflected within the film’s key domestic settings (has any filmmaker ever used décor and space as adroitly as this?), his is a structure that’s in evident decay – illustrated by vast expanses of emptiness with glimpses of disordered clutter; the banality of his mise-en-scène concealing just how poignantly attuned he is to his characters’ psychologies.

Towards film’s end, there’s a notable instance where Jacques’ own disordered clutter breaks free from its confines (both mental and physical) and subsequently lays waste to his living space, swamping it with the images that prove so dear to him. It signifies a final attempt to engage with his twisted demons, a valiant endeavour to feel alive that’s realised all too late. In Zulawski’s hands, love is our lifeblood, and the requisite catalyst for the salvation of the soul. But this director’s depiction of that most important thing is saturated with hurt and fraught with pain; debilitated as little more than an ideal to be mauled by the obligations of our habitual lives. As his frayed narrative tears itself to a closure, it’s not love that unites his tangential threads, but a sense of impending doom. Converging in the name of a preordained tragedy, his characters frantically attempt to forge meaningful connections in the ruthless universe that they inhabit. Is this really love, or is it plain old despair? As the lyrical orchestrations of an eerily familiar Georges Delerue motif elevates its destructive misfits unto the plane of the mythical (a reference to le mépris late into the film posits the text as the disfigured descendant of a more prominent tale of broken romance and its relation to art), Zulawski performs a feat of inversed escapology that dispels all such concerns. With the narrative swelling to its inevitable crescendo, for once the director resists the temptation to cut away prematurely. Lingering upon his final, irrevocable scene, he immerses the viewer in unbridled agony and harrowing beatification, compelling us to bear witness as love – that of the doomed, hopeless variety – transcends and transfigures, divulging and affirming its unimpeachable irrationality once and for all. Finally then, Zulawski locates the heart for which he’s been searching – and, in a direct mirror of the film’s opening scene, he delivers those words for which we’ve so desperately been yearning: “je t’aime… je t’aime…”

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The Films of Pedro Costa

As the erroneously-maligned 1980s drew to a close, an unheralded revolution was only just beginning. Deep in the outermost fringes of the arthouse circuit, there emerged O sangue (1989) – a feature which plays like an overeager cinephile’s fever dream. Its director appears to perceive the act of homage as paramount (the spirits of Bresson, Nicholas Ray and The Night of the Hunter are unavoidable), whilst his aesthetic strives to emulate the misanthropic weight of a classic noir; a gloomy, evocative score doing much to complement the attempt. Perhaps the most luxuriously photographed effort of its decade (so breathtaking is its beauty that the work seems almost polychromatic, despite being filmed in black-and-white), this meandering, enigmatic depiction of disenfranchised youth ultimately suffers from the reverence of cinema over subject. Though wondrous to look at, the film remains too consumed by its plethoric romanticism to fulfil its commitments to Lisbon’s forgotten adolescents – O sangue ends up sidelining its characters’ struggles in a manner reminiscent of the wider society that appears oblivious to their existence. At this early stage in his career, its director Pedro Costa can be deemed only a proficient poseur.

Nevertheless, in spite of his debut’s limitations, the seeds for Costa’s future upheavals have already been sown. O sangue may be glaringly anomalous in his oeuvre (its veneration of surface sheen would prove uncharacteristic, whilst the film’s opening, discomfiting slap to our protagonist’s face marks the only act of outright kineticism that the director has indulged in to date), but it initiates a series of concerns and motifs that would be explored more thoroughly in the ensuing years. Definitive themes are already visible: social maladjustment; emotional deracination; traumatising histories, both personal and political. Especially pertinent is his presentation of the makeshift family: a group of impoverished individuals forming bonds of protection, guided by the misleading ideal of “safety in numbers”. Given that O sangue‘s primary achievements are technical however, its ramifications upon the director’s output naturally follow suit. Costa’s jarring pre-eminence of close-ups begins here, with characters that stare directly back into their audience, as if to condemn our own collusion in their invisibility. The sterility of a modern, urban world is exposed and its latent inequalities excoriated as shots of intimidating, high-rise apartment blocks are contrasted against the ramshackle homes of the downtrodden (no filmmaker uses architecture more creatively, with frames often segmented multiple times over to punctuate the concealed incarceration that’s synonymous with these habitats). Above all else, O sangue is crucial for inaugurating its director’s ability to locate grace in the unlikeliest of settings; his unparalleled compositions managing to invest the ugly and/or mundane with an elegance that’s as redemptive as it is remarkable. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa may well be a poseur – but he’s one with vast reserves of potential, just waiting to be fully realised.)

By the time of Casa de lava (1994), Costa has made the first of his quantum leaps forward. Never again would he make the mistake of abandoning his characters in pursuit of pictorial bliss – from here on, the director is on a quest for truth, searching for an aesthetic that would do justice to the marginalised subjects whom only he considers worthy of immortality. Still, the allure of his cinematic heroes is yet to be curbed, but where O sangue struck predominantly derivative notes, Casa de lava seems only inspired in its tributes. Conceiving the film as a loose remake of Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Costa relocates his action to the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, and borrows the basic outline of the earlier story: a Western nurse finds herself transported to a distinctly un-Western society in order to care for an incapacitated (in our case, comatose) patient. This template aside, Casa de lava draws its power entirely from its own director’s stylings. Gone are Tourneur’s chiaroscuro hallucinations, replaced here with spectacular long-shots of Fogo’s volcanic landscapes and intimate snapshots of its inhabitants. Costa nurtures his burgeoning taste for ethnofiction: at times, the film seems to detach itself entirely from the constraints of narrative and uninhibitedly wanders into the surrounding community; a documentarian’s portraiture of a lost civilisation. As insatiable as this impulse for observational research is, the director remains dedicated to his reinterpretation of the classic text. His heroine is thus moulded into an entitled imperialist in a culture that she completely fails to comprehend (“Speak Portuguese!”): her condescension towards the native islanders astounding, her inability to grasp their customs revealing, and her myopic view of her own self-worth sickening. Costa scrutinises the unbalanced relationship between the colonialist and the colonised, sparing ample time for the latter in an attempted redress. Yet the director is astute enough to recognise his own status as an intrusive profiteer in this scenario and, therefore, his own inadequacies in depicting the local mores. His masterstroke is to counteract with a series of tactful elisions that sanctify the manifold mysteries of his environment, whilst simultaneously demythologising its innate exoticism – Casa de lava subsequently becomes a haunted ‘prison film’, with Fogo the jailhouse from which all its residents wish to escape. “Not even the dead rest here.” (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has already established himself as the cinema’s foremost poet of cultural displacement.)

Ossos (1997) offers another seismic shift (ostensibly to the left) as the director returns to Lisbon, and specifically the ghettos of Fontainhas – the destination to which Casa de lava‘s immigrants-in-waiting are invariably headed, and a location from which he himself hasn’t exited since. Fuelled by his experience of deprivation in Cape Verde, Costa decides to raise awareness of the poverty in his own backyard to staggering effect. As always, the director relies upon close-ups and ellipses as means of expression, but his Ossos finds itself more frequently susceptible to elongated takes than its elder siblings and, significantly, it redirects our gaze towards acts of narrative potency that the cogitative filmmaker of yore would have excised. Thus, we now squirm as a young father marches into the city with his newborn child in a bin-bag (the intent: to exploit the baby as a begging tool), and we gasp in horror as his teenage (ex-?)lover attempts to asphyxiate both herself and the very same child by opening the valve of a gas cylinder – the infant’s resultant wheezing frightening in its authenticity. O sangue‘s affectations seem light years away as Costa charts the mental and physical dilapidation inside Fontainhas with unembellished verisimilitude, forcing us to glare at the individuals from whom we’d ordinarily turn away. That’s not to say that Ossos is lacking in either formal ingenuity or positivity in content, however. Indeed, the film introduces one of the key innovations in its director’s move towards a new, slow(er) cinema: the density of soundscapes. Costa’s fertile aural backgrounds contradict the solitude and destitution within his foregrounds: children playing, adults brawling, police sirens blaring – the vibrant rhythms of the outside world are audible and cogent, alerting the viewer to the sheer strength of the neighbourhood’s off-screen’s presence. Accordingly, a sort of diasporic vitality materialises, stabilising the bottomless despair of the film’s characters and neutering any readings that pass judgement upon Fontainhas itself. For all their woes, Costa’s delinquents retain a fierce sense of dignity and pride, which translates into a community whose resilience the director deems worthy of admiration, in spite of its numerous, neverending problems. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has become cinema’s most eloquent champion of the disenfranchised.)

With In Vanda’s Room (2000), Costa takes the realism of Ossos to its logical extreme, and at last fulfils his promise of obliterating the behemoth that is the narrative cinema. This remains the most decisive of the director’s breaks with his past. Although Ossos took strides towards a deeper understanding of its locale and its residents, it exposed a filmmaker who wasn’t entirely at ease in his settings: much like in Casa de lava before it, Costa again uses a nurse from his own social class to function as his vantage point into an alien planet. In Vanda’s Room dispenses with this tactic and discards all traditional cinematic tools alongside it. Filming on digital video, the director uses the freedoms afforded by the new format to completely immerse himself in Fontainhas, now recast as a grimy purgatory in the process of being demolished by an unseen authority. Here is where the fusion of documentary and fiction becomes blurred to the point of appearing seamless, with Costa fixing his gaze upon the locals (many of them seen previously in Ossos, including the titular Vanda) and punctiliously weaving the minutiae of their day-to-day activities into a stream of loose vignettes that refuse exposition. In almost everyone’s case, those activities are bound to a cycle of substance abuse that’s impossible to repel. As the march of oncoming bulldozers amplifies with each passing hour, Fontainhas – or, at least, the director’s conception of it – finds itself overwhelmed by a network of hopeless addicts, and neither Costa nor his ‘characters’ withhold the details of their dependencies: broken needles, mangled veins, crack-induced spluttering – everything is laid bare before our eyes in a hyperreal opiate haze; the most poignant scene in the director’s entire oeuvre featuring Vanda and a possible lover discussing the effects of their addictions upon their respective healths, aware that they’re headed towards self-destruction but incapable of emancipating themselves from their fates. For once, Costa also indulges in the politicisation of his work. Characters express discontent at their marginalisation (“It’s the life we’re forced to live.”) and rant against the state of their nation (“Our country is the poorest, the most pathetic of all.”), but the director’s criticisms aren’t always so vociferous. In one instance, Vanda steals a discarded model boat, declaring the scrap “an antique!” to her ageing mother with childlike enthusiasm, only to then wonder out loud: “Don’t you think I could get at least 5,000 for it?” – Costa recording the fact that it’s here, on the peripheries of capitalism, where commodification is at its most toxic. Surely the most morally potent of all the director’s features (the implications of looking away from the screen aren’t lost on the viewer), In Vanda’s Room is a breathtakingly claustrophobic memoir of social subterraneanism at the dawn of a new millennium; a film that cultivates a shared intimacy between audience and text which ends up redefining the very experience of spectatorship in the cinema. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa is his generation’s most innovative purveyor of filmic realism.)

Finally, we reach Colossal Youth (2006). To this point, the director’s filmography has offered the perfect auteurist case study – each effort building upon the last, developing and refining his cinema with the goal of attaining an honest transparency that will appropriately serve the anguished souls within his frames. Colossal Youth attains that goal. This is the apotheosis of a two-decade journey; the monument that seals its maker’s place in the pantheon. It borrows heavily from his previous offerings: the faces and the sounds, the mysteries and the languor, the distant yet palpable empathy. The delineation between reality and fiction continues to be inscrutable (DV is now established as the format of choice), whilst the political inclinations of In Vanda’s Room are now given centre stage. More than Casa de lava, this is Costa’s “zombie movie”, boasting an utterly passive protagonist (Ventura) who roams the streets of Lisbon in search of blood (his offspring) – shuffling languidly from place to place, arms dangling down the sides of his lanky build; a doomed sleepwalker. To accommodate Ventura’s taste for impermanence, the director’s scope becomes both broader and more complex: drug addiction remains a fact of life, but the local government’s social regeneration policies offer a reprieve from this bleakness – and yet it’s these very same policies that destroy the celebrated unity within Fontainhas, dispersing its former slum-dwellers into a complex of formidable condominiums whose geometric splendour chills with its glacial afterglow. It’s this officially-licensed disintegration of community that provokes Ventura’s amblings; our vagabond/patriarch intruding upon nearly every scene as he searches in vain for the ‘family’ that was so coldly stolen from him. Costa uses this first-generation immigrant’s experiences to deconstruct the understanding of ‘home’ and decompress the concept of ‘time’. Colossal Youth thereby exists in a fluid state of perpetual limbo, vacillating between past and present, Cape Verde and Portugal, squalor and affluence; an anthology of unfulfilled life, complete with digressive memories, immobilised dreams and unreliable oral histories. The director’s humanism is now at its zenith, and as he walks alongside his aimless zombie he consistently transforms the allegedly mundane into high art – daring us to question his motivations as he immortalises his protagonist’s existential crisis with shots of mesmeric grandeur. This, too, becomes the tale of Costa’s ontogeny: his role has progressed from that of mere director to that of an alchemist extraordinaire, capturing unremarkable stories from undesirable individuals and moulding them into dilemmas of monumental gravitas. His is a universe that has come to demand radical modes of perception and reception, but it’s one that offers enormous rewards for such pliancy. Only in Colossal Youth – a virtual fugue state on film – can the act of a (possible) son chopping an apple for his (possible) father seem genuinely revelatory; the greatest gesture of tenderness that mankind is capable of. Now, with the film’s omniscient, epiphanic power in his armoury, the revolution is complete. There can be no more denials: at this stage in his career, Pedro Costa must only be saluted – for it is he, by a considerable distance, who is the most important filmmaker working today.

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Les vampires (Feuillade, 1915)

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Paris, 1915. A city of darkness, thrown into paralysis by an unusual, uncontrollable epidemic: Vampires. These creatures of the night are not the famed blood-suckers of folklore however (though causing bloodshed is certainly of their essence), but a fearsome gang of cat burglars and criminal masterminds who orchestrate the virtual strangulation of an entire metropolis. So great is their proliferation of French society that even the president of the nation’s Court of Cassation is eventually exposed as one of their accomplices – and somewhat tellingly, he’s seen as totally expendable. Having initiated a wave of corruption that poisons every rung of the social ladder, the key members of this hedonistic troupe retreat into underground lairs and sordid taverns (their destination of choice: a club called “The Hissing Cat”) where they concoct ever greater heists and swindles during raucous bacchanals, all the while plotting the extermination of their primary foes: Philippe Guérande, a self-righteous newspaper editor, and Oscar Mazamette, his happy-go-lucky sidekick; a pair of (relatively) law-abiding citizens intent on bringing the Vampires to justice. The imminence of impending doom reverberates upon both sides of this war, and with the streets of the city curiously shorn of life (a different, greater war is felt in spirit but never once referred to), Paris becomes a shell of its almighty reputation – humiliatingly stripped of its populace as it nervously awaits an inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil.

Louis Feuillade’s famed ten-part serial is nowadays renowned as one of the high points of cinema’s formative years: a sprawling epic that continues to withstand the hazardous tests of time almost a century after conception. Nevertheless, on the basis of artistry alone, Les vampires can read like something of a disappointment. The director’s construction rests almost entirely upon the long-takes of a stationary camera – a decision that fails to distinguish the film from its innumerable peers of similar, theatrical pretensions. Look again however, and Feuillade reveals himself to be an early master of mise-en-scène, utilising remarkable depth of field to reinforce the tension within his modest set-ups. His is a cinematic world built upon audience uncertainty, induced by actively encouraging the awareness of off-screen space. Thus, although his staging appears conventional, the director frequently bestows atypical prominence to doors and windows, ensuring that they remain centred within his static frames. Given that Feuillade’s Paris is conceived as a labyrinthine series of tunnels and passageways which allow the Vampires ease of access to their victims, his decision has major ramifications upon both his narrative and the viewer’s response to it. Any opening that provides contiguity with the exterior world consequently breeds anxiety, allowing the acrobatic gangsters an orifice from which to penetrate the lives of others; psychosexuality, naturally, simmering beneath all surface action. Additionally, the director’s settings are often more complex than meets the eye, boasting a series of trap-doors, secret compartments and false artefacts that render even the familiar unsafe (as if to reinforce this, one of the film’s more ludicrous scenarios finds the Vampires-as-estate agents letting an apartment with a particularly conspicuous “safe” – whose removable back opens up into their own, adjacent domicile). Alongside the agoraphobia (open spaces are recast as playing fields in which criminals are free to plunder humans at will) and distrust (duplicitous identities are abound and double-crossing is rampant), Les vampires plays out like a full-scale assault on the very notion of bourgeois security.

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Its gumption now apparent, the film’s key problem nonetheless continues to linger: six hours with a motionless camera is a stultifying, archaic experience for the modern cinephile. But alas, Les vampires just so happens to be an exceedingly modern film. For all the innate darkness within Feuillade’s depiction of a menacing criminal empire, his treatment of the material is defined by an airy lightness of touch and a host of moral ambiguities. Accordingly, whilst the aura of unpredictability hangs over proceedings like a dead weight, the director seeks to counter the discomfort by actualising this threat in its most outlandish forms, thereby diverting his narrative into increasingly preposterous directions; a progressive knotting into if ever there was one. In the space of mere nanoseconds: unsuspecting daydreamers can be lassoed from third-storey windows; enormous cannons can appear as if from nowhere; and sizeable ballrooms can morph into luxurious gas chambers – all to the growing bewilderment of the audience. The last of these cited spectacles is both the most exhilarating and, more importantly, the most emblematic. Les vampires, at its gleeful peaks, is a daringly anti-establishment tirade that lampoons Paris’ ineffectual police force and ridicules its pompous aristocracy. When its supposed villains therefore decide to asphyxiate a group of these clueless buffoons, it’s almost with sadness that we discover that the inhalant which they deploy provokes little more than an extended slumber – so successfully does the director glamorise his merry band of thieves. Still, the deaths that are caused by the outfit are notably almost exclusively reserved to members of the ruling classes, and when at film’s end the Vampires meet an overdue demise, Feuillade appears to intimate that its their own accession to these patricians’ vices which causes their undoing.

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If the text is guilty of mild socialist/anarchist leanings, then it’s surely also a progressive pioneer of early cine-feminism. Les vampires‘ most compelling character by far is the notorious ‘Irma Vep’ (a much-noted anagram of “vampire”), perhaps the nascent medium’s first real femme fatale, dependent upon interpretation. Enigmatic yet completely alluring, she assumes a mind-boggling array of disguises throughout the film’s runtime: bank clerk, chemist, hotel receptionist, housemaid, noblewoman, spinster – at one point, she even dons drag in an delightful (though not quite subversive) gender-bending exercise. Of course, her most iconic garb remains the black, skin-tight catsuit worn to scurry across Parisian rooftops by night; a breathtaking injection of identifiable, earthy sexuality (the get-up does an unsurprisingly great job of accentuating her curves). More than any of the film’s purported heroes, it is this bewitching villain who comes to embody its (admittedly limited) emotional core: late into the drama, the instinctive shock that she displays when confronted with an act of genuine benevolence marks the only instance in which Feuillade alludes to a character’s backstory (life has been cruel, to the point where she no longer comprehends what kindness is). Ferocious and independent in spite of the numerous capitulations enforced upon her by male suitors, Irma Vep is a character who honours defiance until the bitter end. After her entire world has crumbled around her, she steadfastly maintains her refusal to submit to the accepted patriarchy – instead, it’s a fellow female (albeit one who’s not half as interesting) who ends up pulling the fatal trigger on her. And even on the verge of death, this anti-heroine finds time to make one final, blazing statement: a clenched fist, raised to the air in fury.

For all its sinister overtones and ideological undercurrents, one needs to remain aware of the director’s primitive, primary goal: to entertain. To this end, Mazamette (one of the film’s two purported ‘good guys’) scampers around the screen like a vaudeville clown, constantly breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with his audience – primarily by offering a jocular wink every time he senses another triumph/escape. If Irma Vep bestows Les vampires with its substance, Mazamette is designed to comically undermine it at all costs. Wielding a photo of his children and pulling puppy-dog eyes every time he finds himself in trouble, and constantly turning up at opportune moments of crisis in order to save the day, the character’s boisterous pantomime act is very much a product of its time. And yet, although it initially seems outdated, with another lens it’s also quite strikingly ahead of its era. Mazamette can easily be seen as the chief proponent of the film’s meta-narrative, commentating upon on-screen events as they occur whilst simultaneously participating in their development. Moreover, he’s not the only such device in the film – his young son, a juvenile delinquent, turns up in a particularly farcical episode and offers a dastardly imitation of his father (thereby causing a riot as not one but two characters take on this extra-filmic role in close proximity to one another), and even Irma Vep herself offers more than one knowing glare into her audience. Feuillade’s integration of such humour is, if not quite postmodern, then at least somewhat Pirandellian in its design – and he deploys it most brilliantly in an act of self-reflexivity which gets to the very lifeblood of his opus. After an ill-fated bank executive declares that he’s “fanatical about the cinema”, he promptly takes a trip to a theatre called the Gaumont Palace and proceeds to watch newsreel footage of the head Vampires travelling incognito in the forest of Fontainebleau. This simple act at once discloses: an early endorsement of cinephilia; an advertisement of the film’s production company (Gaumont Films – the theatre used was an authentic one); and, crucially, a tribute to a still fledgling medium and its potential to innovate in the field of storytelling. Les vampires may not fully utilise the tools available to it in terms of technical ingenuity, but in its infectious spirit of blissful abandon and unruly escapism it sets an early standard for high-concept cinema – and it’s a standard that’s rarely been equalled in the years since.

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Peckinpah, 1974)

Into the high country we ride. A lakeside idyll, sometime in the 19th(?) century. The picturesque scene exists in an achromatic epoch, though the attire of a delicate young maiden (possibly with child?) and the scurry of a man on horseback allows for an informed guess. No matter, the dissolution of this harmonious vision is merely around the corner: assertive stooges escort the damsel (yes, with child) to a solemn, possibly religious gathering where her father, “El Jefe”, awaits. His power: self-evident (henchmen everywhere, all others silent in deference); its nature: to be left unclear. Who impregnated his daughter? The girl in question admirably attempts defiance in response to her inquisition, but this is clearly a world with little to no room for such feeble feminist stances. A few seconds later, her arm now broken, she cries out: “Alfredo Garcia!” – and Fortune’s wheel can halt its turning. Destinies have now been determined: Sr. Garcia’s head is to be severed to appease this vengeful patriarch, and he who commits the deed will be rewarded substantially. For those that have it, money can buy anything. For those that don’t, it can buy a whole lot more.

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But wait! This is not the 19th century. Cars pile out from El Jefe’s compound as his lackeys begin their hunt, and stock footage of aeroplanes suggest a temporal proximity that inverts our understanding to date. Furthermore, we soon learn that Alfredo Garcia is already dead – a fact that the lackeys remain oblivious to, but which certain others are only too happy to capitalise on; the task of severing the cursed man’s head now considerably alleviated. (Sanctity is a concept that went six feet under long before our ‘new’, contemporary setting.) One such other is Bennie, our irascible host for the remainder of this macabre adventure. A barfly-cum-pianist, he lives inside a permanent hangover; a gringo out of water, prowling the sleaze-dens of Mexico in search of lost time – not even a poor man’s hero. He barks and he snarls, primarily at women (male chauvinism is the prevalent order here), and he sniffs out the scent of a dollar like only a lamentably unlucky loser could. Still, a swipe of a blade and a theft of a head and the future shall be his. As he insists to the gay hitmen who hire him: “Nobody loses all the time!” (Oh yes they do, Bennie.) Is this what life has come to? Profiteering from death? Amorality colours the walls of every bar, every motel room, every heart. The shattered dreams of our exhausted troubadour have no place in the realm of social reality, and so they must be relocated – forced to lurk along the peripheries of plausibility. But surely, there must be something else… anything else…

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Love! Elita. A battered siren, former flame of Alfredo Garcia himself; a woman so entrenched in resignation that she embraces a would-be rapist with a tenderness that betrays her history of heartache (worry not, for she “knows the way”). Is she Bennie’s saviour? Together, they enact a desperate, tequila-soaked romance invested with the transformative passion of fatalistic hope. Her conscience is yet to be savaged to the point of disrepair, so she attempts in vain (half-heartedness?) to save him from Fate. She: “Jesus, just being together is enough!”; He: “No it’s not, baby. It takes pan, bread, dinero.” Alas, salvation is not an option here, and so the pair must succumb to the capitalist vagary that’s orchestrated by an oversized bigwig whose name they’ll never know. Dinero, after all, will help them withstand the increasing desertification of their souls. No longer will the rivers of their miserable, septic little world flow with sorrow: a skull for deliverance equals an escape from perpetual mediocrity. Yes, it makes perfect sense. In pursuit of their happily ever after, Elita leads Bennie to Alfredo Garcia’s resting place – and, in an eerie twilight assailed by invisible ghosts, they unearth his casket. Its door – a portal into an alternate universe – is creaked open, and Bennie stares into the abyss. A momentary existential crisis is swiftly discarded, and a sword is finally raised.

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There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that’s in it. Or you, or me.

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Welcome to the death march! Was it not that all along? How misguided we were to believe otherwise. (Did we really believe?) The road to Hell is paved with bodies… carnage, everywhere. Beware the no-hoper armed with no hope; the loneliest man in the world. Heroism is dead. Machismo is dead. Love is dead. Somewhere, a headless corpse is filling the world with howls of laughter. Perhaps a coping mechanism? Futile and cruel. Horribly cruel. Even drink won’t solve this quandary – there will be no release from the charnel house of emotions that we’re in. What to do? Where to go? Gaze into a mirror (who’s the fairest of them all?)… no, it’s too much. Rambling soliloquies in the company of decaying flesh clearly make better sense. Alfredo Garcia turned out to be the perfect wife! Alas, Bennie is not the perfect husband. How pitiable this soul is. How despondent, how pathetic. Blistering sadness now overwhelms the universe alongside the irrational and the absurd. We must sink to the deepest depths of despair – to lose oneself is to find oneself. STOP! A revelation: this road trip must continue. Drive! Drive through the eschatological wilderness and towards the maker’s hacienda. Escape from the quagmire and persist in the quest for truth, a truth that’s ceased to exist… that may never have existed. (Cruel. Horribly cruel.) The impending victory will be pyrrhic, but fear not for at least we have the slaughter. Yes, slaughter: a bloody ballet; a mesmeric act of beauty that relieves us from a wretched, thankless existence. Surrender to it. Surrender to the slaughter, Bennie. Surrender to life.

THE END.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)

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“Men’s fate is like that of the beasts: just as they die, so does he.”

Funny that Rainer Werner Fassbinder himself should make such a statement during one of Berlin Alexanderplatz‘s numerous voiceover interludes. New German Cinema’s freewheelin’ enfant terrible would meet his own “fate” a mere two years after his film’s acerbically nonchalant commentary helped propel the movement to its artistic zenith (thereby closing a fertile chapter of personal and national creativity that continues to bewilder in both its quantity and its quality). Although the directors behind this loose coalition were united only by the ambitious intent of speaking “a new film language”, Fassbinder’s inner fantasist was helplessly susceptible to even loftier aspirations – and Alfred Döblin’s literary foray into Weimar urbania’s pitiless underbelly would offer him the vehicle with which to achieve them. This most bona fide of “movie brats” revitalised the modernist crevices of Döblin’s senescent novel, and found himself redrawing the landscape of narrative filmmaking as a result. In Fassbinder’s prodigious hands, a who’s who of the 20th-century’s definitive art forms (cinema, literature, music, theatre, television) collided for a maddening, melodramatic and ultimately majestic visual rhapsody that ominously teetered on the brink for over thirteen-hours before finally combusting in the name of a hallucinogenic 110-minute cinematic exorcism (masquerading as an epilogue).

While the director’s artisanal finesse hurtled towards ever exospheric heights, his thematic dexterity continued to mine unsparing terrain in an indefatigable quest for compassion. Using Döblin’s unflattering characterizations as a springboard, Fassbinder tunnelled deep into his nation’s tumultuous history and held up a lacerating mirror to past and present. The result is a typically scathing condemnation of moral destitution, but for all the pessimism that inundates his epic canvas it’s the director’s obstinate commitment to empathy that resonates most vociferously here – in the misguided wretches that prowl his dystopian hyperreality, Fassbinder had the audacity to see hope. Though the vanity of such optimism isn’t wasted upon him (these characters are firmly, even wilfully locked into their orbits of odium), he remains assiduous in his critiques of the covert mechanisms that coerce proletarian angst into the realm of clandestinity. At its blazing heart, Alexanderplatz roars with a schizophrenic fury on behalf of its pathetic inhabitants: how does one combat staid societal structures that curb human potential with rigid norms and blind labelling?; how can one help an individual who’s incapable of resisting the beguiling allure of self-destruction?; why waste our time fighting on behalf of others if man is capable of such beastliness?; and is it so naive to assume that even beasts deserve to be loved?

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“And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind, let us rejoice and let us dance and let us ring in the new…”

Franz Biberkopf is one such man/beast, and Berlin Alexanderplatz spins the yarn of his determination to cling onto former over latter. Of course, this is no ordinary tale – and it’s not merely length that distinguishes the film as a cinematic behemoth. Conceived (and originally broadcast) as a television miniseries, Alexanderplatz finds Fassbinder exploiting the temporal freedom afforded by the smaller medium to furnish a subversive tribute to Döblin’s modernism. Though split into “thirteen parts with an epilogue”, the final product refuses an episodic narrative in favour of a looser, more experimental structure that’s better equipped to handle the director’s disregard for standard plotting devices. Indeed, the very concept of ‘plot’ remains frustratingly evasive until several hours into the film while Fassbinder opts to prove his excellence in the art of meandering. As our protagonist wanders aimlessly between bars, jobs and women, so the narrative wanders too – but, in spite of its overarching linearity, not necessarily alongside him. Instead, it gallops ahead of him, lags behind him, and even penetrates inside him in an all-encompassing externalisation of his interiority.

Consider the startling tedium of Part IV, in which all emergent plotlines are brashly dispensed with whilst the director wastes an hour tracking the newly-derelict Franz’s rapid descent into despair. Time grinds to a halt as Fassbinder fills the vacuum left by its absence with the characters’ nonsensical ramblings, heavy-handed Biblical allusions and his own (monotonous) voiceover narration. It’s a cocktail of ideas that threatens to repel us, but it nonetheless founds a paradox that’s emblematic of the work as a whole: whilst staying true to the Brechtian aesthetics that he’d always favoured, the director’s distancing effects conversely lure the viewer closer to Franz’s catatonic psyche. Exasperating they may well be, but Fassbinder’s decisions are driven by his desire to understand; to fully comprehend the entire fabric of Franz Biberkopf’s being from multiple perspectives, and to share that knowledge with his audience. As a result of these endeavours, Alexanderplatz‘s seemingly disordered drama harbours a psychological density that verges on the frightening. Over the course of 15½ hours, a stunning accumulation of detail transpires; a sentient mass of feelings and ideas that invigorates the labyrinthine clutter of the director’s filmic world. While he oscillates erratically between moments of stupefying stasis and unrestrained melodrama, his subtexts firmly anchor the spirit of Alexanderplatz to an emotional reality (albeit a poignantly disturbed one, where pain is never distant and forever triumphant).

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“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Perhaps it’s this very acclimatization with unfeigned sentiments that allows Fassbinder to take such liberties elsewhere? His unconventional approach to storytelling is supplemented by a visual dexterity that quietly reinforces the film’s central theme of entrapment – within both the self and society. It’s a concern that the director strives to highlight from the word go: Alexanderplatz‘s apparently diffident opening shot lingers upon the image of a looming (though not malevolent) building – an image that the camera attempts to pull away from, only to find itself helplessly enticed back to it but a few seconds later. The moment seems unspectacular, a surprisingly banal way to commence such an intimidating feature. Upon learning that the building in question is Tegel Penitentiary however (the location in which Franz served time for killing his girlfriend, Ida), it assumes much greater significance. Tegel, as a result of its initial depiction as an anonymous walled compound, later becomes a symbol upon which Franz projects his fears and anxieties – and thus, with the slightest flicker of kineticism, this unremarkable introductory shot instantly touches upon a triad of nerves: the difficulty of escaping one’s personal history, the struggle to emancipate oneself from a self-made prison, and the daunting obstacle course one faces when attempting to move forward with that thing called life.

Fassbinder spends the ensuing hours expounding these ideas with a showman’s ardour and a psychoanalyst’s insight. He constructs an enclosed universe, both haunted and galvanised by its lack of verisimilitude. An accurate physical rendering of Weimar-era Berlin this most certainly is not, for although the film invokes its parent novel in name, its settings prove markedly different – to the extent where the “Alexanderplatz” of the title is barely seen on-screen. Whether motivated by budgetary constraints or artistic intent, the director ends up confining his action to a limited selection of locales that eventually breed a soap opera-esque familiarity. His narrow scope, focused almost entirely within theatrical interiors, isn’t completely divorced from context however: if the chaotic urban vistas of a key interwar city are absent, then the mental asphyxiation induced by residing in such a metropolis is wholly present. Fassbinder actively nurtures an aura of intoxicating intimacy. Location shots are abandoned (unsurprising, given the fifty-year discrepancy between the production date and the period concerned) as he zeroes in on his stage sets, thereby ensnaring his characters in a wealth of detail. Constantly framed against windows, doorways and even iron bars, Alexanderplatz‘s denizens are captives in their own homes; the recurrent motif of a caged bird only reiterating the phenomenon. Meanwhile, murky, unusually golden hues dominate the film’s colour palette as if to render its residents mere insects – glaring out of their amber prisons, and unable to break free from the fossilised structures that incarcerate them.

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“Chain reaction and mutilation, contaminated population.”

If the overriding sensation obtained by the director’s stylistic treatment is one of claustrophobia, then the immediate perception that it elicits is that of heightened artifice. Certainly, the discord between authenticity of feeling and artificiality of expression is one that’s pronounced for much of the film’s duration, offering a suitably sardonic reflection of the internal vs. external conflict that plagues so many of the film’s characters (how to stay true to real feelings in a fake world?). Fassbinder’s cinematic discourse augments the effect, replaying sounds, images and even entire scenes over and over until the viewer becomes immersed in the cyclical maelstrom that both inhabits and inhibits Franz’s state of mind. Most notable is a particular flashback sequence depicting Ida’s demise at Franz’s brutish hands whose increasingly frequent appearances during the narrative’s progression directly correlate with the acts of trauma inflicted upon our protagonist’s regressive psyche. It’s a persistence of memory that exemplifies Franz’s status as a prisoner of his soul, an everlasting reminder of his capacity for brutality. For the viewer however, it provides a sly deconstruction of said brutality: the sequence’s ability to horrify gradually subsides with each recurrence, initiating a process of desensitisation that undermines its intrinsic shock value. In Alexanderplatz violence isn’t something to be remarked upon, it simply is.

Within the first five minutes of the film, a prison guard imparts the following words of wisdom to the newly-released Franz: “The main thing is to not look back.” It would be slanderous to claim that Franz ignores the advice; on the contrary, he does his utmost to uphold this creed before the considerable physical and mental costs of doing so finally break his resolve. Yet there’s another force at work here – namely, the harbinger of doom that is Fassbinder’s direction. Every weapon in his cinematic arsenal appears geared toward establishing the influence of an external, metaphysical presence upon the narrative. From his excessive repetitions to his garish colour schemes, Fassbinder’s auteurial choices consistently entangle his characters in a complex web of predetermination. His actors’ movements feed into the process; their passionate performances strangely (compellingly) at odds with their lumbering attempts at navigating space. It’s an awkward clash between expressionism and somnambulism that hints at something deeper – as if to imply that these characters are mere pawns, involuntarily being shafted around in a wicked game that’s domineered by the hands of fate. (A seditious homage to The Seventh Seal‘s most iconic setpiece during Part IV surely lends credence to this paranoia.) Even the arabesque convulsions of Fassbinder’s restlessly roving camera reveal themselves to be agents of restraint: can it really be a coincidence that the pre-eminent motions here are circular? During a crucial scene that occurs at the height of the film’s romanticism, the director conducts a remarkable 270° pan that concludes by framing its two affectionate participants behind a tarnished window – and thus, with but their first meeting, these would-be lovers are already devoured by their noxious surroundings. Not only are Alexanderplatz‘s citizens required to escape society and their selves in order to live, they’re also challenged to thwart a destiny that’s being filmically scribed in an alternate universe. The influence of script upon screen has rarely felt so foreboding.

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“The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?”

Composer Peer Raben’s reliance upon leitmotifs maintains the preoccupation with imprisonment, whilst paying a sly tribute to Wagner and, by association, his Gesamtkunstwerk (of which Alexanderplatz is arguably a cinematic descendent). The film’s soundscape is overwhelmed by a single instrumental theme that underscores Franz’s impishly tragic complexion. And although he devises a number of variations based upon it, the connotations of Raben’s incessant tune swiftly become all too apparent to the viewer. His is a musical formula that damningly passes judgement on the personality that inspires it – can a leopard really change its spots? Raben’s motif answers in the negative, acknowledging that Franz’s social demeanour may evolve and devolve with the passage of time (much like the alterations that the composer foments), but simultaneously noting that the violently guileless manchild at his core remains an unremitting constant (much like the everpresent melody). Pure intentions alone cannot instigate substantial change, and Franz’s theme eloquently comes to represent his valiantly futile attempts to escape his self. Moreover, its omnipresence performs a secondary, deceptively sinister function by fostering our innate affinity for comfort and security. In Alexanderplatz‘s turbulent terrain, Franz’s interminable descant assumes the role of a reassuring acquaintance – a familiar face amidst the endemic confusion that confronts the audience, as well as a reliable source of plain old-fashioned order. It’s a characteristically wry manoeuvre on Fassbinder’s part: for a motif that’s both an extension of Franz’s enslavement and an insignia for the status quo to act as a fount of relief is a startlingly subversive tactic, designed to transpose the viewer directly into our protagonist’s mindset. And it’s when surveying the surroundings from this privileged vantage point that one begins to truly fathom the solace that Franz finds in his social servitude.

Always as much evocateur as provocateur, Fassbinder’s guiding goal in both guises was to incite compassion by whatever means possible. With Raben’s musical accompaniment he manages to do so with his victims remaining unaware of it. Thus, we develop an attachment to Franz’s theme, to the point where one exercises distrust in the face of any alternatives. Reinhold and Mieze – the two great loves of Franz’s life – are each granted their own leitmotifs by the composer, with the fairground charm that informs the latter’s theme proving every bit as menacing as the howling woodwinds that define the former’s. Raben’s strategy here isn’t hard to crack: the malevolent spectre lurking within Reinhold’s refrain may initially seem more transparent, but the same ghost haunts Mieze’s motif in a less conspicuous manner. The gulf between the shimmering innocence that the composer conveys on her behalf and the sombre tones that envelop the rest of the film is an enormous one – too enormous, in fact, for the innocence to prove convincing. The daintiness of this over-girlish melody may offer an immediate respite from an otherwise glum soundtrack, but it’s differentiation ultimately betrays it as the mental conditioning engendered by the Fassbinder-Raben collaboration hastily triggers a base fear of the ‘other’. If Franz’s theme represents order, then Mieze’s is a social deviant that exists outside of society – and naturally, in Alexanderplatz‘s world, nothing can exist outside of the social order. And so the film’s sole hope of a fairytale romance is doomed to failure from the outset.

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“There is no cause for despair.”

Of course, one could argue that characters such as Franz and Mieze (with their shared naïveté) are simply ill-equipped to exist within the confines of a civilised society. On the other hand, Fassbinder’s presentation of society is anything but civilised. Lest we forget, Alexanderplatz is set during a critical juncture of history, and the tumults and upheavals of a nation on the perilous slide towards Nazism are hardly lost on a director as politically aware as this. In a film that’s dominated by pimps, thieves and whores, the issue of the Weimar Republic’s internal crisis becomes unavoidable from the get-go. Miles removed from the smoky cabarets of Berlin’s roaring twenties, Franz & co. function as stand-ins for the German commoner – individuals for whom everyday life hangs in a precarious balance. With an all-too palpable dearth in employment opportunities (consider how Franz drifts from menial job to menial job in the early episodes), the film’s pervasive criminality is soon stripped of its latent glamour and redressed with the proposition of necessity. Whether we choose to buy into such an argument is one of the film’s numerous moral quandaries. Crime may be ‘wrong’, but as Meck (initially Franz’s best friend) so convincingly states: “It’s the time we live in – we have to make ends meet.” Accordingly, we bear witness as the characters that we come to know (love?) sink into a ruthless, self-defeating cycle of corruption that exploits the weak and innocent for scanty financial gains. Greed is rampant (the film is littered with shots and sounds of Franz gorging on food), and economic deprivation has birthed a dog-eat-dog world of petty capitalism, where the struggle for integrity is replaced by a scramble for survival.

Painful ironies have always been abound in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, but in this desolate portrait of interwar Berlin he offers stark contextualisations that amplify their effect. Significantly, the first individual to show Franz any form of kindness following his release from Tegel is a Jew. Nevertheless, our ‘hero’ is later persuaded to flog copies of the Völkischer Beobachter in order to earn a living. Franz understandably meets hostility from former comrades as a result of this new profession, but one man – a fellow street vendor – wishes him luck in spite of the newspaper’s contents. That man later reveals himself to be Jewish, fully aware of the fact that the anti-Semitic propaganda which Franz disseminates paints him as an overweight and überwealthy undesirable. Much can be read into this curious encounter: is Fassbinder sabotaging a historical scapegoat by imbuing the character with personality traits perceptibly lacking in the film’s would-be Herrenvolk (dignity, kindness)? Or is he reverting back to type, rekindling one of his filmography’s staple arguments by implying that the oppressed are somehow complicit in their own oppression? (In an astonishing appearance during Alexanderplatz‘s bombastic coda, the same Jewish street vendor is seen wearing a concentration camp uniform whilst professing allegiance to Hitler.) For Fassbinder, the gift of benevolence is a double-edged sword – a sign of both strength and weakness that’s especially volatile in an environment under perpetual threat from the lurking shadows of fascism. In a film that’s first and foremost concerned with the insularity of its protagonist, those shadows are predominantly left to prowl in the background: voiceovers, intertitles and the slightest details in mise-en-scène form a quiet collective that alludes to off-screen space and the inclement narrative of a nation’s downfall. Occasionally however, tensions threaten to boil over into the story at hand, as in Part IX where Franz daydreams his way through a Leftist rally and subsequently debates (and decries) socialism with an ageing unionist. All the same, a few scenes later one finds him nonsensically regurgitating the arguments espoused at the meeting to a group of friends – only this time championing the ideology’s virtues. Politically, Franz is a worryingly blank slate: ignorant, hot-headed and willing to go whichever way the prevailing wind blows. Even more troubling is his alacrity when deferring to authoritative superiors. As the main plot threads wind to a close in Part XIII, Franz is granted a crucial vote after a conflict emerges inside his part-time gang. Wasting little time, the moustachioed, sexually ambiguous figure of Reinhardt instructs him where to cast his decider – and Franz conforms accordingly. If Franz really is a stand-in for the German everyman, then the parallels that Fassbinder makes with this exchange are nothing short of anathematising.

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“Let us speak of the destruction pain causes.”

Herbert, the fiancé of Franz’s friend/lover/guardian angel Eva, prophesies the following in Part VII: “There’ll be a bloodbath in Berlin that’ll really open people’s eyes!” In one sense, he’s unnervingly accurate, but in another he misses the point entirely; that is to say, there’s already something akin to a bloodbath in Berlin – but, with eyes wide shut, he (and indeed, most petit-bourgeois wannabes of his ilk) remains firmly oblivious to it. In Alexanderplatz, fascism as history understands it is a distant ideology, and one that’s ultimately beyond the comprehension of its populace. Fascism as Fassbinder portrays it however, is the by-product of a fissiparous soul; an insurmountable poverty of feeling during human interaction that exposes a chronic psychological malaise: whether through a fault in their nervous systems or a conscious survival tactic, his characters are unable to effectively process basic emotions. When at its most benign, their condition unfolds as callow foolhardiness (love, for example, is proclaimed freely and frequently, without ever being truly understood), but when malignant the disease mutates until it exhorts a cold-blooded detachment from humanity itself. This pathological callousness infects even the film’s most marginal figures, pointing towards an epidemic that invades far beyond Franz’s hermetic space. Following what is undoubtedly Alexanderplatz‘s pivotal turning point – an “accident” in which Franz loses an arm – the couple who inadvertently caused his misfortune engage in a strikingly glacial discussion. As our protagonist’s life potentially hangs in the balance underneath the wheels of their car, the pair veer off into quasi-moral dialectics on a mission to circumvent their culpability. “We couldn’t help it!”; “It’s his own fault!”; “We’re not to blame!” – their obdurate ethics are alarming, not least because they serve as an unsettling precursor to later, more damaging attempts to excuse oneself from responsibility (and thus, guilt). Though they eventually relent to the needs of their victim, the duo’s initial reluctance becomes symptomatic of a widespread reticence within the national character. In Fassbinder’s condemnatory thesis, the German people are both united and divided by a single uniform trait: soullessness.

Our encounter with the equivocating couple unearths another, similarly troublesome dynamic within the film – the subservience of women. Concluding their conversation at a moral crossroads, the female partner matter-of-factly states: “You must decide. You’re the man.” The director’s relationship with his heroines has forever been fraught with complications and contradictions. His ceaseless devotion to, and sympathy for, the plight of women inspires admiration, and yet his blistering brand of rage-frothing feminism can skirt dangerously close to the demesne of misogyny. Alexanderplatz‘s key females – Mieze and Eva – are both prostitutes, and although the film’s sisterhood as a whole is slightly (but only slightly) more diverse in its range of professions, it nonetheless becomes apparent that almost every woman who appears on screen does so as a sexual object. The notable exception is Frau Bast, Franz’s bizarrely comical landlady, who nonetheless upholds and even encourages her gender’s subordination; the director’s assertion that the oppressed partake in their own oppression getting more acute with each passing scene. Fassbinder’s females allow themselves to be defined and mis-defined by the males that crave them. They bear the scars of their men’s misdeeds, but they persist with their policies of patience, staying up all night as the lovers they wait for in vain commodify them to their hearts’ content. At one point, after Reinhold attempts to jettison another of his girlfriends in Franz’s direction, the latter declares: “I don’t want a new woman until the spring.” A glaring incongruity emerges here, for how can a man in possession of such grotesquely porcine features – poles apart from one’s typical ladykiller – find himself so able to cherrypick from members of the opposite sex? And how does this reflect on the women who inevitably fall for him? In the arena of gender politics, Fassbinder posits archetypes against stereotypes and watches with zeal as they tear themselves apart. His approach is a sort of defiant reductionism, whereby both sexes are undressed down to their basest caricatures in order to expose the degradation that occurs behind the veil of traditional gender roles. Somewhere within this miasma of abuse and servility then, a pro-feminist antithesis emerges: women need a voice, and the fact that they’re denied it (and moreover, that they’re unaware of its void) is one of the great tragedies of Alexanderplatz‘s Berlin. Its female citizens therefore anticipate the BRD trilogy‘s notorious heroines, with their actions and collective fate encapsulating the spirit of the nation as a whole. In the impoverished recesses of late 1920s Germany, can we really act surprised when headless women find themselves attracted to boorish louts based on charisma and the promise of a better future?

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“…for sometimes life’s too short for the eternity of feelings…”

Women certainly endure the majority of the film’s visible hardship. However, the director’s illustrations are nothing if not humanistic, and within his portrayal of female strife he discovers a quality that’s both redemptive and cathartic. Although they’re just as capable of misdeeds as their male counterparts (sometimes even proving themselves superior participants in the roundabout of delinquency), Alexanderplatz‘s subjugated damsels are far better attuned to their emotions – and in a world where emotional volatility governs everyday behaviour on a shared platform with prehistoric social codes, such differences prove fundamental. Repressed desire tortures this society, smothering its dwellers’ hearts whilst diverting their instincts towards increasingly savage outlets. Amidst this self-inflicted tyranny, it’s Mieze – the most childlike of all the film’s characters – who brushes off Eva’s accusation of lesbianism with a brazenly candid: “I just happen to like you.” Granted, she inherits a limited understanding of sexuality from the order that’s moulded her, but she’s also its sole owner of the open-mindedness that’s a requisite for meaningful change. As was the case with her predecessors in the role of Franz’s bedfellow, Mieze is only too ready to express her feelings, regardless of the mental (or indeed, physical) consequences of her honesty. It’s a trait that the film’s entire parade of discarded women attempt to use to their advantage; a weapon to spurn the tide of objectification that’s determined to consume them. With frank declarations of love and lust, they desperately forge attachments to their beaus in a bid to disguise their disposability and prolong their shelf-life – however momentarily. Meagre scraps these may well be, but the women of Fassbinder’s Germany have always been caught in an evergreen dilemma: required to trade in either their integrity for success, or their security for that most important of all things, love.

Love? “Love is colder than death”, or so affirms the English translation of an early Fassbinder title. The director would spend the ensuing years building an oeuvre to support his theory, crystallising his vision with the contorted, depraved, ghoulish notion of romance performed by Alexanderplatz‘s army of masochists. The importance of being carnal is dealt with in Part I, where a peculiar encounter with a prostitute unveils Franz’s erectile dysfunction. His potency is restored only by reverting to a past conquest (sister to his slain lover); his instant of climax punctuated with a frenzied cry: “Hallelujah! Franz Biberkopf has been released! Franz Biberkopf is free!” – the former prisoner thus betraying his (hetero?)sexual incarceration. With the issue resolved, Franz’s path to promiscuity becomes clear, and his appetite for sex voracious. His trademark kink, a Nosferatu-esque bite to his lover’s neck, exemplifies his dependency: he feasts on intercourse, requiring it to recharge and rejuvenate his being. As physical cravings take precedence over all else, relationships are borne not from affection, but through a primal thirst for copulation on the part of the men, and economic necessity and convenience on the part of the women. Love is debased and marginalised, a peripheral entity that lives unfashionably underground until the introduction of Mieze in Part VIII. It’s her appearance that initiates the film’s final, semi-romantic flourishes. Sunlight suddenly, miraculously showers down upon the frame, enlivening the stale colour palette, and the natural world beyond Berlin – heretofore invisible – is finally acknowledged, explored and exalted.

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“I need you, I don’t need you, I need you, I don’t need you.”

…but there’s a catch. For all that Mieze means to Franz, she’s not “the one he loves most” – an honour that he unconsciously acquiesces to Reinhold. Herein lies the decisive divergence in adaptation: Döblin’s rendering of this key relationship conceives Reinhold as an Angel of Death, and Franz as the wide-eyed ignorant who finds his promise of carnage irresistible; Fassbinder’s interpretation embeds gay codification into the narrative, divulging a mutual attraction (and incomprehensible love) that stealthily snakes its way through subtextual quagmires, rising to the fore during the film’s most volcanic paroxysms. Theirs is a maimed romance, expressed with barbs and venom as a result of the shared paralysis that prevents its actualisation – this is, after all, homosexual passion in a stringently heterosexual context. Gestures and glances touch upon the secret fissures within their souls whilst the director swathes his star-crossed duo with queer innuendo. Consider: Fassbinder’s appropriation of teen Americana’s movie tropes when the pair first lay eyes upon one another (Reinhold coyly sucks his soft drink through a straw whilst Franz looks on with a sheepish smile); the homoerotic subversion of a very masculine game of fußball, edited to zone in on the titillated faces of its two players as they jerk, thrust and perspire – slaves to their unbridled animalism; or the enthralling perversity that’s generated when Reinhold, architect of Franz’s anatomical misfortune, rashly stuffs his victim’s empty sleeve with his own undergarments in an outlandish bid to restore the amputee’s “symmetry”. With his cold (enig)magnetism, closeted physical strength and bumbling diction (stammered, as if exerting all his might to suppress the psychotic inclinations that lurk beneath), Reinhold offers the sort of sadistic sexual allure that’s a masochist’s – aka Franz’s – wet dream. Unable to consummate the love that he’s possibly oblivious to, Reinhold instead masterminds a plan that sees Franz sleeping with his cast-offs – a nefarious gambit in which the latter relinquishes control of his bed in exchange for the slightest semblance of physical intimacy with the former. Their egregious scheme exhibits the patriarchal order at its apex and, ergo, represents the absolute nadir in the standing of the film’s women; the vagina suffering from total denigration, disregarded as little more than a receptacle for illicit male desire. As Franz makes that initial, critical capitulation to Reinhold’s stratagem, the director’s camera collapses into hysteria, anxiously scampering around the room (a public toilet, no less), frantic in its bid to locate an escape route that’ll liberate the characters from their pre-formulated destinies. In the end however, the camera stumbles upon a home truth – there is no escape, and its lavish pans only entwine the pair further, binding them together definitively… forever and always.

Mieze’s entrance throws this fragile romance into disarray, exposing the all-consuming, corrosive force that constitutes its essence. Although Franz has long since opted out of Reinhold’s vitiating theatre of exchange, he’s done so at a cost (the loss of a limb). Needless to say, lawful society is only too willing to turn a blind eye when confronted with disability, and our protagonist consequently finds himself permanently entrenched within the criminal underworld that Reinhold roams; the tormentor continuing to torment. From the outset, Mieze poses a symbolic affront to this state of affairs. The first of Franz’s girlfriends to have been untouched by Reinhold since prior to the latter’s debut, she’s also quite notably installed in his life by a woman (Eva), thereby defying the hitherto masculine regulation of love. But what is love? Mieze’s presence functions as a catalyst for the film’s final, irreversible descent into chaos – a descent in which the director’s visceral ruminations on the subject settle into a state of funereal cognition. Alexanderplatz‘s emotions are fuelled by the malnourished society/economy in which they exist; avarice being the percolating outgrowth in this environment, emasculating all romantic impulses and leaving dehumanisation in its wake. Fassbinder’s outlook essentially hinges upon that most capitalist cornerstone of basic property rights, except in this case physical possessions are substituted for the emotional ownership of weaker partners. Herein lies the crux of the film’s love triangle. Franz’s ownership of Mieze defines their twisted relationship; one recalls his constant declarations of My Mieze!”, stemming from a disposition that marries an overprotective paternal instinct with the attitude of a spoilt child. Mieze’s unquestioning surrender marks an attempt to reciprocate Franz’s sentiments via negotiation in a scenario where her gender is congenitally disenfranchised; moreover, her obedience is restricted to her mind alone – physically, her profession necessitates a level of freedom that drives Franz to manic paranoia. Meanwhile, Reinhold’s ownership of Franz is attenuated by this entire male-female dynamic; as he’s made aware of the extent of the latter’s feelings for Mieze, an amalgam of dismay and envy dampens his otherwise sly demeanour – and he swiftly contrives to impair their domestic arrangement as a result. Thus, a catastrophe is born, each character driven by the fury of yearning for another beyond their grasp. As the stars begin to align for the narrative’s deleterious denouement, the sole private meeting between Alexanderplatz‘s ill-fated trio provokes a temporary lapse in the film’s detachment from its violence. The ensuing scene degenerates into a disarming rampage amidst a sea of Freudian mind games: Franz smuggles Reinhold into his bed (supplanting his possession of Mieze) in order to ‘surprise’ his lover; Mieze arrives and confesses her infidelity (his clasp weakens), before a cataclysm erupts from within him (memories of Ida… the cycle repeating itself…) that sets all three on an irrevocable path towards disaster. At some point during this excruciating cacophany of screaming (Mieze, Franz) and silence (Reinhold, Frau Bast), a bruised, bleeding Mieze assures her infuriated boyfriend: “I’m yours, Franz. I belong to you! You alone.” Her wilful objectification, her need to own and be owned, her ludicrous persistence – all function as a microcosm of a wider pandemic, echoed and epitomised by the film’s very last words: “He’s not yours. He belongs to me… to me…” Uttered by Franz in reference to Reinhold (who, in the interim, has pillaged his everything), the musing bitterly lays bare Fassbinder’s worldview: love is blind. Love is possessive. Love is destructive.

Love is all we need.

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“What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?”

Franz. Oh, Franz. What to say about this mess of a man? Is he a brute, an oaf, a hapless barbarian? Or is he an innocent, a dewy-eyed cretin at the mercy of forces beyond his control? Over, what is for us, the duration of a real-time day, his own private saga unfolds as an inversed bildungsroman; the ending leaving little doubt as to his complete mental regression. Given Fassbinder’s gift for detail and the minimised temporal constraints of a new medium, his portrait of this tragic protagonist acquires a level of depth that’s staggering. As we bear witness to his trials and tribulations, Franz begins to resemble a close friend, the audience coming to care for him in spite of (or perhaps because of?) his copious flaws. Even so, for all the artistry and innovation that the director weaves into his tale, we observe Franz’s life from a relative distance as privileged voyeurs. And, truth be told, what can a voyeur really understand about their subject? We watch, we deduce, but never can we really know. Fassbinder’s incisive ventures inside his hero’s psyche are manifold, yet although he streams the findings from his studies directly into Alexanderplatz‘s spirited undercurrents, the bulk of his exposition remains camouflaged by the melodrama brewing overground. In a film that purports to examine the very fibre of being, the limitations faced by the audience are significant. By illuminating the darkest corners of a wretched soul, the director hoped to shine a light that would inspire a new breed of radical compassion – but such aspirations are impossible to realise if the compulsory incandescence fades out before reaching the mind’s most Cimmerian caverns. Astutely aware of this fact, Fassbinder saves his greatest pièce de résistance for last: a fantastical two-hour “epilogue” that spurs an intra-filmic revolution by taking us under the skin and into the subconscious itself. This explosive finale makes a clean break with its literary predecessor, disregarding the story’s natural closure and instead offering a postscript that speculates on Franz’s past whilst hypothesising his future – all the while perambulating inside those formerly unreachable caverns in the hero’s now rapidly disintegrating mind. Subtexts and intimations burst into the foreground while a kaleidoscopic array of unspoken sentiments resurface to taunt a prisoner who’s retreated into self-custody. Almost all of Alexanderplatz‘s citizens – dead or alive – return at some point during this personal inquisition; their material existence proving irrelevant for proceedings that occur in a spiritual netherworld. And it’s here that the director finally opens the floodgates and allows his entire panoply of influences to run riot. The film implodes into some sort of Punkxpressionist update of the Sturm und Drang, with a tendency to skew towards psycho-Biblical surrealism; the figurative itself becoming figurative. God and Satan brawl over Franz’s soul in one corner, the anima and animus wrestle for it in another. (Greed is good.) A phantasmagorical cavalcade of delirious imagery both throttles and emancipates the film; the underlying psychosis that’s coursed its way through the narrative reaching its breaking point. (Chaos reigns.) Fassbinder mercilessly plunges his audience deep into this chthonic abyss, a demoniacal mélange of fascism, religion and S&M that externalizes the decaying heart of his protagonist. (Punish me, torture me… let me live?) Time, so central to the film’s conceit, now dissipates before our eyes, an inadequate foe for the relentless subjectivity that gnaws at Franz’s soul. In the fevered collages of these final hours, desperation swells to the point of clarity – this fragmentary collection of reminiscences, what-ifs and never-was’ are coalescing for a reason: for a last-gasp attempt at redemption that only a prolonged confrontation with the self can procure.

Struggle is the father of all things. It is not by principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by means of the most brutal struggle. If ones does not fight, life will never be won. But Franz… what of Franz’s struggle? Our hero wanders as haphazardly through this apocalyptic reverie as he does through life, a passive protagonist in his own nightmare. Can he save himself? It soon becomes apparent that no one can; even the pair of angels assigned to oversee his journey find themselves bemoaning his being rather than guarding it. Yet Franz cannot wallow in this symbolic wasteland without stumbling upon a neverending series of gospel truths. Accordingly, it’s in these moments of candour where the magnitude of Fassbinder’s achievement hits home. Alexanderplatz spends thirteen hours clambering towards this psychological inferno – and the monumental weight of that grandiose odyssey allows for this indulgence in vision, imbuing it with its pathos and, of course, its unequivocal compassion. Although he aligns himself with the film’s marginal characters (more than one of whom is now revealed as a suicide victim), the director continues to extend his sympathy towards the leads that have abused and exploited them. Where else could the Mephistophelean figure of Reinhold, so poisonous a personality, be granted clemency for his misdeeds? There is a look, a single, devastating look which he and Franz share during this allegorical onslaught, which in itself manages to state everything that one could ever need to know about the anguish of forbidden love. Fassbinder understands this level of suffering, and therefore he understands and identifies with his fallen creations – at one stage implanting himself into this cinematic purgatory to demonstrate the point. Synergistically then, director and protagonist attempt to extinguish their demons on film, each looking to heal the open wounds caused by the pain of living because yes, in Alexanderplatz life is agony. But the film is nonetheless a paean to that very condition, and an ode to humanity in all its ugliness. Fassbinder’s masterstroke is to recognise that there is value in all life, no matter how grotesque – and as a result of this, he can’t help but rail against the mediocrity of the un-living. As this oneiric coda peters out, we meet our hero for one last rendezvous. Alas, this isn’t Franz as we once knew him. Devastated by the trauma inflicted upon him in his previous incarnation, and debilitated by the vitriol faced during his retreat into the self, Franz yields to the powers-that-be: he becomes a nondescript conformist, ordinary in every way. The director underlines the transition with a caustic remark: “There is nothing further to report about his life here.” The chagrin of orthodoxy has never felt so resounding. Still, there’s Fassbinder… what of his struggle? Thankfully, our protagonist’s compliance is offset by Rainer Werner’s undying transgression. In telling the story of Franz Biberkopf, the director creates his foremost act of defiance. Length, excess, virtuosity, and a cast of deplorables play into his rebellion, but Fassbinder’s principal violation remains unrelated to his cinema. Somewhere amidst the chaos of this epilogue, the familiar strains of Joplin, Cohen and Kraftwerk can be heard infiltrating the soundscape; the audience beckoned to acknowledge Alexanderplatz‘s enduring athanasia. It’s in this timeless context then, that Fassbinder takes a vile, but ultimately insignificant individual, and elevates a portion of his life unto the plane of the epic… the mythic… the tragic. And in doing so, he discovers the most elusive truth of all:                                                                     .

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“Sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.”

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