When Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned Alfred Döblin’s modernist novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, into a miniseries for German television, in 13 parts plus an epilogue, it was the culmination of a long-term ambition the director had carried with him since “the throes of puberty.” To realize the project, Fassbinder called on many of his regular collaborators — including assistant director Harry Baer, actress Hanna Schygulla and composer Peer Raben — and teamed for the first time with director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger. Despite the talent involved, the project was seen as a debacle upon its premiere due to the poor quality of the broadcast, which, true to the time, was simply incapable of capturing the nuance the filmmakers put into every frame. Thanks to the concerted efforts of the Fassbinder Foundation, Arri Munich and Bavaria Film Studios, as well as The Criterion Collection, the film can at last be enjoyed as intended.
With the 940-minute running time of the miniseries (Criterion’s 24-fps transfer of the footage, which originated at 25 fps for PAL television, makes the film slightly longer than it was), Fassbinder was able to hew closely to Döblin’s tome, slowly revealing the layered story of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), an ex-convict who vows upon his release from prison to “never be dishonest again,” while crafting a stylized rendering of the banal reality of life in Berlin during the late 1920s. Unfortunately for Biberkopf, dishonesty is all around him, concentrated most densely within his best “friend,” Reinhold (Gottfried John), who proves to be the root of his undoing.
The restoration of the film, supervised by Schwarzenberger and editor Juliane Lorenz (who is also president of the Fassbinder Foundation), has produced an image that faithfully represents the dynamic range of the original photography and swathes the film in an often-ironic golden patina, making for a romanticized memory of the troubled Weimar era. The film is punctuated with dissolves into and out of title cards, an optical effect that at the time required making duplicate copies of the original negative, resulting in a noticeable increase in grain. In this DVD’s supplements, Schwarzenberger and producer Günter Rohrbach lament the network’s decision to save money by shooting on 16mm rather than 35mm. Despite Fassbinder’s debauched lifestyle, which contributed to his death at the age of 37, he was invariably prolific and able to work at a superhuman pace. Rarely shooting more than one take of any given setup, the production came in under schedule and under budget; principal photography lasted only 155 days.
Though the audio quality of the original broadcast was also criticized, the monaural track presented here brings Berlin to life with the crisp sounds of automobiles, locomotives, clinking glasses, and screams of both ecstasy and hysteria. A vehicle’s forward motion becomes a recurring motif both visually and aurally, marking the progress of society at the expense of the individual. Even the opening credits of each episode include the image of spinning train wheels and the constant chugging of an engine.
Among this package’s supplements, Lorenz’s documentary featurette “Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: Notes on the Restoration” provides interviews with Schwarzenberger and other participants while detailing each step of the restoration, from scanning the original negative to striking new 35mm prints for theatrical presentation. Other bonus features of the seven-disc set include two documentaries that celebrate the late Fassbinder’s working methods while keeping his mystique intact; Hans-Dieter Hartl’s “Notes on the Making of Berlin Alexanderplatz” was shot during the film’s production, and Lorenz’s “Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: A Mega Movie and Its Story” features extensive interviews with many of the film’s key participants, including actors Lamprecht, Schygulla and John, in addition to Schwarzenberger and costume designer Barbara Baum.
Phil Jutzi’s 90-minute film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1931) is also included, a rare treat for cinephiles and a picture Fassbinder himself held in high regard. A video interview with Peter Jelavich, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film and the Death of Weimar Culture, sheds additional light on the historical importance of Döblin’s novel and its iterations through various media over the past 80 years. A 72-page booklet presents essays by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Perfume), Munich-based writer Thomas Steinfeld, and Fassbinder, as well as a transcribed interview with Schwarzenberger. Tying everything together, the beautiful packaging, designed by Eric Skillman, is a veritable supplement unto itself.