Even without a 15-plus-hour miniseries on his rsum, maverick German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have been renowned for the fruitfulness of his relatively brief career. But with Berlin Alexanderplatz, his 939-minute 1980 adaptation of Alfred Dblin’s Weimar-era novel, Fassbinder pulled off a remarkable act of sustained directorial stamina and vision, made all the more impressive by how it explodes many of the accepted notions about epic filmmaking while remaining utterly hypnotic. Long out of circulation and recently restored, the saga is sure to find a new generation of fans thanks to Criterion’s satisfyingly massive new set, which also features several new documentaries.
As a general rule, projects of such heroic length tend to be expansive, multicharacter historical re-creations. Most directors of epics can’t wait to cut away to the next subplot; with characteristic iconoclasm, Fassbinder does the exact opposite and fixes his camera on Franz Biberkopf (Gnter Lamprecht), a recently released ex-con whose ever-shifting, contradictory journey through 1920s German society represents both an intimate portrait of one man’s psychic breakdown and, by extension, an entire nation’s uneasy slip toward cultural Armageddon. Fassbinder’s adaptation of the novel is by all accounts quite faithful, and he uses cinematic technique in a manner analogous to literature: Juxtaposing scenes that play out at surprising lengths with episodic character sketches, he manages to subtly connect Biberkopf’s story and Germany’s without ever making this central character feel like a symbol or a cipher. The only real misstep is the final episode, which, in an attempt to make Biberkopf’s meltdown even more resonant, dives headlong into all the crazy stylization the director otherwise manages to keep at bay for the duration.