Gifts for Trekkies, Anglophiles, and arthouse obscurists
Berlin AlexanderplatzCriterion Collection, $124.95
Riding its customary wave of controversy, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic 15-hour adaptation of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz arrives, at long last (and longer), in a Criterion Collection box to end all Criterion boxes. In 1980, outrage centered on the dark, murky picture and narrative morality, as well as the public-television funds used to produce such a mammoth assault on mainstream sensibilities and broadcast standards. In a post-Sopranos world, perhaps we're better prepared for the story itself (concerning the many loves of one Franz Biberkopf, a man released from prison into a labyrinthine Weimar-era Berlin after doing time for brutally killing a lover). Nevertheless, the image remains at issue among the video watchdogs, who in deference to the director's perceived intentions, want it to stay the dark, muddy thing that caused great consternation rather than the gloomy but crisply contrasty restoration committed to disc here.
While we can't know what the director thinks, under the circumstances, the cinematographer's preferences rate highly, and considering the gorgeous transfer supervised by the series' director of photography, Xaver Schwarzenberger, objections melt away. Another bone of contention holds more weight: This restoration plays at 24 frames per second, rather than the rate at which it was originally shot and broadcast of 25 frames per second, making a long movie longer and throwing off pacing and rhythms ever so slightly. These seemingly picayune technical issues do raise important questions about the nature of film restorations and how to honor the artistic intentions of the deceased, which Criterion smartly and sensitively addresses in a thoroughly fascinating documentary on the controversial restoration process. Add a thick booklet of essays by Schwarzenberger, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer director Tom Tykwer, and even Fassbinder himself, as well as the beautiful, historically fascinating, and significantly shorter 1931 film of the novel included here for purposes of comparison, and this longtime holy grail for the Fassbinder fan on your holiday wish list should provide nothing less than 20-odd hours of New German Cinematic Nirvana (and possibly even more if they enjoy nerding out with complaints over technical presentation).