09 October 2007

Twilight of the Biberkopf

Save me an aisle seat: inside the Grand Rex

The Grand Rex cinema is Europe’s largest, built in 1932, with lavish Art Deco design and, inside the main hall, even more lavish decorations that evoke a princely villa on the Mediterranean. During the Occupation, the place was reserved for Nazi soldiers and functionaries, and so it made a fitting venue, last weekend, for a marathon screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, a slice of German life between the wars, in which the looming presence of Hitler is never far from the viewer’s thoughts, or ears. In almost every scene at the home of Eva, the call-girl with a heart of gold played by Hanna Schygulla, Hitler’s voice is heard speechifying on the radio in the background.

Based on a novel by Alfred Döblin (whose son Stefan was present for the screening), the film was originally a television miniseries, thirteen episodes and an epilogue, fifteen and a half hours. Fassbinder’s adaptation is politically charged, as is typical for the director: the first person our hero, Franz Biberkopf, meets upon his release from prison is a Jew, and as Franz continues to make his fitful way, he encounters Nazis, Communists, and uncomprehending German citizens caught in the middle. Though most of the film moves swiftly, it grinds to a dead halt at several points while characters debate political philosophy: these sequences don’t hold up very well today. There is something about German art that loves a harangue, and in its monumentality (if not in its maddening musical score) Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz recalls the most exalted of all German harangues, Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen.

Deadly pas de deux: Sukowa and John in Alexanderplatz

I’ve seen the Ring only once, over four consecutive nights, in standing room at the Met. That’s much as Wagner intended: he was not keen on physical comfort for his audiences (as both the duration of his operas and the durity of the seats at Bayreuth attest). He might’ve approved of my standing. Fassbinder, for his part, intended Berlin Alexanderplatz to be experienced over several weeks. He didn’t mean to test my Sitzfleisch — at least, not to this extent.

Would he have done anything differently? Would he have insisted on more variety in Peer Raaben’s musical score? Would he have made less use (and reuse) of a violent flashback, in which Biberkopf accidentally murders his mistress? Would he have trimmed some of those political debates?

We can’t know. I opted to run a marathon on the track available to me: a screening over two days of the film as Fassbinder made it. Yet some works inspire this kind of physical commitment. I suspect my reading of Joyce’s Ulysses would have been very different if I’d been able to tackle it in one sitting: the book that invites the reader to immerse himself. And such immersion isn’t merely intellectual or physical, it’s spiritual: it is a baptism. When we emerge from the Ring or from Berlin Alexanderplatz, we’re not the same people anymore — even if we are not converted to a new faith.

Mira and Lamprecht in Alexanderplatz

Yes, there are things I’d prefer Fassbinder to have done differently in this movie. And yet there is so very much to admire, and many of the pleasures one finds in his other films are represented here. Biberkopf’s dreary flat gives onto some sort of flashing neon signage, bathing nighttime scenes in the lollipop colors that we love because Fassbinder loved them. Favorite actors are here, among them Elisabeth Trissenaar, in whose dense ebony curls one finds the same combination of regal dignity and vicious sensuality that one finds in the women of Klimt’s paintings; and Hark Bohm, whose rabbity awkwardness here conceals a core of hypocrisy and treachery.

Brigitte Mira makes several appearances as Biberkopf’s landlady, a kindly soul whose inability to take action or even to cry out against other people’s violence becomes at once pitiable and loathsome: a portrait of the helpless complicity of the German people in Hitler’s crimes. Hanna Schygulla brings her inestimable marquee value to the production, showing up once in every episode, even when she has nothing particular to do; Margit Carstensen shows up at the end, as an angel.

There are scenes of Fassbinder’s trademark intensity, and the greatest of these is the climax of the film, a long duet between two of his stalwarts, Barbara Sukowa and Gottfried John, that is one of the most harrowing sequences I’ve ever seen on film. And at the center of all this is a titantic performance by Günther Lamprecht as Biberkopf, dominating almost every scene, roaring and blustering and weeping, crushing and crushed.

It’s a great deal to digest, this movie, and I’m still sorting out what I can. I feel the need to see the picture again, and to read the novel on which it’s based — and to see other movies as unlike this one as possible.

Today’s special is Mayberry Pie, with fresh mayberries:
Russell and Griffith in

I began with Waitress, a sunny little comedy that has almost nothing Fassbinderesque about it except, alas, the brutal murder of Adrienne Shelly, the gifted actress who wrote, directed, and co-starred in the movie. Keri Russell leads a cast of lovable eccentrics, and there’s a lovely cameo by Andy Griffith, one of the slyest actors around. (Old Ange never gets much credit for his acting skills, though they’re formidable, and I wonder: if he didn’t talk with that cornpone accent, would the highfalutin folks have taken him more seriously?) The script has more clichés than the heroine has recipes for pie, but it’s a well-made entertainment.

I followed up with Eric Rohmer’s avowed swansong, an adaptation of a 17th-century French romance called Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon. The material cries out for lavish Technicolor, heightened visual and aural effects to match the heightened language of the text, in which nymphs and shepherds debate the qualities of love. For reasons unfathomable, Rohmer treats the whole thing as an exercise in naturalism, with flat lighting, drab costumes, and sometimes painfully amateurish acting, and as a result the picture never comes together.

Grandma goes to war: Vishnevskaya in Aleksandra

Today was the cheery, insubstantial Death at a Funeral, and the seemingly slight but memorable Aleksandra, set in a Russian army camp in the Chechen Republic. The eponymous heroine, a staraya babushka, goes to visit her grandson. Stubbornly ignoring warnings and offers of assistance (“I’m just going to cross that minefield. Leave me alone”), she wanders about, locating a humanity and a strange serenity in everyone she encounters, in this least likely of settings. Absolutely nothing happens in the movie, yet there’s considerable tension and a sweet catharsis at the end. The star is none other than the legendary opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, giving a performance so natural and so understated, I sometimes thought I was watching a documentary. Brava.