November 13, 2007

Criterion's Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Berlin Alexanderplatz "Is it a dream that two of cinema's holiest of grails, Berlin Alexanderplatz and Killer of Sheep, arrive on Region 1 DVD on the same day? If so, don't wake me up," bids Ed Gonzalez at Slant, wrapping his comments on Criterion's handsome package for the project one could say Rainer Werner Fassbinder lived to see through. Further up that same page is Keith Uhlich's original review, dating back to April, when Berlin Alexanderplatz was screened in New York, following the example set by the Berlinale, as what can only be termed a Butt-numb-a-thon. The series' 940 minutes were never meant to be gorged on, so we can be all the more glad for this set, which allows us to take it all in as it was presented: episode by episode. C Jerry Kutner, writing in Bright Lights, you'll remember, has the right idea.

Anyone reading the Daily this summer when they should have been out having fun instead may recall the controversy kicked up by the remastered version screened in Berlin and New York, then presented on DVD by the Süddeutsche-Zeitung-Cinemathek, and now, by Criterion. In short, is it too bright and crisp? Well, I was sympathetic to arguments for leaving Berlin Alexanderplatz murky - before sampling the SZ and Criterion DVDs. Ed Gonzalez sums up my own revised take on this pretty damn well: "The transfer is ravishing, but I wonder if the apparent fudging of color levels, brightness, and contrast - a practice confirmed on the featurette Berlin Alexanderplatz Remastered - counts as a defilement of Fassbinder's original vision. I'll deal, but when you also take into account Criterion's much-contested pictureboxing practice (which, if truth be told, I don't have a problem with) and the disc's apparent PAL slowdown (click here for more details), cinephiles with nerdier a/v needs and wants than me will probably want to sign a petition of some kind."

Exactly; given the rapturous experience provided by Criterion's package, that's one battle I'm more than happy to leave to, well, the nerds. What's more: we have no idea how RWF would have approached a remastering. If, then, there's a second-in-command alive to be entrusted with the project, it'd be cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, who, of course, was tapped to oversee it. Let's also not forget that the complaints filed in the German-language papers against this remastering were stirred up in the wake of a much, much larger argument over the fate of RWF's legacy, still in the hands of the Fassbinder Foundation; they seem in retrospect almost like an afterthought, while in the meantime, there are greater concerns to be dealt with. For now, though, we have, yes, a "ravishing" presentation of the centerpiece of an immeasurably vital postwar German oeuvre.

"Fassbinder's world of lurid emphasis is strong drink - his characters rail at the heavens, spittle flies at every dramatic turn, and the actors often play to the silent-era back row - and Berlin Alexanderplatz is such an immense manifestation of its maker's sensibility no one can be surprised that, as the largest chunk of the almost 23 hours of film Fassbinder finished in his last three years, it did its part in killing him," writes Michael Atkinson for IFC News. "If you are not, like I'm not, an unqualified RWF acolyte, then think of this mammoth not as an auteurist explosion but as a troubled country's troubled dream about itself, iconic and overwhelming." And that, see, is what makes me a RWF acolyte - not an unqualified one, certainly, but still.

"[W]here Fassbinder's version still has to get by on a studio simulacrum of Weimar Berlin, the vanished city is very much present in the first film adaptation of Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "Directed by Phil Jutzi, that 1931 Berlin Alexanderplatz is included here as an extra, though it is a powerful work in its own right that offers a vivid portrait of the metropolis that was about to sink under Nazi rule." To watch this version, he argues, "is to be plunged both into history being made and history yet to come. Fassbinder, for all his brilliance, can't compete with that."

"This will be a frontrunner in DVD of the Year 2007 balloting for both the film as well as the transfer/supplements - no matter which edition you end up buying," advises Gary W Tooze at DVD Beaver.

Just yesterday, by the way, it was announced that Günter Lamprecht, who plays Franz Biberkopf, "a great, bullish, dim lug of a man" (Atkinson), will receive this year's Herbert Strate Award from the Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen: "His extraordinary screen presence and the intensity of his performances have made him an unforgettable face in German cinema."

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Posted by dwhudson at November 13, 2007 8:40 AM


I'm really digging your increased personal comments.

Posted by: vadim at November 13, 2007 9:25 PM

Thanks, Vadim. I'll try to work 'em in here and there.

Posted by: David Hudson at November 14, 2007 7:53 AM