Moving images: “Berlin Alexanderplats” – Modern times in Germany

21 09 2009

A quite decent attempt to make a movie about how the world changed from before the (first) world war, to after that war.

The years between the world wars was a turbulent times for Europe. On the one hand, the European map had been re-drawn during the treaties between the victors and the losers, causing extensive migration across the European geography of many socio-cultural groups. This was partly forced displacement of people, when borders were moved or created out of nothing. Some ethnic cleansing happened, even though that term was not yet invented.

Another reason is that society itself was transformed by the war, by the way society was impacted by the war effort. Industrialization was accelerated, causing citizens to move from the countryside to urban environments. Young men enrolled in the war effort (as soldiers, sailors, or what not) lived years in other strange and foreign places, sometimes in different countries, experiencing other cultural values and frameworks.Berlin Alexanderplatz (1931) poster

And, of course, the traditional societal structures, ethical structures, and power structures that created stability in the pre-war countries, these structures were torn down, and no established structures were replacing them.

This caused the continental European societies to be flexible, dynamic, evolving … or, to use another phrase, to be dangerously unstable.

Döblin wrote a book ten years after WWI, with a story based on/around one well-known location in Berlin — Alexanderplatz. This Alexanderplatz is one of the major hubs of Berlin, where people from all walks of life encounter each other. The strand on which the book is built is a fairly short period of the life of Franz Biberkopf. We are introduced to Biberkopf when he is released from a Berlin prison after having served some years for murder. Life behind bars is quiet, highly structured, and with a minimum of surprises. The urban life outside the prison presents a threat to Biberkopf, the former prisoner. He tries to get settled in this modern city that he is not used to, and makes some progress in this. Then he gets involved with some criminal gang, participates in some heists, and gets financially well-to-do. Some complications results in a an ultimate break with the criminals, some of then get indicted and convicted, and Biberkopf return to a simpler way of life in the city.

The story description just given captures the essence of the German film — Berlin Alexanderplatz — made in 1931, with a script based on the book. In our times, nearly 80 years after the book was published, what possibly can this film mean to us? Is it only of interest to cine-historians? Or is there something relevant for us, now?

There are many ways of highlighting perspectives on this movie. One perspective is the social context in German society and what it can tell us now. Remember that the book and this movie were made after the 1920s that began with German economic depression and hyperinflation and ended with a socially and politically segregated society. What had not yet happened — but took only two years to happen — was the nazi takeover. The popular image is to regard the nazi movement as a threatening phenomena that somehow just conquered the German nation, a change that nearly had no cause. In reality, the national socialists were part of society, a recognized part, that was not seen as anything unique and special. This can be noticed in this movie in a number ow ways, e.g., when uniformed men are seen in the street life, or when Biberkopf, selling small thing on the street, calls to then and says “even a storm trooper should need one of these”. (“storm troop” = “Sturm Abteilung”, SA). So when we see and hear such things we get a cold feeling in the gut. But the audience of the movie certainly did not react in any special way about these references. Here one might find similarities and differences to I Am A Camera (1955) and Cabaret (1972), but the main distinction is that these later movies focus on the socio-political dimension leading up to and into the Nazi state.

Another way of seeing something relevant in this movie is to recognize that some of debate in our society seems to parallel an implicit debate in those days. We are currently worried about what happens to modern day youth, how they are attracted by the expensive and fast life they see in their urban environments, and how criminality may seem like a natural career path. It is quite easy to recognize, in the movie, the temptations, the desires, the easy luxury life that money brings, and how theft and robbery mayt seem like a career path for anyone who has initiative and courage.

The movie (I have not read the book, so it may be much richer) has a decent depiction of rise and fall of Biberkopf. But is also sems to have a typical Hollywood ending — Hollywood ending after institutionalising Motion Picture Production Code / Hays Code / Hollywood Code — in the sense that a movie story that describes criminality and criminal life, must show that in the end the criminal is punished and the morally good persons win. So in the last minutes of the movie Biberkopf goes through such a transformation from criminality to moral responsibility.

But let us not get stuck on such small objections. The movie has a message for us too. But it is most likely not easy to get an opportunity to see it. The best bet may be … (but first a small interlude) …

The novel by Döblin was in more recent times turned into moving images by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980, resulting in 14 one-hour episodes made for television. This creation has been regarded as a modern masterpiece, that seems to be making a second tour in the public eye (this year, 2009, it is being re-broadcast by national Swedish television).

… (back from the interlude) … to get your hands on the Criterion Collection DVD package of Fassbinders Berlin Alexanderplatz, because that box contains a copy of Phil Jutzi’s 1931 film.

And one can also mention that the audio-visual presentation of urban street life that we see in the beginning of the movie is quite well done. Remember that this is an early sound movie, sound technology is still primitive, and the way to utilize sound and integrate it with vision was in general still in its early formative stages. So this aspect of the movie is something that one can be impressed with.

Conclusion: An interesting glimpse into Berlin around 1930.

Facts: Berlin – Alexanderplatz (1931); director: Phil Jutzi; writers: Alfred Döblin (novel and script); starring Heinrich George. (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”  at IMDB)

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