Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.
Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).
Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].