BY Tal Sterngast in Profiles | 23 APR 15
Featured in
Issue 171

A Chronicle of Failed Therapy

Revisiting Berlin Alexanderplatz on the 70th anniversary of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s birth

BY Tal Sterngast in Profiles | 23 APR 15

Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1980; Courtesy: Bavaria Film

In 1980, following the broadcast of his television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who would have turned 70 this May, received death threats from an organization called ‘The Society for the Preservation of the Cleanness and Purity of Germany’. Many reviewers of the 14-part series were also aggressively critical of Fassbinder’s interpretation, claiming it was inaccessible, repulsive and shot in such a way that some scenes were too dark for the audience to make out what was happening.

Over three decades later, art and film critic Manfred Hermes’s book Hystericizing Germany: Fassbinder, Alexanderplatz endeavours to compensate for the overwhelmingly negative response to Fassbinder’s series. Hermes’s book – first issued in 2011 but recently published in English by Sternberg Press – identifies the series not only as a key work in Fassbinder’s oeuvre but also as a phenomenon. The production’s 15-and-a-half-hour duration rendered it the longest, most ambitious and expensive TV show ever made in Germany. Featuring a stellar cast, it was broadcast in a primetime slot, attracting an estimated 20 million viewers per episode.

Döblin’s novel tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a petty criminal who, having recently been released from jail, aspires to turn over a new leaf but, like a lumpen-proletariat version of the biblical Job, is repeatedly thwarted by forces that overwhelm him. Real places and conditions create a backdrop for Biberkopf’s odyssey: Berlin, then capital of the Weimar Republic; high unemployment; the crisis of parliamentarianism; the organized crime that constitutes a central part of the economy; and politically motivated violence. Berlin Alexanderplatz portrays a bleak underworld through a plot underpinned by violence from both left- and right-wing revolutionaries.

Fassbinder’s series remains faithful to the narrative of Döblin’s epic. Hermes describes the director’s venture as being like the ‘reactivation of a disused subway line that connects the present with the past but in reverse’. The novel provided a means through which Fassbinder could put into historical perspective the German present. What in Döblin’s 1929 book appears, to modern readers, as prophetic of the end of the Weimar republic and the rise of Nazi Germany is viewed in Fassbinder’s series through the prism of the concentration camps, of looking back from the ‘end’.

Hermes advances several reasons for the exigency of writing about Berlin Alexanderplatz today. One of them is that the issues the series addressed – the welfare state and psychiatry; questions of power, gender, fate and freedom – are still relevant. Another is that Döblin aimed to unravel the divide between reader and author by way of montage techniques: he included elements such as newspaper articles, statistics and train schedules to create a narrative that was not ‘literary’ in the traditional sense. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hermes purports, was not ‘filmic’ in the traditional sense either: for instance, the director purposefully shot scenes that were ‘too dark’ in order to prioritize their acoustic features. In Hermes’s view, Fassbinder’s approach to his source material, which left the narrative concept of the original text intact, can be viewed as a form of artistic appropriation: this act of repetition highlighted continuities between the avant-garde novel of the 1920s and the post-structuralist approach of Fassbinder’s time.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder c.1980; Courtesy: Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Deutsches Filminstitut

Hermes summarizes Fassbinder’s artistic agenda as one based on the idea – which had also been explored by Bertolt Brecht – that man has no essential characteristics or aspects of nature or reality that can be isolated from their historical and political context. However, Fassbinder’s formulation was founded on structures of desire and psychoanalytic reasoning; he understood emotions and the ways in which desires manifest themselves in and through the body as reflections of historical calamities and societal miseries, seeing himself as an articulator and genealogist of a specifically German kind of mourning. His explorations of recent German history – in films such as The Third Generation (1979), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Lili Marleen (1981) – paved the way for contemporary filmic considerations of the same theme. Hermes observes that there is a prevailing approach (a ‘relaxed nationalism’, as he terms it) to German history films today that appears to have been inspired by Fassbinder, but in a somewhat contrary manner. Contemporary directors have often dealt with the same historical events as Fassbinder – National Socialism, the Red Army Faction, the early postwar years – but, despite claiming to show history ‘as it was’, films such as Sönke Wortmann’s The Miracle of Bern (2003), about West Germany’s 1954 World Cup win, depict it through the lens of a nostalgic, idealized vision of reality; Fassbinder, on the other hand, constructed images of history in order to say something about the present.

Another important argument Hermes advances is that Fassbinder’s non-conformist perspective was rooted in the political interpretation of psychoanalytic ideas. He indicates how the director favoured hysterical leading characters, such as Biberkopf. Such protagonists functioned as his ‘figures of passage’ through which something decisive could happen. Citing Jacques Lacan’s writings on hysteria, Hermes traces how, in Fassbinder’s work, the hysteric can only love by proxy and is unwilling or unable to function in the given social context. In contrast to the neurotic’s wish to conform, or the endurance of the ‘pervert’, inherent in the hysteric’s inability to ‘function’ in society is a subversive potential to disrupt given ‘truths’ or to challenge bourgeois values – not in the form of a critique but, rather, through suffering. Döblin, who as a doctor was acquainted with the principles of psychoanalysis, had already equipped Biberkopf with hysterical attributes – including his fits and his fantasies of paralysis, which ultimately concluded in the tragic amputation of his arm after a car accident. Fassbinder went a step further, however, and incited his entire audience to experience a form of hysteria. He wanted all of Germany to lie on the couch alongside his protagonist in a protracted therapy session. The result was not supposed to be a happy ending, or a solution.

Towards the end of Döblin’s novel, Biberkopf suffers a breakdown and is taken to an asylum. Soon afterwards, it is reported that he has died in pain but has been reborn as Franz Karl. Having survived the trauma, he goes on to become an assistant factory doorman: a ‘useful’ member of society, finally. Fassbinder left his ending more ambivalent: Biberkopf can be seen moving between spaces and states, some of which recall the events of the Holocaust. In one scene, naked bodies are piled up in the corner of a white-tiled slaughterhouse and Biberkopf undresses and lies down with them; the adjacent room is occupied by a crematorium. In another scene, the protagonist meets an old Jewish friend in a prisoner’s suit with a swastika on his arm. Finally, Biberkopf is nailed to a cross. At the very moment in which he dies, an atom bomb explodes.

For Fassbinder, making Berlin Alexanderplatz was a way to reassess and problematize the present by reanimating historical figures that had been collectively forgotten or denied. At the time of its release, his proposal that the audience should expose themselves to trauma through hysteria was either ignored or rejected. Hermes’s book now presents us with a second chance to take up Fassbinder’s challenge.

Tal Sterngast works as a writer and artist in Berlin.