Berlin Alexanderplatz

What’s 15 or so hours in front of the television screen when the director is the late bad boy of German cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82), and the series is based on Alfred D”blin’s great novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1928)? The short answer is easy: it’s some of the best time you will ever spend watching television in your life. Those familiar with D”blin’s masterpiece know that his innovative novel, published between the two world wars, relies on an unusual narrative technique, combining alternate voices, multiple perspectives, and lots of found material. Street sounds, advertisements, radio headlines, popular songs: much like John Dos Passos’ newsreel style in the U.S.A. trilogy, D”blin’s montage mixes proletarian realism with Joycean modernism. No wonder D”blin’s portrait of a working-class neighborhood in Weimar Berlin was a lifelong passion for Fassbinder, himself a cinematic poet of the underclass. It’s amazing that producers were found for Fassbinder’s ambitious project — 13 episodes and an epilogue tracing the life of Franz Biberkopf (G�nter Lamprecht), a former transport worker and pimp who leaves prison (four years for killing his girlfriend in a crime of passion). Determined to go straight, the big lunk Biberkopf is overwhelmed by the street life and unemployment in a depressed city, the sights and sounds of which Fassbinder recreates with astonishing detail. And the faces! Using some of his regular troupe (Hanna Schygulla, Gottfried John, Brigitte Mira ), Fassbinder fills the cast of thieves, whores, and hustlers with a motley array straight from the sketchbooks of George Grosz. By the epilogue, a surreal descent into Franz’s madness, we know that Fassbinder has made this work all his own — the soundtrack includes (anachronistically) Elvis, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed — and the director himself pops up in an intriguing cameo. Not just a brilliant re-creation of a time and place and a novel, Fassbinder’s epic brings together all his magnificent obsessions: with love and betrayal, sex and violence, politics and the individual. Here is German New Wave cinema at its raw and vertiginous best.