One of the things that the notorious film and theater artist Rainer Werner Fassbinder was famous for was his productivity. He created dozens of feature films, several for television, at least three miniseries, and wrote 24 plays. Fassbinder had the type of career where an 8-hour miniseries such as Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972) isn’t regarded as a career-making triumph, but as something ripe for rediscovery because it is a part of a vivid body of work unlike any other in film history.
It can be difficult to argue for a definitive film or magnum opus from such a productive career. Some would argue for the famous Ali: Feat Eats the Soul (1974) or his relatively late-career breakout hit The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). But if you want to watch something as sprawling, strange, and downright compelling as his career, you have to make time for Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).
Berlin Alexanderplatz is an adaptation of the modernist novel by the same name. Written by Alfred Döblin, it tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a pimp who gets out of jail in the novel’s opening scene. Desperate to live an honest life, he soon falls back into crime under the influence of a sinister man named Reinhold. Hope might lie in a romance with an innocent prostitute Biberkopf calls Mieze, but tragedy is just around the corner…
Fassbinder first read Berlin Alexanderplatz when he was 15 years old. It became his favorite novel, and he would reference it throughout his career. Fassbinder would even play a man named Franz Biberkopf in the film Fox and His Friends. He loved the novel so much that he desired to make two versions of it: this miniseries for German television, as well as a feature film that he hoped would star Gerard Depardieu as Biberkopf and Isabelle Adjani as Mieze.
The most famous and daunting thing about Berlin Alexanderplatz is its 15-hour-and-31-minute running time. But changes in how people consume television, particularly the rise of binge-watching thanks to streaming services such as Netflix putting out all episodes of a season at once, make it easier to watch than ever. If you can watch a 13-hour season of Russian Doll in a weekend, then you can watch Berlin Alexanderplatz.
This miniseries is also more palatable to modern audiences because of its content. Director Keith Gordon, who has directed episodes of recent classic TV dramas such as Fargo and The Leftovers, described Berlin Alexanderplatz as “the grandfather of all the best of modern television.” Biberkopf is as dark and difficult a protagonist as Tony Soprano or Don Draper, if not more so. (His sexual assault of a woman in the first episode is particularly upsetting.) The avant-garde and flat out bonkers final episode Epilogue, which mostly takes place in Biberkopf’s head as he has a mental breakdown, paved the way for episodes of everything from Mad Men to Community that explored dreamlike journeys inside their characters’ addled heads. Berlin Alexanderplatz has even been cited by writer-director Paul Feig as an influence on Freaks and Geeks, because they both focus on outsiders.
There are a lot of idiosyncratic touches about Berlin Alexanderplatz. There’s the narration by Fassbinder himself, which talks about things that aren’t happening on-screen. There are the repeated flashbacks to Biberkopf killing his girlfriend Ida, the act that sent him to prison. But the smallest and sweetest of these touches comes in the opening credits.
Aside from Günter Lamprecht, who played Biberkopf, there are no actors given billing above the title. nstead, Fassbinder places the names of people such as his director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger, his editor and final wife Juliane Lorentz, and even his production manager Dieter Minx above the title. This would be a lovely gesture from any director, but is especially kind considering it comes from Fassbinder, who has been repeatedly accused of abuse by many people on his close-knit casts and crews (his longtime director of photography Michael Ballhaus had just left before the shooting of this project because he couldn’t take it anymore). It feels like he is finally thanking people who were essential to his career, and is especially bittersweet when you think that Fassbinder would die two years after completing this miniseries at the age of 37.
You can have a great experience watching any Fassbinder film. It might even be wise to first watch one of his feature films. But if you really want to feel the enormity of his talent, and the weight of his legacy, you’ll have to make time for Berlin Alexanderplatz. It’ll certainly be worth the watch.
IU Cinema’s semester-long celebration of Fassbinder continues on March 9 with Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, which is part of the Beyond Epic series and 5X Rainer Werner Fassbinder: New German Cinema’s Subversive Social Critic. The 5X series will conclude on March 18 with a screening of The Marriage of Maria Braun.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.