Again to Fassbinder, Franz Biberkopf and “Berlin Alexanderplatz”

Franz Biberkopf drinks three beers and one schnapps*

*Unfortunately, we were not able to find clip with English subtitles but the richness of the visual stream and Gunter Lamprecht’s acting will make the point.

Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger (cinematography) shoot the hellishly difficult (final and tragic) scene between Reinhold (Gottfried John) and Mieze (Barbara Sukova).

Franz Biberkopf drinks three beers and one schnapps

After almost losing his life, Franz reenters the world without an arm and tries to restore his relationship with the universe by a philosophical drinking celebrating life in spite of everything. The first drink, it looks, is addressed to God-Father (the universe, the creation, life itself). With the second beer Franz, it seems, addresses God-Son (the preciousness, the sacredness of human life, the miracle of the incarnation). With the third beer Franz has a little chat with the Holy Spirit (the very vitality of human potentials, the coming of the future of human beings). After being emptied the first glass (Franz put aside) – step by step gets a peculiar pattern (formed by the remnants of the foam) which reminds of a famous picture representing the schematic map of the densities of the universe’s galaxies as if forming a little human-like figure. The second drink is a double one – the “biting” schnapps is added to the beer (the motif of the sacredness of human body introduced by Christianity is complicated by the fact of physical death on the Cross). The veil of draperies transforms the monumentally moving massive trees behind the windows into a symbolic background of the destiny of human race amidst the cosmic space. The whole scene helps us to grasp that this giant who jokes with gods, the universe and human history is not only Franz but we all (Fassbinder uses optical tricks to represent Franz as a mirror reflection of each viewer’s existential situation).

Franz tries to distract Reinhold from what he, Franz, considers as his friend’s morbid fixation on the seamy side of human life, on seeing the glass half empty instead of half full.

In the scene where Franz “punishes” Mieze for what he perceives as a “devilish betrayal” (infidelity in spirit), we see how easily a good person starts to behave in evil manner (how Good assimilates Evil to defend itself) when his/its megalomaniacal self-image is shattered by circumstances.

The feeling of guilt in Reinhold is not connected with his particular “transgressions”, sins or vices. It is ontological in its nature – it precedes actions and impulses. This guilt is located so deeply in Reinhold’s unconscious that what is instead in his consciousness is the sadistic severity, pathos of irreconcilability.

Mieze before being sacrificed by Eva’s scheming, Franz’ naiveté and Reinhold’s envy*
*Readers are invited to answer the question: who is symbolized by the mightily trunk of the tree separating Mieze and Reinhold in this shot, and by this to understand better why Fassbinder created this particular visual composition enveloping this particular moment of characters’ life.

Franz after losing Mieze (without even knowing what’s happened, without even understanding his unintended participation in the tragedy)

Relationships between Franz and Reinhold are paradigmatic for the human culture. It is a moral distance between Gandhi and Churchill, Allende and Pinochet, Kennedy and Nixon, Bukharin and Stalin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and “survivalists by any means” under totalitarian regimes. And it is a spiritual distance between people like Samuel Clemens, William Faulkner, Godard or Fassbinder and craftsmen exchanging entertainment for enter-payment. Relationships between Franz and Reinhold are modeled on the relationship between archetypal (not doctrinal) Good and Evil.

It is relationships between those who are ontologically (not by dogma) prone to feel existential goodness as their frame of reference, even when they do some evil , and those who spontaneously tend to feel unity with the Evil (who know deep inside that they are on the side of the Evil) even when they do some Good. Well, the matter here is psychologically tricky. If, for example, Hitler or Stalin were quite conscious that they did Evil for the sake of what they believed is Good (promotion of the interests of superior race over inferior ones, of the “shining truth” of communist agenda over the “wrongs of imperialism”, or the right of the “best ever” political system to “transform” the “wrong” ones), people like Cheney or Bush-Junior can sincerely believe that their monstrous behaviors are not immoral at all but outright good because the borders between different segments of their psyche are messed up (such non-differentiation between Good and Evil is typical of the people with a lagging psychological and intellectual development who believe in Evil as normal people believe in Good, for whom the infantile nature of their way of believing transforms everything they touch into Good). But Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold Hoffmann are not only ideal types about whom it is possible to make generalizations anchored in the philosophical ability of both characters to be honest with themselves – to know, to feel their own essence. They both, even taken naively, as human beings and not personages of work of art, have reached a level of psychological wholeness – they both have an identity – they know when their motivations and reactions are morally right or wrong.

Whatever Franz does, and sometimes he does terrifying things, he knows that he is answerable to Good, responsible in front of it, and he suffers for his inability to sustain this responsibility. He knows that he is a sinner but his frame of reference is the scale of Goodness. And whatever Reinhold does he knows that he is lost for Good, that he is abandoned by it, and he suffers by being alone – with Evil. It is Reinhold’s genius – to understand that he is on the side of Evil. He is not like an ordinary guy who is “morally good” in his beliefs and immoral in his actions. The psychological difference between Franz and Reinhold is between the one who feels co-centered with being, and the other who feels marginalized by being, the one who shares the coordinates of Good, and the other who is beyond them. Franz knows that as a servant of Good he is not good at all, but the morbid intensity of Reinhold’s suffering about being in the dark side of the universe is exactly what makes Franz love him. The good in Franz knows that the bad Reinhold is not completely lost.

Those who belong to the frame of reference of Good (Franz) are exhibitionistic, ontologically centripetal and basically optimistic – they always able to recover after episodes of despair triggered by their guilty conscience. Those who are banished from the kingdom of Good are voyeuristic; they are hunters after crumbs of being. Reinhold never has episodes of total despair, but his everyday life is full of torment for being an ontological outsider, an empty shell. The gooders (Franz) are naively (unconsciously) masochistic – they are not too good in defending themselves, they expose themselves to dangers without noticing them. The evilers (Reinhold) are sadistic, they are the aggressors, and they are tormented by envy. Around evil deed they swell with vitality like a leech with blood. If Franz is self-centered in his ego-ideal Reinhold is in his ego.

Franz is unconsciously opened to being sacrificed (even his crimes have this self sacrificial element, as if he is prone to join his own victims). His torment for being a bad gooder is comparable with Reinhold’s torment for being a good eviler. Reinhold is the one who revenges Franz for being so positive, so tremendous, so good and shining. Franz is the psychological plenitude itself. Reinhold feels a permanent ontological inferiority. Franz loves women. Reinhold cannot tolerate them for too long. Franz is women’s delight; Reinhold is “not a pimp, not a lover, but just a bum”.

Good must love Evil because Evil is unable to love and especially to love its victorious rival, Good. Evil cannot love Good because it unconsciously admires it. Poor Reinhold is unable to love women and unable to love Franz because he feels so miserable, so unworthy of love. That’s why Evil hates, it is envious and vengeful. Franz intuitively grasps this truth about Reinhold (that evil is evil because it doesn’t have the confidence Good has), and for this reason forgives him for what he has done. He forgives him, and he loves him.

But Good has its own problems. Franz’s desire “to stay decent” is rooted in megalomaniacal self-image. Nobody is psychologically able just “to stay decent” – to be moral, period. We are opened to circumstances as a plant is to the wind. Good also has complexes. “I am decent” unconsciously means “I am better than others” (than Reinhold!). Reinhold feels this self-aggrandizing intonation in Franz manner, and it provokes his fury – “Why is Franz so great and I am so miserable? I cannot take it anymore!” Reinhold is jealous to the point of committing crime that Franz is tremendous and he, Reinhold, spiritually homeless, with a heart eaten by worms. He just cannot handle it. But Franz goes on, with his impeccably generous smile!

Good’s very impeccability is a psychological problem – it provokes Evil’s irrational hate and resistance. Franz is an admirable person, Franz is irresistible. And this is exactly what infuriates Reinhold to the point of annihilating Franz, Franz’s Mieze and the whole world. Almost unbearable for viewing scene where Franz wants to show to Reinhold the face of virtue (Mieze’s face irradiating innocence and love), demonstrates in full the confrontation between the shining megalomania and its seamy side (its own murderous frustration when its perfectionism is challenged by reality). This scene demonstrates the evil potential of the Good, the evil side of goodness when evilness of good and evilness of evil both collaborate by sacrificing real life (they both transformed innocence into the idol of perfection, one to worship it and other to seduce and to corrupt it). It is as though Franz became simultaneously Franz and Reinhold, as if he incorporated Reinhold into himself. Because of Mieze’s innocent confession Franz’ delusion of grandeur made him behave as the Old Testament God punishing human moral infirmities. If only Reinhold (observing the scene hiding in Franz-Mieze’s bed) couldn’t hear Mieze’s confession, Franz still would be in a prestigious position of somebody who pedagogically demonstrates virtue to a person who needs to learn what virtue is, and then Mieze would have been spared. But Reinhold did hear, and as a result Mieze was almost killed by Franz who loved her too idealistically and fetishistically.

What triggered Franz’s murderous fury against Mieze is how he understood what exactly Reinhold could hear and think while hiding under the blanket in the bed. And for Franz it was two things, one according to his ego and the other according to his id. The conscious version of Franz’s guess was that Reinhold could think that Mieze is not such a pure soul as Franz would like him to think. But id version was that Franz who talked about Mieze with pride of being unconditionally loved by her – is in reality not loved by her at all, and that it is not surprising because he is no more than a lonely old cripple, that Mieze doesn’t admire him (as he was suggesting in his stories to Reinhold) and that he is not loved by women as much as Reinhold is. It is the point of absence of reason for being proud of himself (for being admired by women) that made Franz furious to the point of madness (now we are talking about Franz as if we were talking about Reinhold!). This humiliation in front of Reinhold, this dizzying distance between heaven and earth that falling Franz covers in several seconds, made him murderous (Good is very sensitive to humiliation, it doesn’t like to lose its prestigious identity).

Fassbinder’s Biberkopf epics (following Doblin’s steps) is saying something very important to us, especially today in US when political naiveté makes its triumphal return – that Good and Evil, light and darkness, glory and envy have the same human substance, that it is Good and Evil’s common weakness of psychological immaturity what is the basis for their competitive obsession with each other, that good doesn’t know that it carries a lot of evilness, that good is not a super-human good and evil is not a metaphysical evil, that both are positions which human complexes take when they are exposed to human destiny, that hate and megalomaniacal postures are equally aggressive – the right and the left fists both deliriously fighting absolutized enemies.

Franz and Reinhold! – Their common human nature. They both are human and because of this they must dissolve their oppositeness in mutual humility and rationality. They have to lose their bombastic identities which make them rigid and blind. We see Reinhold as just a human being in the beginning of the last part of film. The “recovery” of Reinhold from the armor of being eternally condemned is also the humanization of Franz. Demythologization of Reinhold is demythologization of Franz. Reinhold and Franz can love each other in peace.

Posted on Jan 8 2015 –   “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980) By Rainer Werner Fassbinder  by Acting-Out Politics