“Hystericizing Germany: Fassbinder, Alexanderplatz,” by Manfred Hermes,
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Sternberg Press, 224 pps, $26
The opening episode of “Berlin, Alexanderplatz,” a television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, was broadcast in West Germany in 1980. The director was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday this month.
After the broadcast, Fassbinder received threats from an organization called the Society for the Preservation of Germany’s Purity, and had to deal with hostile critics and viewers. They claimed that the series was not accessible, not aesthetic and filmed in a way that renders many of the scenes too dark to see what happens in them.
Three decades later, the book “Hystericizing Germany: Fassbinder, Alexanderplatz,” which was first published in German in 2011 and has now been published in English, tries to atone for the Germans’ mistaken blindness concerning Fassbinder’s series: The author, film and art critic Manfred Hermes describes the series “Berlin, Alexanderplatz” as one of the key works by the director, who died young in 1982, and as a unique milestone in post-World War II Germany.
In its day, this was the longest and most expensive production ever produced by German television, spanning about 16 broadcast hours, with a budget of $6 million and with the participation of the best stars of the period. It was shown in prime time and watched by about 20 million viewers.
The 1929 novel “Berlin, Alexanderplatz” tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a freed prisoner who tries to live as a respectable individual but is drawn again and again into crime by forces stronger than he. Biberkopf’s odyssey – he is a kind of modern proletarian Job – is played out on the backdrop of the metropolis of Berlin, at the time the capital of the Weimar Republic, where unemployment and organized crime are integral parts of the economy and the political militancy.
“Berlin, Alexanderplatz” depicts an underworld and a tough urban reality. Its plot is interwoven with biblical motifs, free-flowing sexuality, and violence as a place where revolutionaries from the right and the left can meet.
In Hermes’ view, Fassbinder "restarts" Döblin’s novel and links the present to the past by driving in reverse. The TV series does not interpret the novel or update it and adapt it to the present. The writer discusses the novel and the series as a single unit of material. Hermes summarizes Fassbinder’s artistic approach as one that relies – in the wake of Bertolt Brecht – on the idea that the individual has no characteristics, nature or experience of essential reality that are not historical.
Fassbinder’s films were often interpreted in light of his personality as an egotistical or narcissistic engagement with himself, without identifying the fact that for the director, the first person served more than anything else as a means for conveying an impersonal story. Like Brecht, Fassbinder saw the role of art as being political, in essence. However, he saw bodily reactions as the repercussions of historical disasters and social misery, and aimed to represent history by means of them.
In Hermes’ opinion, there is a connection between the non-acceptance of the TV series and the self-satisfaction, conservatism and stagnation that he says characterize the films produced in Germany since then. And indeed, Fassbinder’s historical films – such as “The Third Generation” and “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (both made in 1979), and “Lili Marleen” (1981) – paved the way for the cinematic reflection in our day of German society’s attitude toward its history, which the author sees as a kind of unruffled nationalism.
The films produced in Germany today often deal with exactly the same historical elements – Nazism, Bader-Meinhoff, the first post-war years, Germany’s victory in the 1954 soccer championship – but it is as though they are influenced precisely through denial.
While Fassbinder goes back to history in order to talk about the present, the film and television productions of recent generations presume to relate history “the way it was” – by means of crude and nostalgic realism. While he always starts from the perspective of the margins, and from the bottom, they start from the centers of power. Thus, for example, in “Lili Marleen” Nazism is seen through the singer’s eyes, and in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “The Fall (2004), the perspective is Hitler’s.
Politics and psychoanalysis
But the main point of the book under review is the assumption that Fassbinder’s anti-conformism was based on a political understanding of psychoanalytic concepts. Fassbinder loved hysterical figures and most of the main characters in his films are indeed hysterical; only by means of such figures can anything fundamental happen. Biberkopf is also such a figure.
The hysterical type can love only by means of something else, and cannot and is not interested in functioning in a given social context. As compared to deviant or obsessive types, who aspire to adapt themselves to the bourgeois reality, the hysteric’s lack of desire or ability to function has subversive potential to disrupt “the truth” – not via “criticism” but rather through suffering.
Döblin, a doctor by profession who was familiar with and used psychoanalytical methods in the 1920s, provided his Biberkopf with many symptoms of hysteria. This is the reason for and meaning of his attraction to Reinhold, his enemy, who looks to him like a superhero. It is also the meaning of his fits of grimacing, or the fantasies of paralysis that he suffers, and finally also the real amputation of his arm as the result of a traffic accident.
Fassbinder went a step further: He aimed, by means of his series, to apply hysteria to his viewers as well. He wanted to put the viewers (that is, all of Germany) on the analyst’s couch next to Biberkopf during a 15-and-a-half hour session. The outcome was not supposed to be a good one, or to be a solution. Hysteria doesn’t yield final or good outcomes, but, according to Fassbinder, it is preferable to suffer from something than not to suffer at all.
Toward the end of Döblin’s novel Biberkopf collapses and is hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. The narrator reports on the "achievement": Biberkopf dies and is reborn. He is strengthened by the trauma, finds work as a guard in a factory parking lot, among people, and is no longer alone in the streets around the Alexanderplatz. He is able to be a part of the community.
Fassbinder’s ending is more ambivalent. In the epilogue Biberkopf moves among rooms that remind one of scenes from the Holocaust. There is a pile dying people in the corner of a slaughterhouse, and Biberkopf strips off his clothes and joins them. In the room a crematorium is visible. He meets a Jewish friend who is wearing prisoner’s clothing and has a swastika on his arm. In the end the protagonist becomes the child Jesus, nailed to the cross. At the moment of his death, an atomic bomb explodes.
Two complementary forces operate at the end of “Berlin, Alexanderplatz”: hysteria and history. In Hermes’ view, for Fassbinder, “Berlin Alexanderplatz" was also a way to bring up the problematic nature of the present, which the historical perspective in Döblin’s novel gave him. The director was able to revive figures that has been made to disappear, had been denied or had been collectively forgotten.
Fassbinder offered an opening to the trauma via hysteria, but his move was not accepted by the German audience. “Berlin, Alexanderplatz” was supposed to have cleared a path for viewers out of a defensive position of distancing the shock and the wounds. The series should have taken the place of the Other, from whom the viewer would receive his message. This was a test case, an attempt to build a certain approach. This transference failed then, and worse, there were no ramifications of it. Hermes’ book is a second chance.