I first came across Berlin Alexanderplatz in a law school seminar where my Paul de Man-trained professor used modernism (mostly the work of interwar Swiss and Austrian modernists) to confront the certainties of the Law and Economics movement (an iteration of rational choice theory). Alongside the case of Schreber and the crowds of Canetti, the Franz Biberkopf of RAINER WERNER MARIA FASSBINDER (1945-82) became an object lesson in the limits of rationalism. Though Fassbinder was bound up with determinism throughout his unbelievably prolific short career, it was only with his adaptation of Döblin’s novel of Weimar Berlin that his interests in German history, anti-normativity, and structuralism found their materiel. In his earlier work, Fassbinder had focused primarily on a limited set of structural forces in each film, but here he explodes. The opening montage for each episode (the 15 1/2 hour film originally appeared on German television in 14 parts) features a barrage of translucent sepia-toned portraits superimposed over video footage of pumping train wheels — workers, children, families, even a couple having sex (German television standards are clearly different from American ones) are shot through with… industrialism? implacable faceless forces? Overridden, though, clearly. Upon his release from prison, Franz is beset by noise, motion, lights — when he goes to a prostitute he finds himself impotent. She begins to read from pharmaceutical packaging about the medical and psychological causes of impotence; desire has been normalized. When Franz goes to see Ida, his erstwhile girlfriend’s sister (erstwhile because he beat her to death during an argument), he tells her he has “twine on his tongue.” He picks at the imaginary twine; he’s constrained, cut off. Fassbinder said during interviews that he saw in Weimar Germany a precursor to the rising nationalism and conservatism of the early 1980s — the movie was a warning against the risk of fascism. But he was selling himself short: reasserting the irrational and humane in the sea of ideology and rationalism was his true gift.
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