Biberkopf goes to see Reinhold, who’s suspicious. What does he want from a man who’s caused him to lose his arm? It seems Biberkopf wants nothing but Reinhold’s friendship. He loves the man. And that love – non-sexual, rather mysterious, and more than a little bit masochistic – is one of the fascinating things about the series. Reinhold is resentful of Biberkop’s good nature, his physical strength, his social ease – all a skinny stutterer might aspire to: throwing him out of the car was pure impulsive malevolence. Biberkopf’s view is that resentment won’t make his arm grow back so why deny himself a friend? Reinhold wants all Biberkopf is and possesses, and that includes Mieze; and if he can’t get it, he’s happy to destroy it.
In ‘The Anti-Television Film’, the first essay in the pamphlet that accompanies the Criterion box set, Tom Tykwer writes that BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, ‘enraged the national spirit and occasioned assaults by the yellow press and (in the wake of this) protests from ‘millions of television viewers’ who felt themselves ‘robbed of their subscription fees’ (Bild newspaper).
‘The public protests against the work, which everyone who was in the vicinity of Germany at the time remembers. – and many remember the outrage even better than the film itself – was directed against the television stations, the filmmakers, the ensemble, and naturally, above all, against the director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Although the film’s alleged unacceptability in technical matters (it was accused of considerable flaws in image and sound quality) was thrust into the center of attention, these problems, it appeared, were hardly worthy of such a storm of indignation. The pain caused by the film somehow went deeper, and with each further episode, broadcast one week after the other, it seemed like a dirty thorn was boring itself deeper and deeper into the wound of this republic’.
According to Tykwer, the ‘night shots, which were obviously composed for the big screen and a sensitive film emulsion, were watered down into a faint, flat, grey-black blur on most of the German Telefunken TV sets available at the time’. They are fascinatingly dark, even in the restored version, and the work being shot on 16 mm, which makes the focus soft, and brings a faded quality to the image, adds a historic quality to the image, like photographs turned yellow with age.
But it’s important also to remember that what undoubtedly enraged German viewers forty years ago, is something most likely to enrage viewers today: That crime is presented as a viable option not only to survive physically but to preserve one’s dignity; that Biberkopf is a pimp; that the film creates a view of love that encompasses loving more than one person at a time, and whilst selling sex for money; that Biberkopf loses control and almost kills Mieze, just as he did Ida, and she nonetheless, with all her bruises still fresh, pronounces her love for him. These are not conventional views of relationships, friendships, feelings, motivations for actions, or ways of conveying them.
Mieze’s scream, when she believes Biberkopf doesn’t love her and is out to sell her to Reinhold, is theatrical in its performance, staging and duration – I’ve seen camp imitations of that moment by friends – yet remains a startling and effective scene in the film. Indeed, it’s a startling episode in what remains a radical conjunction of the intervention of film and television into public discourse.