There are a number of masterpieces in the impressive oeuvre of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema movement in the '70s, but it is undoubtedly his fifteen hour adaptation of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz that casts the longest shadow. This miniseries, which is in reality more of an epic length feature, takes one of the classics of Germany's Weimar era literature and recreates it for a new generation is a marvel in many ways. The Criterion Collection first tackled the series in 2007 on DVD and have just recently delivered the set upgraded in HD and we're taking a look at that new set today.
Synopsizing the series is a mammoth undertaking, so we'll just hit the key points. Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of Franz Biberkopf, who is released from prison in 1928 in Berlin and is left to his own devices to try to create a productive life. Unfortunately for him, the life of an ex-con is no easier in 1928 than it is today, and he struggles to find legitimate work and also has to stick to stringent regulations to insure that he can stay in Berlin, the only home he knows.
Franz stumbles from place to place, oddjob to oddjob, and woman to woman in search of a home, but all he finds is his own pain and weakness. Those who he counts on to support him turn against him, he turns against those who trust him, and the cycle of violence and poverty continues, leaving almost everyone he cares about in tatters in his wake. Sucked into a criminal life as his only way to make ends meet, Franz finds that no matter how hard he tries and how fast he runs from his criminal past, he's always stuck with himself and the hole he has dug.
Fassbinder often took pity on those upon whom society looked down, whether they were religious, ethnic, of sexual minorities, his work always sought to humanize those who'd been cast out. With Berlin Alexanderplatz, he does the same through the character of Franz Biberkopf, played here with a religious fervor by Günter Lamprecht. A lurching brute of a man with a checkered past, the film is empathetic towards this downtrodden soul, perhaps to a fault, and even spares a bit of empathy for those he attempts to help and who attempt to help him.
Though the film is set in the twenties, it feels very contemporaneous in the context of other German films from the late '70s. Fassbinder, who famously directed over forty features in his short thirty-six years, was at the helm of a number of similar films and worked in parallel with other such talents like Volker Schlondorff in attempting to create modern films from period stories that mirrored the struggles of the Germany and Europe of the time. Many of these films feel contemporary still, as the struggles of Franz Biberkopf could very easily apply to anyone seeking to build a life for themselves after committing a crime, even a heinous one, from which they feel rehabilitated.
It's a harrowing portrait of the futility of hope, a feeling that often creeps into Fassbinder's work. However, it also manages to declare to the audience that the joys of life are fleeting, and it's often important to immerse oneself in those moments when they present themselves, because they may not last. Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of an everyman trying to unbury and unburden himself of the guilt he carries for the crime he has committed, but finding himself trapped in an underworld that will always see him as just another crook. Once in a while a woman will cast a kind eye his way, but it doesn't work out for them, and in the end there's no way out for any of them.
Is Berlin Alexanderplatz depressing? I found it to be deeply troubling in its depiction of Biberkopf's conundrum, however, it's also a deeply affecting portrait of a man trying to be better than he thinks he can be. In a strange way, the film is about hope, a futile hope that doesn't truly pay off, but hope nonetheless. It's certainly the kind of film that I may only need to rewatch once in a decade, but it is an astonishing achievement and well worth having in one's arsenal as an experience to share with others.
Berlin Alexanderplatz was restored prior to its release on Criterion DVD in 2007, and what we are presented here is, I believe, an HD upgrade of that restoration. It improves in the necessary areas of color, clarity, fine detail, and contrast, but those hoping for a miracle will need to understand that the film was shot on 16mm film and blown up to 35mm for the restoration, so the grain is certainly noticeable, and there's only so much sharpness that can be expected. That being said, it is an upgrade, to be sure, and shockingly late in the game for this film to appear on Blu-ray in the US.
The 14 episodes of the miniseries and the two hour epilogue are spread across three Blu-ray discs, with a fourth saved for supplements. All of the supplements from the initial 2007 DVD release are ported over to this new version, which, while impressive and worthwhile, is also a bit of a disappointment with over a decade to create and assemble new material. That being said, the documentaries - one detailing the production with contemporary interviews of the cast and crew and a second discussing in detail the restoration process - are definitely worth checking out. There is also a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during production in 1979 that is fascinating as well.
We also get an interview with author Peter Jelavich, a full length feature film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz from 1931 co-scripted by Döblin himself, and a booklet with essays from filmmaker Tom Twyker, Thomas Steinfeld, and an interview with the director of photography, Xaver Schwarzenberger.
Overall, this is an impressive package, but I do wish they'd assembled more supplements, as this is certainly a film that I know people would be happy to talk about. For people like me, who upgrade everything at the drop of a hat, this is an instant buy. However, if you already have the set on DVD, apart from the A/V upgrade, you have everything present in this package as far as I can tell, so consider that when making your choice.