By Michael Atkinson
[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.