Absent for so long, Berlin Alexanderplatz has become practically omnipresent this past year. As with last year’s revival of Melville’s Army of Shadows, familiarity, far from breeding contempt, has only further secured Alexanderplatz’s monumental reputation, its now numerous avenues of availability allowing for a ubiquitous chorus of praise that rarely gets further than describing its surface—though as that surface covers a 15-hour stretch, that restriction is somewhat understandable. If this new wave of exposure in no way cheapens the work’s real achievement, however, it has significantly changed its status. While Cinematheque Ontario is obligingly presenting Alexanderplatz in a three-day marathon this weekend, this feels more like a victory lap than the SRO event it was once conceived and perceived to be. We’re eminently richer for having Alexanderplatz at our fingertips, but its value has now become an entitlement. No matter that its newfound availability on screens and disc hardly makes it coin of the realm, its very ease of access establishes it as a fixture of a common cinematic heritage rather than a wondrous strange disruption of it.
Such, of course, is the fate of all pathbreaking works; whether founding a genre or dissolving one (as per the Benjaminian definition), they will always stand as unmistakable and ineradicable landmarks. What’s interesting about Alexanderplatz, however, is how well its particular brand of extreme long form cinema fits with our familiar means of dramatic apprehension. While its form demands that we experience cinema differently—whether as a theatrical event that violates all durational norms or a televisual event whose conceptual integrity and aesthetic autonomy defies the medium’s fragmentation and sequentiality—its narrative and aesthetic strategies do not demand that we see differently. It is its mere existence, rather than its specific aesthetic functions, that denotes its radical atypicality. Fassbinder's exquisite control of his medium notwithstanding, his Alexanderplatz fits quite snugly into the broad (art) historical moment that we still mostly live within, aligning with our still current preconceptions and imperatives far more than with those of its source novel—which, to most present day viewers, will exist only as an addendum to its decades-later screen immortalization.
That Fassbinder’s film differs markedly from the 1929 Alfred Döblin tome it adapts with such love and fidelity is hardly surprising. No matter that, like Joyce’s Bloom, Döblin’s Everyman Franz Biberkopf provides a grounded centre for his flurry of stylistic transmutations, the book’s imperatives are far removed from the concerns of Fassbinder, as both distinctly differing artist and man of his time. As Stanley Kauffmann aptly and concisely summarizes the shift between Döblin’s page and Fassbinder’s screen, “Döblin shows Franz as one figure, the figure on whom he happens to be concentrating, in a whirling world; Fassbinder shows us Franz, preeminently, with the world whirling around him.” Where Döblin’s concretive prose aims for amorphousness and speed, Fassbinder’s fleeting images provide a groundedness and solidity to person and place. Döblin’s vibrant action sketch in Franz of a certain human type—a type which, as Kauffmann tellingly suggests, carries something of Emil Jannings’ iconic bearing—becomes, in Fassbinder, solidly anchored to the imposing girth and unforgettable pudding face of Gunther Lamprecht; the vividly packed but speedily dispatched density of location detail in the book becomes the meticulously designed, lovingly lingered over interiors of the film. (Though surely the film’s limiting of its action to a handful of emblematic settings for most of its length had as much to do with the budgetary restrictions of an epic-length period piece as it did with Fassbinder’s aesthetic prerogatives.)
The key reversal in all this is that where Döblin offers an almost cinematic range of sensory experience with his kaleidoscopic novel, Fassbinder, several artistic generations later, wants instead to delve into the psychological realm which had long been the novel’s province and the cinema’s ambition. Döblin revels in the plasticity of his literary creation: in the montage of disparate elements given meaning solely by his juxtaposition of them, in the film-schooled typage of characters distinguished more by their propulsive force, their clear and clean lines of definition than their psychological depth, in the tangible materiality of the messy, disjointed, pulsating whole. Fassbinder, no matter his use of overlapping layers of aural and textual narration or Brechtian-cum-Godardian distancing (most vividly the slow, circular pan around a placard-wearing Franz in the titular underground station, a moment of dreamlike stasis in the midst of a potentially violent encounter), is directed towards a more “novelistic” investment in his subjects, not in the sense of well-behaved “literary” cinema but in allowing their various inner drives to constitute the motor of the film. For Döblin, the mythological resonance of Franz’s fateful coupling with the devious Reinhold is merely another ironically appropriated and inflated piece of cultural detritus to be added to his literary bricolage; for Fassbinder, that duel (replete with homoerotic overtones) is the foundation upon which his cinematic architecture rests. Döblin’s materialist assembly becomes Fassbinder’s psychological odyssey, whose few forays into flagrant artifice—as in the rather banally surrealistic dream coda—are registered not as the felt impression of an objectively mad world but the feverishly subjective workings of a (temporarily) maddened mind.
In thus aligning his adaptation of Döblin with our prevailing artistic temper, with that preoccupation with the psyche and the self which still constitutes the mainstream of both narrative and avant-garde cinema, Fassbinder neatly inverts the goal of his revered forebear: to constitute his people as prefabricated cogs within a madly whirling mechanism, their tragedy to be helplessly unique and helplessly ordinary all at once. Fassbinder’s characters, by contrast, can never escape the burden of their exemplarity: they are the damned gods of this fallen world, the heroically proportioned icons and gargoyles of a vaunting cinematic cathedral. As Kauffmann notes, the truly pathbreaking achievement of Berlin Alexanderplatz vu par Fassbinder is to claim for cinema a traditionally literary entitlement—an entitlement that Döblin, ironically, worked strenuously against in his massive tome. “Fassbinder committed an act of mind-opening, esthetic imperialism, claiming the same time-territory for a film that we would give Döblin’s 635-page novel,” says Kauffmann. True—yet wasn’t one of Döblin’s chief provocations, in accord with the self-consciously assertive modernism of his artistic moment, the fact that he aimed to violate the bourgeois mode of novelistic consumption, that his Alexanderplatz sought to fundamentally reorient the habits of literary reception—that it strove, at some level, to be inconsumable? Whatever else it is (and it is much), Fassbinder’s cinematic monument offers no such comparable challenge absent the now-surmounted logistical obstacles of actually viewing it, its halo of “masterwork” priming it for respectful attendance and dutiful praise in our ever more permeable mediascape.
Lest it be read otherwise, there is no derogation of the thing-in-itself intended here, merely a suggestion that our methods of apprehending and speaking about it fit comfortably into the same routines that it once sought to disturb. That yesterday’s provocation can so easily become today’s safely canonical fixture is neither revelation nor condemnation, but it would be well if the considered long view of the titanic work could share space with those overwhelmed impressions gleaned under its shadow.
Berlin Alexanderplatz screens December 12-14 at Cinematheque Ontario.