Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz—An Exhibition, installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

KW’s show on Auguststrasse is a multi-layered celebration of a literary masterpiece, its televisual interpretation and the locale of its setting. The timing coincides with the DVD release in Germany of the recently restored 1980 television production by Rainer Werner Fassbinder of Alfred Doblin’s 1929 classic novel. At 13 episodes and an extraordinary epilogue, it clocks in at a Wagnerian 15 hours plus. You can watch each episode in small, darkened rooms, not unlike cells, which ring the central space where all are projected simultaneously for observation. As we read in the novel, things begin to stir in the old panopticon. After living with the Weimar republic in your head for this duration, the contemporary relevance of the book and film become ever evident. The city hasn’t changed as much as the bombed-out spaces and new Bruno Taut-inspired gleaming crystal skyscrapers might suggest.

The topography of the novel amazingly seems to be as extant as the Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses . Franz Biberkopf, the anti-hero, Doblin’s Bloom if you like, still haunts the city. Rough, uncouth Biberkopf is released from Tegel prison after serving four years for killing his wife Ida. In his words: ‘I’m not a human being any more.’ He emerges from the quiet order of the jail walls to the chaotic noise of the free world and he is afraid, he is a child again and the book, the film, are about his journey to become a man. He is ‘prideful and impudent, cowardly withal and full of weakness’. As with many of the works of that other Berlin exile Billy Wilder, the theme is about how a fragile individual becomes a mensch. Franz wants to be respectable; he wants to be straight…

You can still see him in the Alex itself—these days the square looks more than ever like East Kilbride’s town centre. An abominable wind persists in its rage over the wide expanse of concrete. New tram tracks are being laid down as in the novel and, like then, we have to walk on wooden boards. There he is at the entrance to the Saturn record store handing out copies of the Morgenpost . And there perhaps sitting in a wheelchair at Hackescher Markt hawking wursts from under a garish primrose umbrella. Or is that him now walking towards us, a building supervisor, bloated by booze, glassy eyed, the dead spit of Gunter Lamprecht, who plays Franz.

As for his ill-fated girlfriend Mieze, there goes her contemporary, pacing up and down Rosenthaler Strasse wearing infantalist fashions, this time a daft pink basque outside her jeans. This is a code as instantly recognisable as the colour of boots used by prostitutes that Ian Buruma details in his recent essay ‘Faces of the Weimar Republic’. You are warned the minute you arrive at Schonefeld airport by two adjacent posters at the baggage carousel. On the right, a pretty eye and tear-stained cheek, below some text prominently displayed in Cyrillic and the number to phone if you are a victim of forced prostitution. To the left, a girl lies naked, caressing herself, an advert for the Bel-Ami exclusive gentleman’s club. Here, before you’ve even got on the S-Bahn, is evidence of a persistently conflicted and divided city. Our Mieze is one of those Russian girls we read about at the airport, no doubt. She’s as pretty and as doomed as Barbara Sukowa, the actress in the film, with cheekbones to match. Some local girls pass, turn their heads round and briskly look our Mieze up and down and judge mockingly. They have the bobbed hairstyles of the flapper era—severe bangs. Cloche hats remain for sale at Fiona Bennett’s chic shop nearby. Elsewhere, as per Dix’s portrait, see the Anita Berber-style clinging, slinky dresses are all the rage. Johns still talk to the streetwalkers at dusk. Now some boys on bicycles belch loudly as they pass the girls who scream: ‘Scheisse!’ And it still wouldn’t hurt to have more street lights…

Piledrivers continue to drive stakes into the ground. Berlin, like Glasgow, one might say, is in a constant state of renewal, of becoming, buildings being thrown up and pulled down, statues being melted down for medals. A specialist cigar seller sits opposite the site of Wertheim’s department store, now at last being restored after its survival from the war. The Alt Berlin Bar’s lights are reflected in the rain on the tarmac calling to mind classic movies Doblin was in tune with and must have seen, such as Joe May’s Asphalt or Walther Ruttman’s BerlinSymphony of a Great City .

As with Doblin and Joyce, music is omnipresent in Fassbinder’s impression of the big city. Peer Raben’s haunting soundtrack is amajor factor in the success of the adaptation. The music box in Franz’s local chimes today with the Russian who plays the water-filled glasses outside the Alte Nationalgallerie. The bars remain dimly lit and have that golden glow effect Fassbinder achieves, the solid browns of the wood suggesting it would be cosy to get in here out of the cold. A flash of red and green strikes the eye, two glasses of Berliner Weisse beer coloured with syrup, both reminiscent of the cute Ampelmannchen that tell you when to stay or cross at the roadside.

There are not, of course, as many amputees on the streets as there were in Biberkopf’s time, but who knows what the future holds as Germany signs up to send more of her men and women to Afghanistan One wonders what they think they are fighting for or what Carl Ossietzky—the Weimar pacifist martyr directly referenced by Fassbinder—would make of it all. Criminality now, as with Doblin/Fassbinder, is never far away. Today’s versions of Pums and Reinhold are the silver suit-wearing pimps from Moscow and St Petersburg who eat in Borchardt, flashing their cash and ordering caviar blinis. As a doctor, Alfred Doblin cared for ordinary people in the poor areas around the Alex, and he would recognise many of them today: the bum sleeping outside Spar, the neat little landladies with faces lined with loss and disappointment, the light-footed hoofers at the Balhaus keeping the pain of payments away by dancing.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla during a rehearsal, 1979/80
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla during a rehearsal, 1979/80

The duality of Berlin, its struggle for respectability, is like that of Biberkopf himself—a sense that the sinner knows he has sinned, that he wants to repent, to be better, to be good, but they keep getting dragged down into the mire again, no matter how hard they try. The novel was not only about a man; it was about the city itself. Were Doblin to return today he might be reassured by the persistent ability to get a mocca fix on Munzstrasse and intrigued by the trendy Jewish cafes on Oranienburger Strasse. The initial acts of kindness to Franz on his release from jail are by two Jewish neighbours, an irony Fassbinder underlines. They tell Franz Berlin is big. Where a thousand live, one more can live. They tell him to be able to see the world he must go after it. And yet now you will struggle to see Orthodox men in black hats and suits. Just a couple of green uniformed police guarding the synagogue against crazed neo-Nazi types from elsewhere. The city is atoning for its great sin and will go on doing so, one suspects, forever.

And what would the writer have made of this posthumous canonisation of himself and Fassbinder here at KW? Doblin and his astutely talented exiled peers—Grosz, Heartfield and Brecht have their agonies beautifully documented in Jean-Michel Palmier’s magisterial Weimar in Exile . One imagines him strolling around the Berlinische Gallery and reacquainting himself with Hannah Hoch and her daring photomontages. Fassbinder neatly references the vibrant artistic milieu of the period. Note the golden horn and gaping maw of Franz’s phonograph, straight out of Max Beckmann. Ida’s lurid death recalls the frau-killing excesses of Dix and Grosz. Luders, as played by Hark Bohm, closely resembles Grosz’s creepy portrait of Max Herrmann-Neisse. And Pums’ bejewelled wife has surely stepped out of the demi-monde of Christian Schad.

Messy sex and domestic violence in cramped, damp-stained attic rooms with saggy mattresses—Doblin/Fassbinder do not spare us the beauty in these ugly truths. One suspects that Fassbinder’s vision is deliberately contrary to Bob Fosse’s sanitised, glamorous take on Weimar Berlin in Cabaret a few years earlier. Influence, though, is not an einbahnstrasse . Franz looks out of his apartment window and imagines the lives of his neighbours soundtracked by Raben’s ethereal music, a scene that anticipates Wim Wenders’ flitting, voyeuristic angels from Der Himmel uber Berlin . Similarly, this is evident in the stunning epilogue where angels, encased in armour, guide Franz through his nightmare.

Biberkopf for Doblin/Fassbinder is a cipher for Germany itself, a person, a place in recovery. We see him singing his nationalist songs in the Berlin of the 1920s that had lost its empire and a war, then found itself mired in poverty. For Fassbinder, Germany in the late 1970s was recovering from the trauma of the Nazi disaster but still suffering the divisions of the Cold War. Unemployment links the then and now. Franz vacillates from selling Nazi newspapers to buying their Communist equivalents. He sits in on an anarchists’ meeting which only fuels his political impotence and then gets into an argument. He tells an anarchist that they are ‘only turning out the shells they’ll shoot you down with’. Ultimately, Franz concludes: ‘What do I want with politics? It’s tripe. It won’t help me’. Fassbinder gave this despair heightened relevance in the early 1980s, giving Franz these words at a time when West Germany was struggling with the Red Army Faction terrorism and the East was still under intensive Stasi surveillance. Fassbinder was fond of using Biberkopf’s name in earlier movies and clearly identified with his personal and political struggle. Freedom for Fassbinder was just another word for when you’ve nothing left to lose. And it is only now, 18 years since the Wall fell, that Germany can, as with this exhibition, celebrate the glories of its exiled past. The triumphs of Weimar culture can now fully be appreciated in what Steve Crawshaw writing on this rehabilitation has called the Easier Fatherland .

Xaver Schwarzenberger as cinematographer films the story in a crepuscular light, sometimes candlelit a la Barry Lyndon, sometimes using nylon tights over the lens to give a pleasing refraction effect. The city is his focus: the smoky fug of dimly lit bars, the threatening passageways of the U-bahn and the rural scenes are strictly limited to the horrors that face Mieze in the finale. Fassbinder’s palette is epulchral: browns predominate, umbers, the ochres of the heavily wooden interiors. Bursts of orange and gold relieve the gloom. Mirrors are used extensively to highlight the doubling theme that runs through the story; we recall Fassbinder’s development of this with Nabokov’s Despair . The sometimes iridescent effect of the light renders pathos as it sparkles on the glitter of the dresses of the doomed.

Fassbinder’s copy of the novel is on display in KW and lies open to reveal his dense annotations. A forensically close reading is in evidence here, reflected in the many tiny details that require repeated close study of the film; see, for example, a tiny Charlie Chaplin impersonator balancing recariously above a balustrade in a busy nightclub scene.

Fassbinder is skilled in ways of incorporating Doblin’s modernist cut-out texts as from medical journals or the Bible, putting them into the mouths of characters or told in his own voice-overs at appropriate moments. Fifteen hours gives Fassbinder a broad canvas to give justice to the complexity of Doblin’s triumph. This is in marked contrast to the less successful attempts to film Proust or Joyce, for example. Fassbinder’s Alexanderplatz restoration is a triumph in keeping with the renewed vigour of the united Haupstadt.

John Quin is a writer based in Brighton and Berlin