Friday, April 22, 2016

Entering the World of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Berlin Alexanderplatz Review

Fassbinder filming with Hanna Schygulla
When it comes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his reputation exceeds him. He is known as the enfant terrible of the New German movement. He was openly gay. He was openly self-destructive. He was a workaholic and a drug and sex addict. He made about forty films before he died at the young age of 37. He left an undisputed legacy, while critics, regardless whether they like him or his work, acknowledge his important contributions to the art and world of cinema.

My first encounter with Rainer Werner Fassbinder happened more than a decade ago with the bizarre Beware of the Holy Whore (1971). Having heard so much about the director and not having been exposed to any of his films before (strange considering my German upbringing combined with my steady and steadfast love for cinema) I watched this particular movie with great enthusiasm and expectations.  

And I was let down. I would definitely not recommend this film as an entry to the world of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It felt for the most part pointless and there were only two scenes that made an impact on me. One, if I remember correctly, had the director of a movie, Fassbinder casting himself as the director, fall in great despair to the ground and ask for five (or more) Cuba libres. 

The other scene was a strange and quite inventive fighting scene towards the end and it was acted in slow motion and on replay. Everything else did little to impress me, and I discarded Fassbinder for the time being and did not approach him again until a number of years thereafter.

Then within the past year or two, I decided to give him another shot. This time I was more strategic and hunted down the movies that were among his most celebrated and known. So I watched The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Ali or Angst essen Seele auf (1974). The first one I thought well-made, but still did not understand why there was so much fuss about this film-maker. The second one I thought very well done and again, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic directorial touches and flourishes here and there did not see anything truly outstanding or unique.

And that is exactly what draws me to a specific director or artist in general. It is not just craft, but something that makes the director truly different from others. It is not unlike falling in love with someone; they may look and be similar to everyone else on the surface level, but there is something extraordinary or special about them, and we feel ourselves inexplicably drawn towards them. Yet until we notice that particular quality which the French (of course!) render best with je-ne-sais-quoi (and not everyone has it in fact), there is little to attract us.

So I decided to give Fassbinder another try and this was an experiment and a significant investment of time and probably effort: I tackled his magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) based on Alfred Döblin's Ulysses-like novel. It is purportedly one of the longest movies in movie history clocking in about 15 and a half hours. I was apprehensive, nervous and thrilled to embark on this cinematic adventure.

The very first minutes were great. The main character, an unassuming rather sympathetic Franz Biberkopf was released from prison for the manslaughter of his wife. Yet he hesitates to leave the prison grounds, scared about leaving behind his accustomed confines and worried about the world he might find outside. 

Then followed about half an hour of bizarre events and I was getting worried that I would not be able to continue, but it got better; I vowed come what may I will finish this as I had heard praise and bewilderment regarding the final episode (and I was more than fourteen hours away from it).

Berlin Alexanderplatz is not a mini-series by any standards. It is more a very long and drawn-out movie. In fact, it is a movie that would have surely benefited from tighter editing; it could have been much better had it been cut by say about thirteen hours or so. As it stands it is self-indulgent, meandering, and repetitive.

The movie has cases of poor plotting, scenes and dialogues that go far beyond the necessary running time, while the murder scene that haunts poor Biberkopf is repeated a dozen times (I lost count after a while) as a flashback, each time with different commentaries.

By now, you might think that I disparage of this movie, but against my own statements above, I must confess that I think Berlin Alexanderplatz to be brilliant. Yes, it has its various flaws, but they are, like the beloved person mentioned earlier in this post, part of its attractive features. In fact, only someone like Fassbinder could make such a movie and get away with it.

Berlin Alexanderplatz also has flashes of brilliance that blow any cinephile's mind. Strangely enough, it is a take-it or leave-it affair. The poor plotting is, in fact, one of its trademarks. We come to expect and cherish it. It is as detailed as a good old-fashioned literary book. The movie is, at the same time, inventive and is more than a movie. It is a documentary, a novel, a music video, a treatise and much more. It is ingenious and wildly imaginative.

Fassbinder has made another literary adaptation, namely the also very good Effi Briest (1974) based on Theodor Fontane's classic novel. Fassbinder played around with some of the stylistic devices, such as intertitles and dialogues that are taken directly and verbatim from the book.

Yet all of that is taken a step higher in Berlin Alexanderplatz, while Fassbinder shows more mastery than before. In Effi Briest we are treated with beautifully composed shots and ingenious mise en scène and constant play with mirror images, yet despite or rather because of these effects we distance ourselves from the characters and their plights.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz, it is quite the opposite. We are literally thrown into the world and particularly mind of its protagonist. We hear his thoughts, we see his deliriums and flashbacks, we know of his fears and obsessions. The image quality is purposely imperfect and occasionally blurry; yet it all works in its own ways and on its own terms. There are tracking shots that left me in a state of wonder. And we had not even reached the madness of its final episode!

I will not give away any particular or relevant plot details (although in movies like these, plot does not matter much anyhow), but I have two observations to make. First, the movie showed me something that had not occurred to me before. The protagonist had spent years in a prison and was weary about the world outside. In fact, the world turns out to be bad, if not worse than what he had imagined. At one point of despair, he catches a cab to the prison grounds and begs to be let in again.

It is strange how the prison confines can over time become someone’s home and I am reminded of the old man in Shawshank Redemption who had difficulties adapting to the real world out there. For a long-term prisoner, the prison can be their structured and secure home.

The second observation is about a scene in which Franz Biberkopf orders various pints of beer and talks to each of them. This scene is completely redundant and even pointless by any standards; yet it has Fassbinder written all over it. It is funny and quirky though, and we see the protagonist Biberkopf drink them one after the other and still able to deliver (most of) his lines. The surreal meets cinema verité!  

As can be seen, I finally seem to have gotten Fassbinder. Something clicked within me and I understood. From now on, I will see his movies with different eyes. I would not mind re-watching some of the previous films with this renewed knowledge and, moreover, appreciation for this great film-maker.

I also understand now why he is considered so good. Because, put simply, he is. He is an acquired taste for sure, just like sushi or Hitchcock. You may not like his films at first or see nothing special in them (as I had done), but delve deeper and you will find a treasure trove.

Am I going to watch all of his movies? I doubt it. Just like Alfred Hitchcock whom I admire now (but about whom I did not always feel that way), Fassbinder also has some misses. There are also movies that are fraught with violence (or so I have heard). But I will add many of this director's movies to my (alas endless) watch list and give them a fair hearing and seeing.

And I am confident that there is something I will see in his movies that I do not find in many other films, something bold, something unique, that je-ne-sais-quoi, the secret, mysterious and often missing alchemical ingredient that transposes craft into genius.

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