Widely hailed as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's crowning achievement, the 15-hour TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz remains a tough beast to tackle, because it's too drawn-out and episodic to be considered a "movie," yet too sparse to be consumed like TV. Based on an 1929 Alfred Döblin novel noteworthy for its multiple perspectives and slangy language, Berlin Alexanderplatz follows the failures and follies of Günter Lamprecht, an ex-con who struggles to straighten out his life in Weimar-era Germany, only to find himself susceptible to the pitch of every huckster, political party, and gang lord in the public square. He becomes a pimp, a crook, a drunk, and a shill for the Nazi party, until finally checking into a lunatic asylum—mirroring the journey that Germany itself would take between world wars. Fassbinder captures all this by aping some of Döblin's modernist effects: quoting statistics, letting us in on the characters' interior monologues, and inserting digressive anecdotes and excerpts from literature, including the original novel. Mostly though, he makes Berlin Alexanderplatz into a typical Fassbinder film, full of extended conversations recorded in long takes with fluid camera moves. For 15 hours.
When filmmakers subject audiences to movies of extreme length, they usually either have a complicated story to tell, or an experience they want the audience to endure. For Fassbinder and Berlin Alexanderplatz, it's most definitely the latter. (Reduced to its plot alone, the film would be closer to the 1931 version, which runs 90 minutes.) As a fan of Döblin's book since boyhood, Fassbinder made this film so he could obsessively share the book's every detail, from the opening scene, when Lamprecht emerges from jail and screams in terror at the proliferation of cars and skyscrapers, to the final scene of the hero laughing maniacally at the fate of a girl he'd thought had left him. Then Fassbinder caps the whole affair with a furious two-hour epilogue that mixes modern pop songs and dream imagery, while restaging some earlier passages of the movie with the characters and locations switched around, to show how little the story would be changed if the circumstances were different. Good choices, bad choices—everyone suffers regardless. Berlin Alexanderplatz's relentless pessimism will captivate those who share Fassbinder's worldview, and likely drain the goodwill of those who don't. Regardless, it's an admirable feat of sustained despondency.
Key features: The tighter 1931 version, an informative interview with an expert on the novel, a content-free pre-release making-of documentary, and a much stronger recent documentary.