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.