- Two new documentaries by Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz: one featuring interviews with the cast and crew, the other on the restoration
- Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary Notes on the Making of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”
- Phil Jutzi’s 1931, ninety-minute film of Alfred Döblin’s novel, from a screenplay co-written by Döblin himself
- New video interview with Peter Jelavich, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture
When you hear about those ridiculously long movies, the number one word you associate with them is “indulgence”. For example, does anyone really want to sit through a three-hour movie? Does it really take a director three hours to tell his or her story? Sometimes, it can be justified if every minute is devoted to pushing a story forward. When a movie goes over three hours, though, that’s when you have to start worrying. People have a hard time sitting still for two hours, never mind four. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder demolished this standard with his ambitious 15 & ½ hour adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980).
Sitting through the entire thing from start to finish is an adventure in itself, but what you are watching is amazing stuff that sits uniquely in the realm of cinema. It just cannot compare. The amount of emotion poured out on the screen by these actors is incredible. Then, there’s the fact that Fassbinder, who was so devoted to the source material by Alexander Döblin, directs this film in such a way that the viewer gets caught in the world of Weimar Germany.
I have not read the novel, but what makes this sob story of Franz Bieberkopf and his ill-fated attempt to go straight so interesting is that it is so open. What I mean by this is that the story’s structure can go anywhere and this structure allows for even minor characters to go through full character development. You also get a sense of openness through the fact that characters are able to weave in and out of the film in a way that a traditional film does not allow. The best example of this is Bieberkopf’s friend Meck. He disappears for numerous hours and then comes back to be a vital part of the last few hours. There is also Reinhold, who becomes the most important person in Bieberkopf’s life, but doesn’t appear until about five hours in.
There certainly are points of the film where you know it could have been cut, but because Fassbinder is dealing with so many characters going through so many emotions, everything feels entirely necessary. This is the weirdest thing about the film! There’s just so much, but you really do need everything to understand it. If you even skip one part, you have no idea what goes on during the epilogue. Although, the epilogue is so bizarre, that even after watching it all, I don’t think I understood it all that well.
In case you want more Franz Bieberkopf, not only is there an extensive documentary on the last disc, but Criterion added a seventh disc with quite a few additional features. The inclusion of the original 1931 film adaptation is just one of the reasons why I love Criterion. I had kind of been iffy on whether or not to actually sit through it, but I finally saw it a few days ago. It’s really a ‘Cliff Notes’ version, with characters either fully dropped (like Meck) or combined into other characters (Eva is combined into Cilly). It also turns Bieberkopf into a bumbling fool, but this is still hardly a throwaway film. Phil Jutzi directed a wonderful film that is definitely worth sitting through. The remaining features are invaluable, particularly the 1980 documentary filmed during the making of the film. Criterion also went above and beyond with the artwork. It’s just amazing stuff, particularly the cover of the book with the canary.
The Conclusion: If you can find this at a good price, I would definitely grab it. The retail price is $125, but I got it during Barnes & Noble’s latest 50% Criterion sale for just $45 with coupons! Another note is that if you do get it, I would not try to watch this all at once. After all, in Germany, it was first aired on television, so when I watched it, I tried to treat it as a show, watching just a full disc at the most. “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is so different from anything else you will ever see. Part of the reasons for this is that it’s more than a really long movie – it’s a really long movie that works.