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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • German Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 7 Discs
FEATURES
  • Two new documentaries by Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz: one featuring interviews with the cast and crew, the other on the restoration
  • Hans-Dieter Hartl's 1980 documentary Notes on the Making of "Berlin Alexanderplatz"
  • Phil Jutzi's 1931, ninety-minute film of Alfred Döblin's novel, from a screenplay co-written by Döblin himself
  • New video interview with Peter Jelavich, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture

Berlin Alexanderplatz


Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring: Gunter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Karin Baal, Udo Kier
1980 | 941 Minutes

Release Information
DVD | MSRP: $124.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #411
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: November 13, 2007
Review Date: March 4, 2019

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SYNOPSIS

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's controversial, fifteen-hour-plus Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on Alfred Döblin's great modernist novel, was the crowning achievement of a prolific director who, at age thirty-four, had already made forty films. Fassbinder's immersive epic, restored in 2006 and now available on DVD in this country for the first time, follows the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to "become an honest soul" amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. With equal parts cynicism and humanity, Fassbinder details a mammoth portrait of a common man struggling to survive in a viciously uncommon time.

Forum members rate this film 8.9/10

 

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PICTURE

The Criterion Collection’s original 7-disc DVD edition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour series Berlin Alexanderplatz presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 over the first six dual-layer discs. Disc one presents episodes 1 and 2, disc two episodes 3 through 5, disc three episodes 6 through 8, disc four episodes 9 through 11, disc five episodes 12 and 13, and the epilogue appears on disc six. The standard-definition presentation makes use of the then-new 2007 2K restoration of the film, scanned from the original 16mm A/B roll negatives. Since it was made for German television the film was shot at the frame rate of 25fps for 50hz televisions. Since North American televisions cannot properly handle this frame rate Criterion has decided to run the film at the frame rate of 24fps for this DVD release, effectively slowing it down marginally but adding 38-minutes or so to the total runtime in the process. The reason they did this was so they could offer a progressive presentation as opposed to an interlaced one, though interlaced frames are inserted in places to adjust the conversion). Because of the aspect ratio the image has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions, but it has been windowboxed.

Though many complained at the time it was really a lose-lose situation since many would have complained about the interlaced presentation anyways. To be honest I don’t think I really noticed a difference, though I know there are those who are sensitive to such a change, particularly when it comes to sound. As to the actual presentation it’s fine, but ultimately limited due to how the film was shot. Fassbinder and director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger were going for a certain look, which Schwarzenberger isn’t too pleased with as he suggests in his interviews, blaming inexperience at the time. The film is very dark and grimy looking, and the lighting can be a bit maddening, which was also the case at the time of its original airing because audiences complained about it. Blacks are severely crushed and come off milkier than purely black. The film also has a softer look and details are severely lacking throughout most of the film, and because of those blacks you can forget about shadow detail.

The look is intentional so most of the unpleasantness from the image will come down to that ultimately. The DVD, though, handles it about as well as one can expect. Criterion spreads all of the episodes fairly evenly over the first five discs so compression is well managed. Some scenes can be noisier than others and I suspect it could be cause the scenes are inherently grainier than others. Grain is managed well enough to harm other details, though considering how soft the film looks to begin with (at least how soft it is for the most part) this isn’t much of a concern anyways. Colours are limited mostly to browns and grays with the occasional pop of something else, but they look fine enough.

Overall it probably looks as good as it possibly can, the format obviously limiting it in many regards, but the look of the film is the primary hindrance holding it from looking great.

(The screen captures below have been taken from the first five episodes spread across the first two discs. They are representative of the presentation overall.)

7/10

All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

All 13 episodes and the epilogue come with Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural presentations. It’s a very flat soundtrack, voices lacking depth and music limited in regards to range and fidelity, though there are a few lower and deeper moments that manage to stand-out. There is some background noise at times but it’s pretty clean outside of that, no audible pops or drops appearing to be present. Because of the slowdown in frame rate some may notice a pitch difference but I was unable to detect anything.

6/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion presents the supplements on the seventh dual-layer disc.

The supplements starts things off with two documentaries around the making of the film, including an original 1979 44-minute behind-the-scenes feature called Notes on the Making of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and then a 65-minute one from 2007 called Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz”: A Mega Movie and its Story. Together the two offer a satisfying overview on the making of the film, the behind-the-scenes one offering an intimate portrait of Fassbinder’s working process, how he works with his actors and crew (and financiers!) and what he was trying to accomplish with the film through interviews. The newer documentary gathers together just about everyone surviving (at the time) from the cast and crew and offers first hand accounts about their experience with the production, the most interesting information probably coming from Gunter Lamprecht on becoming involved and the character of Franz Biberkopf, and then director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger on the lighting and the film’s look. Both are excellent additions and recommended for those curious about the ambitious production.

”Berlin Alexanderplatz” Remastered: Notes on the Restoration is a 32-minute documentary on the ambitious restoration of the film. This is probably one of the more heavily detailed features on the subject I’ve seen, even going right down to the details of the film scanner. The amount of work and time (lots and lots of time) are clearly indicated here, and the interviews (including with DP Schwarzenberger once again) explain how the proper look is captured and how damage is repaired. This feature also offered the first time I had seen how the finished digital project is transferred back to film for screenings. It’s one of the more interesting and rewarding programs on the subject of film restoration I’ve seen.

Criterion then includes the 1931 film adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz directed by Phil Jutzi. Running at 84-minutes it shouldn’t be hard to figure out that it’s missing a lot from Fassbinder’s 15-hour adaptation. A lot of scenarios and plot points are missing, as are a lot of characters, though the film does have a more clear path with a more conventional narrative, though goes for a more upbeat nature (as scholar Peter Jelavich points out in another feature the character of Biberkopf is more assured as well). It’s a bland adaptation in all honesty, rather unambitious, and I feel I’d be saying the same thing even if Fassbinder’s own adaptation didn’t exist. Yet it’s still a fantastic inclusion. Unfortunately it has not been restored at all, damage still heavy.

Professor Peter Jelavich then pops up for 24-minutes to talk extensively about the original Alfred Doblin novel, what it set to accomplish, its unusual narrative, and how it represented Germany of the time. Jelevich also talks about the various adaptations, from an abandoned radio play to the multiple film adaptations, including Fassbinder’s which he calls very faithful. He then talks a little about Fassbinder’s film and some of the ground it broke at the time. Not being all that familiar with the novel I especially appreciated this academic feature, that also explains the additional “epilogue” found in Fassbinder’s film and missing from the book (which Doblin apparently intended to follow up with a sequel).

A 72-page booklet is also included, loaded with photos and a number of articles. It opens with filmmaker Tom Tykwer’s wonderful, almost stream-of-conscious essay on the film, translated from German. There is then a reprinting of an excerpt from an essay on the film by Fassbinder, the filmmaker talking about the impact of the novel, the multiple times he read it, Doblin’s narrative, and then his go at adapting it, followed by an essay by writer Thomas Steinfeld on Doblin and the original novel. The booklet then ends with the reprinting of a short interview with director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger on the film’s photography and working with Fassbinder. It’s a superb inclusion filling in where the on-disc features have missed.

Criterion has put together a solid set of supplements offering a wonderful overview of the film and the original source novel. It’s also delivered in a wonderful looking package, lovingly designed and sure to look sharp on your shelf.

8/10

CLOSING

The DVD presentation does what it can with the film, but in the end I think the presentation is respectable. Round that out with some excellent supplements and sharp packaging and it’s a title that comes with an easy recommendation.


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