Posts Tagged repression
“Hark!”, Ken Russell’s devils sing. But just who are the “devils” in 1971’s diabolical reverie of a film? All and sundry will eventually claim that Lucifer is synonymous with one Father Grandier, a charismatic priest and part-time theologian with a gluttonous taste for coitus. Why blame him for it? Savouring his role as an excitable vacationist in a garden of earthly delights, Grandier jovially surrenders to his carnal impulses, going so far as to reinterpret Catholic doctrine to justify his indulgence: Russell’s curious revision of the classic screwball exchange features a repartee between our newlywed protagonist and his spouse as they debate the scriptural merits of chastity, the former adamant in his belief that “even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram.” A Holy Man this preacher can never be – he preys on impressionable maidens during Confession, substituting absolution for speed dating as he exacts the repressed desires of his adoring devotees (“Now there’s a man worth goin’ to Hell for…”) and devours them as if they were the elixir of life. This fantastically hedonistic adaptation of Christian morality is not without its perils, however: after impregnating one such admirer, our so-called cleric abandons lover and child with icy disregard – Grandier’s mindset thus unclothed as one that’s willing to challenge traditional mores, but not so willing to face the consequences of his actions. With a gaggle of sexually-frustrated nuns driven to near-dementia through their collective appetence for our rock star-as-clergyman, it’s no surprise that the citizens of 17th-century Loudun will come to condemn this covetous Casanova as the Antichrist himself.
Yet Grandier is – alongside his wife – the only character who remains excluded from Russell’s titular accusation. Indeed, were it possible for angels to exist in the director’s nefarious dystopia then our flawed Father would probably be best placed to fill such celestial boots (if only by default). His introduction as a skilled public orator with a powerful command over his fellow townsfolk suggests that, in a different epoch, he’d achieve renown as a great politician rather than notoriety as a wayward priest; for all his personal failings, Grandier is a man wholly committed to admirable ideals. In an era defined by religious persecution, it is he alone who pleas for tolerance, urging Catholics and Protestants to live alongside one another in peace. It is he alone who rallies to his city’s defence when wealthy barons arrive to tear down the famed fortifications that shelter its inhabitants from external turmoil. And it is he alone who poses an affront to France’s corrupt statesmen – a group of eccentrics intent upon stirring a mass hysteria to further their own fervently prejudiced agendas. Despite his questionable ethics, Grandier’s moral authority over his parishioners is (initially) unconditional – so much so that his nation’s pernicious nobility will desperately contrive to discredit him, thereby clearing the final obstacle in their path towards absolute domination. Russell is judicious in articulating the institutional hypocrisy of the times, blasting the warmongering leaders and early-modern spin doctors that manipulate a precarious order with their chicanery; their unmitigated iniquities ultimately inducing an epidemic of paranoia that will lead only to carnage. (Familiar, some?) It’s these rabid, power-hungry members of the privileged classes who collectively form the director’s Satan incarnate; the naïve civilians who lap up their every fabrication playing the subservient demons who enable the film’s cataclysmic maelstrom to wreak its destruction.
There is a disease that afflicts Loudun’s residents, one that’s even more virulent than the bubonic terror which, having manifested itself early into the film, acts as an ominous signifier of the oncoming catastrophe. Consider The Devils‘ sets: an exercise in magnificently flamboyant artifice, a grandiose series of architectural blitzkriegs that pits classicism against modernism whilst pristine, caustically-white exteriors threaten to blind the viewer with a façade of innocence (tellingly, Loudun’s cathedral – Russell’s centrepiece – has its interiors swathed in black to emulate the rotting souls of its purportedly devout worshippers). Embedded within these spectacular designs are: crosses. Everywhere. Inescapable. The real plague. Nary a scene passes by without the director somehow implanting this most potent of symbols into his imagery: in the rare instance where it can’t be found within the décor, then it will be conjured with light and shadow; if it cannot be done with optics, then it will be constructed with human bodies (always, there is a solution – for always, there must be a cross). Russell envisions the symbol as a recalcitrant infestation from which there is no escape and, amidst the chaos of his vulgar operatics, its meaning becomes totally debased. No longer is this is a representation of Christ’s benevolent sacrifice – rather, it becomes an imperious instrument of emotional oppression. Religion in this director’s world is conceived as a hotbed of atrocity, subjugation and ephemeral ideals; the purity of faith overwhelmed by the political machinations of scheming superiors: “I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France – where church and state are one!” Grandier’s ordeal at the hands of this governmental subterfuge will come to exemplify the disaster that ensues when the two cited Goliaths unite, though the fate of his primary accuser – the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne who heads Loudun’s sex-starved convent – is perhaps even more profound in its tragedy. Russell ensures that this delirious fetishist of a Mother Superior is constantly framed behind bars, emboldening the sexual incarceration that suffocates her deleterious psyche, and inducing ever greater acts of mania from her bruised ego as a result. She, more than any other character, is the embodiment of all that can go wrong when religion is ruthlessly enforced as a social order instead of being embraced by wilful believers.
The cost of all this repression is devastating. Not least because the director expresses its damage by pushing the film to highs (or lows?) of garish, completely ludicrous excess that remain singular within his medium. The Devils communicates to its audience almost solely through the language of obscenity – and no taboo is left unturned as Russell fashions a boisterous, bombastic and boorish nightmare that upends any comprehension of human decency with its exuberant kitsch and vicious irony. Consider that, in under two hours, we’ll have witnessed: hornets deposited upon open wounds; crocodiles placed between women’s legs; candles being furiously masturbated; exorcisms by way of enemas (and giant clyster syringes); transvestite monarchs recreating Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It doesn’t end there. The film’s most infamous sequence culminates with the “Rape of Christ” as a swarm of lascivious lunatic-nuns tear down a life-sized statue of their Redeemer and proceed to defile it – the director frenetically cutting between the orgiastic pandemonium and the sight of an onlooking priest, notably aroused by the entire affair. If Hell were really to exist, then surely it would look a little something like this, for in Russell’s vision the notion of “nothing sacred” is actualised to the point of absurdity. When an effeminate King Louis XIII (the director plays fast and loose with historical accuracy) turns up and exposes the possessed nuns and their deranged exorcist as frauds – thereby granting them the opportunity of a reprieve from their madness – the belligerents simply continue with the farce. These pathetic, tortured souls need to maintain their uninhibited masquerade; a lifetime of suppression has left them with bodies crippled by angst, yearning for any semblance of freedom to alleviate the self-created paucity within. In unleashing the full, titanic force of unexpressed desire and unfulfilled dreams, the director articulates the depth of these deficiencies with an understanding that goes so far beyond blasphemy that it reaches a point of spirituality heretofore unseen in the cinema. In this frenzied amalgam of perverse satire, visual panache and frenetic montages, Russell’s most heinous act is also his most beautiful. Positing the reformed Grandier as a contemporary Jesus, he substitutes a crucifix for a stake and rams the comparison down our throats in a cyclone of redemptive hellfire. Having lost everything that he once held dear, the charred priest looks skyward to his Saviour and tearfully decries the fate of his self, his town and his country – knowing full well that in both life and in death he will have achieved only this: fuck all.
“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?
“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).
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
“…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.
“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.
“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.”