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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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

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