Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Review of Berlin Alexanderplatz

In November of 2007, Criterion released “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980) on DVD. It took me until recently to finish it. This is largely because the film is 15 ½ hours long, easily the longest movie I’ve ever seen. Does it still count as a film at such a length? Well it did get a theatrical distribution, though it is better known as a mini-series and mostly consists of hour-long “chapters” (like television episodes) that have their own titles and credit sequences. Struggling through to the bitter end got me thinking about movie runtimes and how length affects the viewing experience.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” is based on the work of the same name by Alfred Doblin, a Joyce-style modernist novel once declared unfilmable. It was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, icon of the New German Cinema movement, who considered it his crowning masterpiece. It was well received by critics in the early 1980’s and the Criterion release generated much excitement and praise. As a huge fan of Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy (which was also granted a stunning Criterion transfer) and a moderate follower of some of his other works, I decided that a viewing would be worth the commitment.

The story follows Franz Biberkopf (Gunter Lamprecht) beginning with his release from jail for manslaughter. Biberkopf vows not to return to the life of crime that first doomed him, but finds life in the economically depressed Weimar Republic to be harsh and depressing. He tries to stifle his loneliness with a procession of women, an abundance of alcohol, an ill-considered flirtation with Nazi politics and the dubious company of the criminals that haunt his favorite bar. None of this heals his damaged psyche and crippled emotions or fixes the underlying factors driving his downward spiral: poverty and unemployment. Occasional odd jobs and fleeting loves prove only temporary tourniquets for his misery.

After a few breakdowns and betrayals, Biberkopf finds himself aiding a heist and loses an arm in the ensuing chase. Though the lost limb is no help to his circumstances, the worse consequence is his striking up a friendship with Reinhold Hoffmann, one of the robbers, who secretly hates him bitterly and draws him into pimping. He is temporarily saved by the introduction of Mietze, a prostitute whose adoration for Franz knows no reason. However, his increased dependency on Mietze for unconditional understanding and love only positions him for a final fall. When she is murdered in a gorgeous forest, Biberkopf plunges headlong into madness.

Gunter Lamprecht’s performance holds the whole film together, occupying the screen in almost every shot of this titanic personal epic. He performs amazingly given the difficultly of the part, which includes hiding an arm for more than half the film, bursting with anger and frustration at intervals and spouting cryptic monologues while staring into space; all tasks that might be unrewarding and obnoxious in the hands of a less talented actor. The supporting cast isn’t too many notches behind, though they slip into the same narrative holding patterns so often that, even with the abundant screen time, they feel underdeveloped and incomplete.

Unfortunately, my praise for the film stops with Lamprecht. Fassbinder’s direction, while daring, turns the biography into a sluggish self-conscious death march. He turns to the Brechtian techniques that often make his work so intriguing and indelible, but exhausts them until they seem trite, pointless and painful. Occasionally throwing text onto the screen (usually quotes from the book) is one of the most obvious, and actually one of the most palatable examples (leading me to believe the book is pretty decent). The worst decision, rendering the film nearly unwatchable for someone like me, is an unremitting reliance on repetition.

Repetition is a killer. It was a lesson I wasn’t always willing to accept when my film professors drove it in, but I’ve since converted. I frequently find it at the root of problems with pacing, script, narrative progression, visual dynamism, interest, excitement, shock, etc. Fassbinder, for either thematic or budgetary reasons, absolutely exalts in it. Flashbacks, camera positions, locations, lines of dialogue, sounds, music, characters and situations all repeat with maddening insistence. Sometimes there is a façade of change, as with the rotation of female characters leading up to the entrance of Mietze, except that they all look the same, act the same and fulfill the same interchangeable purpose in the story. Even the themes get hammered home far too often, like an amateur essayist who thinks restating his thesis is the same as supporting it.

I generally welcome the related Brechtian themes of lack of progress and the inability of protagonists to overcome their obstacles. These concepts are often gutsy, powerful and admirably realistic in an industry that overvalues shallow victories and happy endings. But while I find such avant-garde ideas fascinating at 100 minutes, they are monotonous lessons at 931.

The unquestionable inevitability of Biberkopf’s decline makes all the minor ups and downs in the narrative blur together. The primary reliance on a half dozen relatively sparse sets prevents the viewer from escaping into visual appreciation, though Fassbinder’s camera movement and framing occasionally (not nearly often enough) revive the limited lifespan of the art direction.

Perhaps it’s just me. I know length impacts my taste. I don’t like very many television shows, for instance. One of my main complaints is the amount of filler. Most television shows have to cater to an audience that may be tuning in, possibly for the first time, at any moment. This means that personality traits, character allegiances, back-stories, major plot points, long-term goals, unusual constraints, over-arching themes and important locations have to be constantly reasserted to keep everyone up to speed. In general, the longer a show runs the more baggage it has to carry around and re-explain. Meanwhile, the original ideas and exciting freshness move in the opposite direction, ultimately reducing the viewing experience to character attachment, nostalgia and momentum.

I don’t mind a long film, but I like it to be lean. I even enjoy slow films (efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean rapid pace or dense story), if I’m given a healthy diet of food for thought, eye candy or artistic treats of other varieties. Efficiency is a virtue that can be exercised on any terrain, even in the company of minimalism, grandiosity, realism, poetics, character development or narrative progress.

What I don’t like is inefficiency, waste and repetition. The romantic subplot that exists for no other reason than that marketers think every film needs one. The phone conversation where the listener parrots every word for the benefit of the audience. The oft-repeated line trying to become a memorable catchphrase. The joke that occurs three times with a “surprising” twist on the third iteration. The dialogue that fills in backstory better left implied or gradually revealed. The cuts that serve no purpose except to stimulate the optical nerve. The shots that have no beauty, depth or style, but ensure that we are always looking at THE ONE MAIN THING important to the story. The music that forces an emotion that should be earned and self-evident.

Add length to that equation and it only gets worse. But then “add” isn’t the right word. Length, for me, is a multiplier. If a bad film takes up 90 minutes, that’s a missed opportunity to run some errands, or maybe go out for a nice dinner. It’s a minor offense; an artistic misdemeanor. If a bad film wears on for three hours, that’s a crime. It’s the murder of a whole evening.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” isn’t terrible, but at 15+ hours mediocrity becomes pretty insufferable. If I was just tallying the highlights, I’d have to give the film a reasonably high score. I think many reviewers operate on that principle: that the sum of the best parts yields the value of the whole. In my mind, you have to divide the merits by the runtime and distribute it over the resources they had available. That might seem harsh for filmmakers. It asks them to maintain a high level of quality on every inch of film stock. It asks them to do more than throw money at the audience. I think it’s a fair demand.

Of course, you can take things too far in the opposite direction. There is no shortage of films that have been butchered on the editing table to meet that wholly artificial 2 hour cap. Hence the frequency of director’s cuts on DVDs that [usually] make films smoother, richer or more deeply felt. It’s a tough balance. It takes real talent to hone a film to its ideal state.

I think “Berlin Alexanderplatz” could have made a great film if Fassbinder had been constrained to a fraction of the time. The final 112 minute epilogue, for instance, makes a very decent standalone film. It's set mostly inside of Biberkopf’s crazed mind, with a compact barrage of surreal imagery and enough flashbacks and back-references to allow the audience to figure out the key events that tore apart his sanity.

Still, I think Fassbinder knew what he was doing. He made the film he wanted to make. The decisions about what to ship and what to snip belong, rightfully, to him and his editor (I’d make an awful producer!). Watching the whole thing just didn’t pay off for me and I can’t recommend it for others.

Walrus Rating: 4.5


Patti said...

Lesson: read the book (in German?) instead, although I think it's pretty long, too.

I was just recently thinking about writing an essay about album lengths...

Mad Dog said...

"Meanwhile, the original ideas and exciting freshness move in the opposite direction., ultimately reducing the viewing experience to character identification, nostalgia and momentum."

Now I understand the problem with the latter two, but what's wrong with character identification?

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

I meant to say character attachment (I will change the original post). Here is what I was thinking:

There is nothing wrong with character attachment intrinsically, but I think it is cheating for a director to use prolonged exposure to make us grow attached to a character and then to string us along through an ever more tedious story on the basis of our "involvement" with the person.

You see this in television all the time. A show will hook a large audience when it is starting out and at the top of its game, but then it can end up dragging along a huge following even when it has crumbled deep into mediocrity, because the audience has developed a strong, often emotional, connection with the fictional characters. Unlike some media critics, I don't think that type of attachment, in most cases, is all that unhealthy. I find a certain pleasure in succumbing to it myself, but I think care should be taken to remain aware of the context. The problem is that such simulated relationships are susceptible to abuse and disillusionment (think of how many times you've heard viewers claim to be "betrayed") and ultimately it asks us to substitute committment and obligation (towards a fictitious character!) for artistic merit.

In the case of "Berlin Alexanderplatz," I wanted to know how the main character ends up, but I soon lost interest in everything else Fassbinder was trying to say and do (he repeats it ad nauseam, anyway).

Mad Dog said...

OK, I completely understand where you're coming from on that. Ask Katie: Buffy the Vampire Slayer lasted far longer than it should have because the hardcore fans didn't want to believe that the show with their favorite characters was rapidly deteriorating.

I guess I was just wondering if you were slamming shows where the whole point of them is becoming attached to the characters, understanding them, and joining them on their travails. Six Feet Under, a drama which I consider to be mostly excellent, has almost no overarching plot at all. It all lies in the characters and their relationships and successes and failures. I wouldn't think I would have gotten so caught up in it, but the show, and the characters in it, have really grown on me.

But anyways, this is about Berlin Alexanderplatz. I saw it several times on shelves and wondered what it was. Glad you spared me the time.

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

I don't think there is any problem with shows that are extremely character driven. Again, I am not to familiar with very many shows, but I think its what I like about The Office. Your example of Buffy, is right on the money about how character attachment can be abused.

Sometimes, though, writers fall into what I call holding patterns (formulas for character interactions that reassert the same handful of character traits that the audience expects) and permutation cycles (exhausting every possible romantic pairing in the primary cast just to kill time and satisfy every fan; see Friends or any soap opera).


I don't think I'll be able to handle, especially not any time soon, but it isn't actually insanely long. I've heard from many sources that it is quite good, and the directly-sampled text that appears in the film is a grade level above the screenplay stuff. I'd say go for it if you get the time. I'd like to discuss your impressions afterwards.