Posts Tagged melodrama

Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, 1954)

Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart.

How fitting that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar should commence with an explosion in the Red Rocks of Sedona. After all, the director will come to show little regard for the codes and conventions that govern his mythological, Western setting – so indeed, why not launch a full-scale offensive against so beloved a terrain from the outset? (This won’t be the last such onslaught against the scenery either.) Already, Ray signals his subversive intents, whilst appropriately prefacing a film whose narrative will rest upon a fulcrum of emotions that are primal, piercing, passionate – and yes, explosive.

Into this paroxysm rides our eponymous cowboy: lonesome, remote, and not really a cowboy at all. Following the initial blasts, he sights upon a stagecoach robbery (certain conventions need to be upheld) and observes detachedly – the safety of distance cocooning him from his conscience. Heroism is an archaic, if not quite obsolete concept in our director’s universe, failing to sufficiently account for the bruises and scars that are etched upon the human psyche by experience. Johnny may not have said a word to this point, but a perception of him has already been cultivated: aloof, enigmatic and jaded. His is to be a journey from apathy to empathy, passivity to activity; his ongoing refusal to capitulate to valour – despite the numerous opportunities afforded to him – will backfire until there is no choice but to concede to a chivalric code (albeit a castrated one). And still he’ll do so only reluctantly, with his own vested interests in mind.

There is a woman. Yesterday’s love, still in bloom. Her name? Vienna. What a woman! More handsome than beautiful; the appearance apparently mirrored in her character: “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” – The Great Emasculator. She is to play our protagonist (Johnny offers simple diversion), and her very presence causes archetypal gender roles to convulse into fits of confusion. We meet her from below, a dominatrix on a pedestal peering down at her male admirers (of which there are many, so captivating is her sexual ambiguity), completely in her element. This is her saloon, built from sweat and “exchanged confidences” – here, she will answer to no one and lord over everyone.

A man can lie, steal and even kill, but as long as he hangs on to his pride he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. Must be a great comfort to you, to be a man.


Yet Vienna is full of contradictions and ensnared between gender roles. Her dilemma is the need to successfully negotiate a compromise between her conflicting identities. Following her emphatic introduction, we bear witness as she dines with a potential business partner – using her wiles to charm, maybe even seduce him if necessary. Alas, the scene swiftly dissipates as a hostile party from the local town arrives, thereby prompting the hostess to turn into a potential gunfighter as she whips out her holster and springs into action. This uneasy clash between coded femininity (sex) and masculinity (violence) finds itself amplified by Ray’s decision to borrow the ideal of ‘the domestic paradise’ – central to many a “woman’s picture” – and recast it as the key frontier of his unorthodox Western; the saloon-as-home-as-fortress thus becoming a natural extension of its mistress’s subconscious, with its red, sandstone walls suggesting an interiority that penetrates much deeper than mere shelter or warmth.

Moreover, Vienna displays a keen maternal instinct; a necessary antidote to the wounded machismo that surrounds her. Several times, we see her cradle a submissive manchild in her arms, at one point going so far as to feed a slain fugitive from a bottle (albeit a bottle of whisky – this is Nicholas Ray’s picture). Her compassion and desire contrast with the grit and resilience that define her entrepreneurship – which nevertheless smacks of displaced prostitution, as she and the business are inextricable to the point that the saloon wears her own name. Vienna’s defiance is borne from necessity, not choice (options are limited for spinsters-in-waiting), and her world is still a man’s world, even if it’s one whose patriarchy derives not just meaning but also authority from its women. This peculiar social order births consequences that are staunch in their disregard for tradition: men now become the sex objects, subservient to the whims of commanding proto-feminists. (“You remember, I don’t. That’s the way it goes.”) All the while, Ray slyly inverts Jungian psychology as his trouser-clad females repossess the anima, forcing unto men the animus, with the film itself actualising either type: it looks like a shoot-’em-up, but reads like a romantic melodrama (or vice-versa).

Naturally, boys will be boys, but their tendency to mindlessly brawl in the name of genre (the power of the Western compels them) is offset by their own increasing feminisation: in the midst of one such near-brawl, Johnny – donning a pink shirt and a patterned china teacup – strolls down between the opposing sides and casually declares that all a man really needs is “a smoke and a cup o’ coffee”, a distinct regression (progression) from the gun-crazy chauvinism towards which the scene was headed. With Johnny and his gender unable (or unwilling) to perform to expectation, even the sphere of violence now finds itself regulated by women. Vienna’s domination over the men is underscored by her ability to continually strip them of their guns, and in one instance she actually caresses an ex-flame’s pistol in order to pry it from his hands (she fails, but the subtext is glaringly obvious). In addition, almost the entirety of the film’s bloodlust stems from an indomitably feminine source: Emma, the obsessive arch-rival of our protagonist and Johnny Guitar‘s own Wicked Witch of the West, whose ruthless quest to obliterate her adversary will culminate with a historical, all-female duel.

Emma’s contempt for Vienna knows no bounds, though its roots remain intriguingly unclear. We hear that she’s in love with “The Dancin’ Kid” (a moniker commonly and appropriately shortened to “The Kid”, for he leads the film’s involuntary outlaws), an implication that would fit neatly into the torrid psychosexual planes of the drama: Emma wants The Kid who wants Vienna (thus driving Emma insane) who wants Johnny. In these entanglements of yearning, it’s the women-as-men who hesitate to express the depths of their feeling – their hunger expulsed into their surroundings, whose rich, near-decadent colour schemes lustrously articulate the magnitude of this unspoken longing. For Emma, dressed as if a wayward puritan, “hesitation” turns into outright repression, riddling her deceptively meagre frame with violent spasms of self-loathing, which in turn electrifies her relations with her foe. With her capacity for love stifled, this deranged villainess is left solely with hate – and so it is the object of that hate who must function as the object of desire; her confrontations with Vienna generating the bulk of the film’s awkward sexual energy. In a world dominated by forlorn characters she is its most pitiable, her anguish self-mutilated to the point of no return.

A posse isn’t people. I’ve ridden with ’em and I’ve ridden against ’em. A posse is an animal. It moves like one and thinks like one.

Pure hatred needs greater outlets than ineffectual stand-offs however, and Emma exploits the weaknesses of the male townsfolk to whip up a moral panic against Vienna and her perceived cohorts. Her savagery is astounding: where all others display an aversion to needless bloodshed, Emma remorselessly heads straight for the kill like a rampant berserker; her murderous hysteria insatiable (“HANG THEM!”). In moments of indecision, she takes on the role of a proselytising evangelist, lambasting any deviations from socially-sanctioned norms and preying on her audience’s innate fear of outsiders. It’s here that the film veers into the ethnographic; critically observing as an entire community is moulded into a lynch mob by a charismatic bigot, leading to an all too familiar scenario in which the majority attempts to expel and then exterminate the undesirable minority. Law and order is disregarded – the town’s Marshall is first ignored and then silenced – as the purported civilians attempt to pulverise the supposed outlaws (Ray asks: who is really who?). The inquisitions and coerced testimonies that occur as part of this strife invite comparisons with contemporaneous events in the US (which makes the film’s indictments of such acts all the more audacious), though as with so many texts set in a mythical past, Johnny Guitar‘s assertions tend to transcend time. When Emma damns the outsiders as a “filthy kind” and makes an inflammatory remark about “new people from the East”, she posits the film in a universal realm that mournfully reveals an acute understanding of human behaviour: just why are we so fearful of others? Fortunately, our director will display no such fear – on the contrary, he chooses to embrace those that are deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, whilst wholeheartedly sympathising with the predicaments faced by the socially-ostracised: crucially, the outlaws’ only serious crime is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurring as a direct result of Emma’s own spite. Hate, in the end, will only breed more hate.

It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between. Not a thing… You got nothin’ to tell me cos it’s not real. Only you and me – that’s real. We’re having a drink in the bar at the Aurora Hotel, the band is playing, we’re celebrating cos we’re gettin’ married and after the wedding we’re gettin’ outta this hotel and we’re goin’ away so laugh Vienna and be happy – it’s your wedding day…

Oh, to be happy. Of all the problems that afflict Nicholas Ray’s characters, the pursuit of this elusive state of mind is surely the greatest. The director’s undying love for his outsiders exists because he knows that life has inflicted pain and hardship that has left them in perpetual disrepair, ill-equipped to undergo such inevitably-futile voyages. The inhabitants of Johnny Guitar are haunted by this knowledge. Surely, one of the most poignant scenes in Ray’s entire oeuvre must be that in which Tom – Vienna’s quietly loyal right-hand man, who spends much of the film hiding in the background (“just part of the furniture”) – utters the following upon his deathbed: “Everybody’s lookin’ at me… it’s the first time I’ve ever felt important.” The moment’s incongruity merely amplifies its sorry power, exhibiting the director’s belief in the sincerity of the individual truth; his camera stringent in its commitment to allow chronic misfits the time to say their piece. Vienna, Johnny and even Emma are cut from this tradition of desperate romanticism, where sorrow is the deepest form of human expression and where suffering must be paramount. Why else would Vienna choose to live in so hostile an environment? Why else would Johnny stay behind and protect her? Neither is capable of taking the easy route out (both are probably unaware that an easier route exists), preferring instead to elevate plausible realities (love, safety, security) into intangible fantasies – kept at arm’s length, but nonetheless clung on to at all costs. (One notes that even the very notion of ‘Johnny Guitar’ is an artificial construct, conceived by its bearer as a means of escaping his violent past.) Unfortunately for them, theirs is not a world that takes kindly to such delusions. So it is that we experience the film as an operatic foray into melancholia; a chromatically-resplendent, generically-schizophrenic surge through a tempestuous wasteland in which our heroic anti-heroes suffer beyond even their own wildest dreams. At film’s end, Vienna will have lost her home, her finances, her friends and finally, her foes. What else is there to do at this point but kiss the lover that survives alongside her? Kiss as if there were no tomorrow… no yesterday… no today. Kiss – because when all else has been destroyed, the fantasy must live on.

Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart. It belongs to Johnny Guitar.

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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 Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)


Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.

With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.

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Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.

Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.


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The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)

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A melodrama that refuses the melodramatic, a romance that discards the romantic, but a tragedy that wholeheartedly embraces the tragic – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) marks an early crystallisation of the tendencies that have come to epitomise Kenji Mizoguchi’s immeasurable contributions to film art. Scaling a summit of stylistic delicacy that he himself wouldn’t reach again for over a decade after its release, the director furnishes an archetypal tale of forbidden love with the intimacies and intricacies of detail, thereby negating the predictability of preordained heartbreak. His ill-fated lovers are cut from a familiar mould: Kiku, affluent (but talentless) heir to a popular theatrical dynasty, falls for Otoku, his baby brother’s wet nurse, after the latter breaks a wall of silence that shields the former from his professional inadequacies. A now standard Mizoguchian journey follows; a pathetic, poignant prolapse into poverty and perpetual misfortune that will eventually sever the coupling and leave each party stranded beyond the point of reconciliation. Throughout this plight, the director will launch deceptively indignant critiques against the codes and conventions of a society that so blindly sanctions such hardship, whilst casting a particularly sceptical eye on the rigidity of outmoded gender roles.

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With his cinematic vocabulary at its most complex, Mizoguchi restrains his story’s dramatic tumults whilst nourishing areas of thematic agency that would otherwise remain concealed by the exuberant bathos of his narrative. Chrysanthemums consequently finds its emphasis shifted to length: both in terms of the duration and the framing of its shots. Aided by the director’s seamless dollying and unobtrusive pans, the film’s remarkable fluidity creates unbroken streams of passion that threaten to overwhelm with their raw power. Yet Mizoguchi is careful to maximise the potential of his newly-elongated dramaturgy, and so he studiously upholds the text’s aloofness: a respectful distance is maintained between the viewer and the intense, piercing sentiments of our woebegone heroes – and within the expanse of visual and figurative space that subsequently emerges, the director constructs his own running commentary upon on-screen action. The vicissitudes of Chrysanthemums‘ subtexts are thus explored with remarkable dexterity; the nuances within Mizoguchi’s technical mastery illuminating his lovers’ travails whilst simultaneously consecrating their interiority. Consider one of the director’s most impressive sequences, in which Kiku and Otoku encounter one another for the first time (at least in the filmic world): Mizoguchi documents this pivotal moment with an uninterrupted, five-minute tracking shot that gracefully glides alongside the duo during their impromptu moonlight stroll. He outright refuses to fracture the lucidity of this scene – hence, he avoids cuts and records in long shot, whilst masterfully using blocking to express what cannot be registered in close-up; the ongoing saga of who walks before whom (and in what proximity) substituting for a courting ritual, not to mention a wry critique of the power dynamics within the blossoming relationship. Otoku, despite the wounds that she inflicts upon Kiku’s masculinity, will eventually recede to a position firmly within the latter’s shadow – a position in which she’ll stay (not necessarily against her will) for the remainder of the film.

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This exquisite, extended take is also a key exemplar of a decision that’s to become the central component in Chrysanthemums‘ stylistic framework: the adoption of what can only be described as the societal gaze. Mizoguchi’s camera here comes into its own as an independent analyst, assuming an active yet objective perspective that definitively reshapes his emotionally-florid scenarios whilst imparting reams of information that elucidate the internal workings of their environment. Thus, as the lovers take their midnight walk, the director makes a simple choice – to film them from a low angle – and, in doing so, immediately reinforces their social status (particularly in Kuki’s case), according these protagonists a modicum of respect that will swiftly dissipate in later scenes as their misfortunes escalate; this adversity reflected in Mizoguchi’s switch to high angle shots as they slide further and further down the socio-economic hierarchy. The chasm that the director enforces between character and audience now possesses an ulterior motive: to doggedly marginalise the heroes’ love story, thereby replicating society’s own condemnation of their inter-class affair. We peer at them from behind doorways (often with their backs to us), or in compositions that obfuscate their presence by foregrounding inanimate objects. Most stunning of all are the dynamic flights of fancy embarked upon by Mizoguchi’s camera, which effortlessly traverses through walls and even entire buildings in order to stay attuned to its subjects – the gesture augmenting the sheer artificiality of their man-made barriers; the Mizoguchian conception of “civilisation” thus exposing itself as yet another synonym for repression.

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Transcending one’s social limitations is an aspiration that informs the very foundation of the director’s oeuvre, so when his camera soars his characters’ dreams soar alongside it. But these lovers’ torrid yearnings are undone by the constraints of Chrysanthemums‘ universe – the pressures of which Mizoguchi scrupulously articulates, even outside the successful implementation of his societal gaze. Note that the film’s narrative is divided into segments which observe Kiku and Otoku’s odyssey through criticial junctures over a five-year period. Each of these stages opens with a depiction of life inside the theatre to which Kiku happens to belong at that point, and a number of the director’s most inventive flourishes are to be found in centrepieces that recreate the art of Kabuki performance. Kiku’s inescapable theatrical background doesn’t simply allow the director to flaunt his stylistic flair though, it reinforces the film’s key theme by underscoring the idea of role-playing. Kiku’s familial tribulations exist because he refuses to conform to his father’s wishes as a man and fails to perform to his father’s expectations as an actor, thus leaving him no choice but to reject the patriarchal inheritance endowed to him – and along with it, the power of social status and the adulation of fickle audiences. Otoku’s dismissal by her employer is not unrelatedly brought about because she’s erroneously viewed as too “ambitious”, therefore breaking the code of conduct that’s silently imposed upon women of such lowly ilk. (Naturally, social mobility is discouraged at all costs by the ruling classes.) Mizoguchi is careful to forge a link between performance and predestination and, once established, he adroitly applies it to the romance itself. Neither protagonist here is particularly likeable: Kiku is a selfish narcissist almost through to the final scene, whilst the lachrymose Otoku’s predilection for total abnegation is as frightening as it is offputting. The film’s dramatic framework is recoloured accordingly – relentless in his impulsion of these archetypes, the director’s characterisations beg the question: where does this sorry tragedy lie? Is it a tale of forbidden love quashed by a ruthless society of oppressors, or is it a saga of two losers cruelly thrown together and making the best of a miserable situation? Mizoguchi’s bitter coda wisely elects to preserve the ambivalence, but it nonetheless reveals more than we could possibly wish to know about the world that he enshrines: no matter how fast we run, the roles that we were born to play will always catch up with us in the end.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)


“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:                                                                     .


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

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