April 3, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Berlin Alexanderplatz, disc 1

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Today's movie: Berlin Alexanderplatz (disc 1), 1980 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix)

Why I added it to my queue: Because of the 35 films, 24 plays, and two mini-series of his 15-year career (you heard me right), this is considered by many to be the masterpiece of '70s and '80s German experimental director/writer/actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a massive 14-part adaptation of a tricky, dense novel from the Modernist 1920s. Because it deals with a pet subject of mine -- an oafish German everyman in the period between the wars (i.e. the "Weimar Era"), caught between the radically liberal communists and the radically conservative Nazis who both wanted to take over the country, a complex and powerful look at how war and poverty and anger and nihilism combined in Germany in the early 20th century to produce what it did. (Oh, and all this just happens to take place in the infamous Berlin neighborhood of Alexanderplatz, where the most notorious cabarets and most shameless prostitutes from the Weimer Era were all located.) Because it was one of the first German-produced artistic projects in history to take on the subject, specifically commissioned as a television mini-series, with special permission needed from the government to even show swastikas on the air again, even in a historical-fiction context like this. Because it's a notoriously long, obscure project, and fellow intellectuals at cocktail parties are impressed when you can prove you've actually watched the whole thing.

The reality: Much better so far than I was expecting; in fact, this is not the minimalist artsy "Sprockets" mess* I had been led to believe at all (and sheesh, that freaky Criterion DVD cover doesn't exactly help), but rather a lush and detailed historical saga, shot of course with '70s film cameras which gives the whole thing that deep Godfather-style darkness and retro quality. In fact, for this being essentially an '80s European TV show, it's astounding how good it, not only in the production values but also the adapted script, and even the surprisingly sophisticated camera techniques on display. (Note for example how Fassbinder actually pulls off a Matrix style "bullet time" sequence in episode 2, by getting all his actors to come to a sudden halt simultaneously while physically dragging a camera in a circle around them.) And in the meanwhile, you can very easily see just in these first two episodes what the bisexual, substance-abusing, constantly offensive Fassbinder meant when he used to say in interviews that the main character here is "exactly like him" -- it's a mindblowingly complex portrait of a bad man who wants to be good, an only sub-intelligent drinker who's prone to violence and for whom life has constantly taken a dump on. No wonder, then, that when the Berlin representative for the then-obscure Nazi Party becomes one of the only people in the city to be friendly to our loutish Franz, he would happily accept a job selling the official Nazi newspaper on streetcorners, even while complaining about having to wear "that stupid red armband" while doing so; and no wonder as well that he ends up angrily defending the armband later, when confronted by an even angrier group of unemployed communists in a pub. What an astounding series so far; I can't wait to see if the rest of the episodes hold up this good.

If I had watched it when it first came out: I would've never been able to guess that this would eventually become the standard way for all smart television shows to routinely tell a season's worth of stories. As experimental a reputation as this has picked up over the decades, please understand that this 14-part series is nothing more complicated than a season of Mad Men or Heroes, and will barely throw modern audiences for a loop anymore like it used to.

Strangest piece of trivia: Some American theatres actually tried to show this traditionally on the big screen when it first came out, running two episodes a night for a week straight, and selling special passes to attend the entire thing.

Worth your time? Oh my, yes

*Yes, I know, the infamous epilogue at the end of this series precisely is the modern, weirdo, "Sprockets"-like artsy mess I've been led to believe; but we'll cross that disc-7 bridge when we finally come to it.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:19 PM, April 3, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |