1980, Movies, TV

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

In 1980, there was no real way for for North American audiences to digest non-English language television. So, on occasions when multiple-episode television programs made there way over to North America, they were screened at film festivals as “films.” A number of European “art house” films from the ’70s and ’80s are actually made-for-tv miniseries. It is a testament to the quality of some European television that their miniseries could pass for “art house” films in The United States and Canada. One of these films is Fassbinder’s 900 minute adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel I haven’t read but one of the great German novels of the 20th century apparently.

Of course, even had a television distribution deal been available, there’s no way this “film” would have been acceptable US television. Sure, there had been adaptations of novels into TV before, but nothing like this. Berlin Alexanderplatz features one of the great German directors – perhaps the German New Wave filmmaker, with apologies to my favourite, Werner Herzog – telling an ambiguous story about an unlikable ex-con which is an allegory for the problems of the Weimar Republic which resulted in Nazism. Though it’s the kind of thing that, with better production values, would be at home in our new Golden Age of Television, it would have been utterly foreign to American television audiences in 1980 and, come to think of it, probably in the late ’80s when it was finally aired on PBS.

Fassbinder is in fine form – all his usual tricks are here, the idiosyncratic characterizations and pauses, the moody lightning, the odd musical cues, and all are upped all the more in the infamous epilogue. Though I don’t know that I can call it Fassbinder’s most successful film – for me, that may always be Effi Briest – in part because of its sheer length – you have to be patient to watch this movie – and in part for the sheer, unrelenting misery, I know of nothing else like it from it’s time. This is an adaptation. Though, as I said, I have not read the book, it feels as if the entirety of the book is on screen. Fassbinder lingers to capture moments between characters in a way that I think no other film or TV adaption has ever attempted. And the combination of multiple narrators is also rather unique.

Frankly, it’s hard to think of a precedent for this ambitious, daring and immense project. There was nothing on TV like it before, and there have been few things like it since (if any). And there aren’t too many “films” like it either, given that if you do consider it a film, it becomes one of the longest narrative films in the history of the medium… in fact, I believe it would be considered the longest narrative film ever.

Though I think I could quibble with some individual scenes, with some of the theatrical characterizations (typical of Fassbinder films) and with the pacing – though, I think, the pacing will always be an issue at the 900 minute mark – I don’t know that it matters. This is one of the great works of art of the 20th century. It is thought-provoking, it is challenging, it is amusing, it is moving and it was incredibly path-breaking.


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