Everything in its Right Platz

by cnw
April 16, 2007 5:53 AM
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berlin a2.jpg

I set off on Saturday morning, a few friends in tow, to scale what Andrew Sarris had claimed to be “the Mount Everest of modern cinema.” Though it was a crisp, sunny spring afternoon, perfect for a stroll in the park, I braced myself for the first seven and a half hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 1/2-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Museum of Modern Art. It was inevitable that I would one day see it, after all, and how better to do so than to push through it and, honestly, to get it out of the way and thereby graduate to the cinephilic equivalent of Webelos?

So lesson learned, and woe to the critic who goes around talking about movies as mountains. “It is one of those hybrid cinematic works that demand immersion and endurance,” writes A.O. Scott of the film in the New York Times, “an element of punishment to sweeten the pleasure.” Except that Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t a “hybrid cinematic work”, and whatever punishment there is in watching Berlin Alexanderplatz in two nearly eight-hour installments is pretty much self-inflicted. The grainy quality of the projected image, blown up to a (beautiful) 35mm print from a 16mm negative, offers constant reminder that, whatever its pedigree, Berlin Alexanderplatz was meant to be seen on television, as a miniseries, in installments, and I worry a bit about an art-movie culture that fetishizes “endurance” over an authentic viewing experience, likening monumental works to landscapes, waiting to be traversed by those strong, courageous, and dedicated enough to give themselves to the task.

While episodes one to seven, with a few exceptions, didn’t resonate with me as strongly as other Fassbinder films I’ve seen, I liked quite a bit of the first half of Berlin Alexanderplatz. But it certainly suffered by the method of presentation: around the sixth hour, the music became maddening; by episode three, the narrative jumps and repetitions began unnerving me; and throughout, the episodic quality of it wore me down as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, mentally segmenting the screenings into episodes, the episodes into minutes, counting down until my liberation. So my friends and I decided, some more quickly than others, to forego day two of Alexanderplatz and to catch up with it in installments in our respective living rooms. When I’m through with all 15 hours, I may well think the whole thing a masterpiece, though it’s just as likely that I’ll pronounce it “very good.” Regardless, I’ve learned to take my punishment and pleasure in small doses and to content myself with watching Berlin Alexanderplatz as it was intended to be seen, whatever other critics who climb mountains in their seats and toss down gauntlets with their pens (or keyboards) have to say about it – and I’m sure my ass, spared a second day of Titus 1, will thank me.

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More: Retrospectives


  • greg | April 18, 2007 9:50 AMReply

    (sorry if this shows up twice) Looking over my comment I now realized that due to the haste in which it was composed there are many grammatical, spelling, and other language errors. Judge me not on those.

  • greg | April 17, 2007 11:50 AMReply

    Sorry, for the rambling that follows: Having seen the movie over the 4 day period offered the previous week I can only offer an opinion of that means of viewing. That said, I respectfully disagree. The film seems not to function particulalry episodically, certain parts basically picking up the action in the midst of previous scenes (I think part 3 or 4 may be like this). Similarly, my impression of the structure was that of a long film divided due to the medium rather than a "mini-series" like form (perhaps a bad analogy). I, myself, enjoyed seeing B.A. in this way and after night 3 found myself wishing to have been able to continue without 20 hour delay. This is merely a explanation of subjective experience, there are other things I would add but don't have time now about the actual film and why I think it benefits being seen at once but oh well, thats for another time.
    Let it be said, though, I found BA to be pretty remarkable, the style of the film, the ideas contained and the way expressed, the methods of adapting, quite loyaly, the noval, etc. made for an exceptional movie in my mind.
    Lastly, and this is not a response to your post but to common descriptions of the film, the epilogue is not Fassbinder addition to the novel as many, if not most, seem to claim. The epilogue consists largely, I would say nearly entirely, of text and events from the novel. As I said, there seems to be a widespread belief that Fassbinder wrote it himself which is not true. Granted the viewpoint from which he films and filters it is later in the 20th century but nearly all the dialogue, event, text, is from the end of the book (just filmed with allusions, depictions, stagings that acknowledge a different position in time when made). The angels who walk besides Franz at the beginning, the biblical passages, the doctor's discussions of tratment, the discussion/depiction of death (the dialogue taken verbatim), etc etc. up to Franz's "death" and re-emergence in the world.

    RE: Out 1, Rivette has stated he finds the ideal/prefered way to be screened/viewed is over two days.

  • jamesisrael | April 16, 2007 10:53 AMReply

    I totally agree. I loved seeing "Decalogue" in several parts, as well as "Fanny and Alexander" and "Scenes from a Marriage."

    I don't see the point in doing a marathon like this for something that was clearly created for television.