While I may not have been all too fond of Edward Burns’ film divided into parts, it must be said that it was breezy with brevity. Now we find ourselves embarking on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s massive “thirteen parts with an epilogue” opus: “BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ.” It is a monumental fifteen hour plus epic whose fondest admirers even often cite how the film is sometimes hard to get through at parts.

Originally this was aired in 1980 on German television over the course of thirteen weeks, at intervals of an hour a pop, with an extended opening and closing (an interesting note is that, since Fassbinder chose to film at 25fps anticipating Europe’s PAL format, the print I watched was seven percent longer, as it was rolled at the standard 24fps we have here in North America—a long film even longer!). Is it a film or mini-series. It is now greatly considered to be a complete filmic work. Hell, Tobe Hooper’s “Salem’s Lot” seems to place best as cinema, rather than a TV show, so why not (or let’s be more Bergman about it—he preferred his TV work in their mini series intervals, and he was a cinema master).

This film has gained quite a repute over the years. Now certainly some of it was due to just the massive density of it. How can you argue with something so large? And there is a lot to be said for it. And the sheer vastness of the film—which amounts to perhaps the longest experimental cinematic exercise ever—allows for you to really become aquainted with the characters, and live with them. However, the sheer vastness of the thing also worked against itself in my case—I expected something well, HUGE. It was supposed to move me and shake my foundations. But, as I was soon to learn, it didn’t, and Fassbinder had no intentions of it doing so. Quite the contrary, he does everything to ensure that it doesn’t’; leaving me as a lone viewer to wander through the muck of Weimer era Germany, and try and make out the moves of the childish imp known as Franz Biberkopf, who is to be the main character of the piece (in fact, it all amounts to a massive character study, with A Franz who is beaten down and doesn’t make himself liable for his actions, and we witness finally his rebirth as a real live person).

The crux of the piece is the relationship between Franz and Reinhold, though you would hardly notice this for the first few hours (Fassbinder admits that Reinhold is introduced on page 200-something of the 400-something page book on which the film is based, and states that he is introduced 200 pages too late). The relationship is elusive, and Fassbinder assures us it is not homosexual (even though Reinhold winds up in an amicable homosexual relationship during an ambiguous jail stint), but rather a pure relationship of people—and one that this Germany (and sadly, perhaps not even us today) doesn’t have much to do with. It is a relationship without benefit. That is to say, there is nothing to be gained, and therefore these two men know not what to do with this bond. They will not move up in class, stature, or finances, and it is not a matter of owning or sexually awakening the relationship either.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” is important, if only for its size. It adheres to no rules of structure, storytelling, or device. It simply sinks itself into the tale, this man, and then uses everything in the book—Fassbinder narrating through voiceover, on screen text from the novel, repetition of the same scenes, jumps in time—it had me fascinated for the first few hours simply through its techniques and daring.

And then it all falls apart in a big mess of a surrealistic epilogue; one that actually has lots of brilliance, but is then beaten to death by sheer length (it is over an hour and a half, with no through line structure, but is basically Franz, going insane, on the brink of life and death, reliving the events of the previous thirteen parts through with all sorts of different variables and through all sorts of different filters. As I said, as a separate piece, and shed of perhaps twenty minutes, it could be a thing of brilliance, but at the length it is at (and after over 13 hours of film preceding it) it is a mess and doesn’t have closure. Not to mention it is a great big departure from what has come prior.

Which brings to mind the question, what is the best way to watch this film? The theatre programmers and Fassbinder’s Legacy foundation people insist that this is a FILM, and should be seen in one long haul, or at most, maybe a few large helpings. But, as a film historian (which this blog indicates I am), what is the way to do it? It was first taken in over the course of thirteen weeks in small helpings. Fassbinder and all involved designed it for television, even, as I said filming it at 25fps. But now, cineastes gather in theatres over the course of a few nights and watch it as a great once in a lifetime event. And so it may be. For how often can you show a film that lasts nearly a day?

I’m torn. I did watch portions of this in large chunks and I can see the benefit of it; as it immerses yourself in Franz’s world and with the characters. Sometimes you hang with them for an hour and not much happens, but it keeps trudging on. Yet, it was filmed in fourteen parts. And if I was around in 1980 (and, I guess, German) I would have no choice but to watch it as Fassbinder divided it then, unless I decided to wait and assumed that they would eventually re-release it as a cinema epic, years after his death.

Well, it exists, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna watch it in a fifteen hour go. But I was able to watch some divided up by an hour, and some in huge chunks. And, it felt kind of like a novel, which you can pick up and put down as you see fit. And some say that Fassbinder treated the novel like a screenplay.

So maybe it’s like when you tape some of your favorite tv shows and then watch them on a rainy day, playing catch up. Except you couldn’t do that in 1980. But oh, well, Fassbinder didn’t really honor the period nature of his film in the epilogue anyway.

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