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“Berlin Alexanderplatz,” “Killer of Sheep”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Criterion Collection]

Sometimes, DVD’d movies are events, and though certainly a video landmark, the restored version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980) is no mere movie — just by sheer dint of its size (15.5 hours), it qualifies as a cultural behemoth, a work that demands a revision in our method of watching, experiencing and assessing cinema. It’s a pivotal giant in a very peculiar subgenre of arthouse movie — the TV mini-series-as-all-in-one-auteurwerk, alongside Bergman’s uncut “Fanny and Alexander,” Wolfgang Peterson’s uncut “Das Boot,” Kieslowski’s “The Decalogue” — but like all extremely long films Fassbinder’s mega-work becomes, eventually, about its own length. Any film longer than, say, five hours inevitably calls its own basic shape and length into question, risking tedium and repetition but striving for experiential revelations and immersions for which ordinary mortal movies cannot hope. Some films use extreme time to disrupt our sense of reality (this is one facet of Jacques Rivette’s career scheme), others try to capture the breadth of an ambitious novel, neglecting the fact that no one reads Dickens or Joyce or Mann in one or two sittings. (Hence the weekly broadcast mode, which shouldn’t be dismissed.) Taken as a whole, Fassbinder’s magnum opus — adapting a 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin that has haunted Fassbinder his whole life, and emerges in signs and fragments in many of his other movies — is not an alternate reality so much as a near-endless mildewy bell jar briefing for a descent into hell, from an already hellish Weimar Germany where women are bawling trash, men are lurking hyenas and the world is a combustion engine run on souls.

I’ve never been a Fassbinderian; though his keening, in-your-face post-Sirk theatricalism and mournful social analyses are undeniable, I’ve always preferred the unemphatic meta-realities of Herzog. (Has anyone pointed out that Fassbinder, often in his later films, scans like the Leone-Morricone of German flophouses?) Even so, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is massively essential, epic in length but terrifyingly claustrophobic scene by scene, episode by episode, a nightmare of clueless doom in which Berlin is often reduced to a flat and a barroom, photographed in the ochre haze of an opium den. What happens is like the slo-mo footage of a fatal car wreck: Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), a great, bullish, dim lug of a man, is released from a prison stint for manslaughter, and is thrust back into his old life of pimping and violence. The opening chapter is titled “The Punishment Begins”: from the start, it’s clear that Biberkopf is unhinging, and as the hours press on, and his struggle to stay honest and happy becomes truly hopeless, the film takes on the aura of a saintly tribulation. Indeed, Doblin’s novel, which ran neck and neck with the montage-of-voices experiments of James Joyce and John Dos Passos, is an existential tragedy about a culture as much as about an individual, and therein Biberkopf is one of the most resonant characters in European literature. Fassbinder helplessly loses much of the book’s scope — as it was, the film was humunguously expensive for German TV, but how much bigger could it have possibly been? — training in instead on its hero, who, in the uncomprehending, porcine person of Lamprecht becomes, 15 hours later, also unforgettable.

Fassbinder’s world of lurid emphasis is strong drink — his characters rail at the heavens, spittle flies at every dramatic turn, and the actors often play to the silent-era back row — and “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is such an immense manifestation of its maker’s sensibility no one can be surprised that, as the largest chunk of the almost 23 hours of film Fassbinder finished in his last three years, it did its part in killing him. If you are not, like I’m not, an unqualified RWF acolyte, then think of this mammoth not as an auteurist explosion but as a troubled country’s troubled dream about itself, iconic and overwhelming.

What, more? The Criterion extras, if you can stand it, include the 1931, 90-minute version of Doblin’s story, directed by Phil Jutzi, a booklet of essays, and now less than four extensive docs about “Berlin Alexanderplatz” in the making, and in the world at large.

Pitting rediscovery against rediscovery, Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1977), at almost one-twelfth the length, might be the more remarkable achievement, a searing experience fashioned out of little more than black L.A. poverty, the post-vérité-post-Cassavetes Zeitgeist, and the filmmaker’s bedeviling sense of space, composition, ennui and brute-lyric imagery.

(Again, this shows my cards as a critic, to some degree, which is only fair and helpful.) On the surface merely a mood piece about the enervating, dead-end existence of being black in 1970s America, “Killer of Sheep” attains an inexplicable elemental power, an almost primal thrust and mystery that suggests, at least to the willing viewer, millennia of godless desperation, human embattlement and food-chain horror.

There’s no story, but there are people — mainly, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a poor slaughterhouse laborer with a loving wife and curious children whose life in the outer-urban wastes is in the process of bulldozing his pride and confidence. Burnett’s film proceeds from the very beginning as if every image and moment of Stan’s life is a mythic truth to gaze upon, and damn if it isn’t sweepingly convincing in the process. The action, for instance, of attempting to carry a disembodied car engine down a flight of tract-housing stairs has positively Sisyphean traction. It’s not a movie you pick dramatic highlights or even visual memories from; instead, it flows before you like a despairing folk song made real, a blues anthem older than movies or Burnett himself. Part of the film’s residual force stems from its status as legitimate film maudit — it didn’t ever get a full-on theatrical release, or home video distribution, until this year, 30 full years after it was made. (Burnett’s stirring soundtrack, which rivals Scorsese’s for “Mean Streets” in pioneering jukebox eloquence, was largely uncleared for rights.) And yet, “Killer of Sheep” was one of the first 50 films to be chosen by the National Film Preservation Board as part of the National Film Registry, defined as honoring and preserving movies that are “culturally, historically, or esthetically important,” a full 17 years before it was finally made commercially available in any way for people to see. It’s a ghost movie, returned to haunt us.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” (Criterion) and “Killer of Sheep” (Milestone) will be available on DVD November 13th.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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