Criterion Review: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mini-series remains a TV landmark

Reveling in our new golden age of television has fueled arguments about how to categorize entertainment. The lines between film and TV seem increasingly blurred as shows become more cinematic, and creative talents known for their work on the big screen use that platform in your living room to give certain projects more breathing room. Arguments about this seemingly peaked two years ago with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks the Return, but the lines have been blurred long before this, as exemplified by Criterion’s latest release. Back in the 1980s, the already prolific director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Fox and His Friends, World on a Wire, Querelle) took on one of his most ambitious works, an an adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel. A sprawling tale, approached in a cinematic way, it’s perhaps only achievable using the medium of the mini-series.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s controversial, fifteen-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on Alfred Döblin’s great modernist novel, was the crowning achievement of a prolific director who, at age thirty-four, had already made over thirty films. Fassbinder’s immersive epic follows the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to “become an honest soul” amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. With equal parts cynicism and humanity, Fassbinder details a mammoth portrait of a common man struggling to survive in a viciously uncommon time.

Set in 1920s Germany, the story unfolds over 15 hours, 13 episodes, and an epilogue. 930 minutes. So you can see the difficulty in a theatrical release, although some have tackled such a feat, usually by screening segments over multiple nights. The series follows the life of Franz Biberkopf, a lowlife jailed for murder, who finds himself released onto the streets of Berlin as the communist and Nazi regimes begin to take hold of society. He struggles to adapt and eke out an existence, feeling the pull of old criminal connections, and on a slow but inevitable march towards his gloomy fate.

The first episode is entitled The Punishment Begins, which pretty much sets the tone, while later installments like A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul, and Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls, compound expectations that a dark viewing experience lies in front of you, not that you’d expect anything pretty from 1920s Berlin. Dark and grim, befitting its narrative tone and the encroaching War, aesthetics offer no respite from the ordeals that beset Biberkop (Gunter Lamprecht, Das Boot). Each episode he’s squeezed a little more, taking various low paying jobs and schemes to try and eke out an existence; women come and go, events take a psychological and physical toll. Situations are exacerbated by the pull of the criminal element in the city, embodied by Reinhold (Gottfried John), a gangster who gives the tale impetus as he pulls Biberkop into acting as his confidant and enabler, further muddying the morals of the man. After so long mired in the muck, the two hour epilogue is where Fassbinder brings his signature to bear. A hallucinatory descent where realism gives way to surrealism. Themes and character traits hinted at in the previous episodes fully manifest, with imagery inspired by Greek epics. It’s a fantastical climax that contrasts spectacularly well with the dirge that proceeded it.

In an age of binge-watchers, a 15 episode commitment may not seem like much, but there is a weight to the subject matter that takes a toll. Biberkopf’s past and environment continue to haunt him, weighing down his present and dooming his future. Some of it feels repetitive, whether this is due to the source material or an indulgence I’m unsure; but this repeating of themes, acts, and mistakes, solidifies the encroaching self-destructive doom. Fassbinder crafts a compelling misery, an immersion in this man and era, taking opportunities to flex his creative muscle before letting rip with his unforgettable epilogue.

The Package

The release delivers all 15 episodes and a host of extra features across 4 discs. The image feels apt to the subject matter and era, dark and permeated by gloom, with a thick grain throughout. Detail, color, and contrast all impress, although there does seem to be some lingering damage and compression artifacts if you watch closely. The package itself is made of a quality card outer folder, which houses a fold-out insert that opens to reveal the four discs and the included 80-page booklet. Images below.

Extra Features:

  • High-definition digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and Bavaria Media, supervised and approved by director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • Two documentaries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz — one from 2007 featuring interviews with the cast and crew, the other from 2006 on the restoration: The first runs an hour, bringing together cast and crew to reflect on the undertaking of adapting the book to the screen. The second is just over 30 minutes and sure to appeal to film tech types as it delves into the process of restoring the film from the original 16mm negatives.
  • Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary Notes on the Making of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”: Perhaps the most interesting addition, it compiles a number of interviews with cast and crew to craft insight into Fassbinder’s approach to filmmaking.
  • Phil Jutzi’s 1931 feature-length film of Alfred Döblin’s novel, from a screenplay cowritten by Döblin himself: Not the highest quality, but an interesting interpretation of the same text that inspired Fassbinder, only in 90 minutes rather than 930.
  • Interview from 2007 with Peter Jelavich, author of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” — Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture: Runs about 25 minutes and is as in depth as you’d expect from an author who penned a book on the subject, paying focus on how the book was adapted, and how it reflects on the changes in German society.
  • PLUS — A book featuring an essay by filmmaker Tom Tykwer, reflections on the novel by Fassbinder and author Thomas Steinfeld, and an interview with Schwarzenberger: 48 pages packed with images, film and restoration details and a number of essays from the director himself, as well as a other writers, pulled from prior releases and commentaries on the mini-series.
  • Cover and internal art by Eric Skillman

The Bottom Line

Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of those rare impacting works that encapsulates a place, an era, and a filmmaker. A haunting and grim tale, one perfect for the brutal and incisive tendencies of Fassbinder. Criterion have assembled a handsome package, with a fine assortment of extra features that aid appreciation of this landmark adaptation.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is available via Criterion from February 12th, 2019.

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