Notes on Franz Biberkopf

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The face of Rainer Werner Fassbinder can be seen off to the side, dragging on a cigarette inside a slaughterhouse where his Franz Biberkopf (Gunther Lamprecht) is bound up to a pole ready to be stuck. Margit Carstensen and Helmut Griem stand behind him – the golden angels of death – narrating Biberkopf’s descent out of the film’s now distended narrative. But Fassbinder’s adaption didn’t give Biberkopf his first rebirth.

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Another Biberkopf rebirth took place in 1959, when a 14-year-old Fassbinder read Berlin Alexanderplatz for the first time. He would promptly memorise the book and, when the time came 21 years later, write the adapted scripts automatically and faithfully, an act that sanctified a prolificacy and fastidiousness nascent well before dependencies on coke and sleeping pills. There was a boy before all of this, remember?

Stating the obvious would be to say that this is no longer Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The logical (and more instructive) conclusion from then on is that this was never Döblin’s Biberkopf, nor Gunther Lamprecht’s, nor Fassbinder’s. Fassbinder’s placid voiceover up to this point recited the book’s newspaper-clipping narration, words so familiar that this narratorial voice never resembled Fassbinder’s. In the slaughterhouse, neither possessing nor possessed by the text, he merely watches. The bisected creation – not quite his, not quite Döblin’s – now refuses to die. We’re merely halfway through this epilogue when Biberkopf cheats death at the slaughterhouse.

I don’t know when Biberkopf was first reborn, but within 14-year-old Fassbinder wasn’t the first time. Many other rebirths happened in this time between 1959 and 1980, however. He was reborn as Herr. R in Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok. Then as „Franz Biberkopf“ in Faustrecht der Freiheit, played by Fassbinder himself. These two films, made before Fassbinder was 30, wield the „Biberkopf“-ian figure with a once-teenaged death drive. With not much of a self to draw from at the age of 14, there’s an adolescent fecklessness persistent in these early works, manifesting versions of this Fassbinder/Biberkopf creation that are assumed as quickly as they’re discarded. Herr. R’s climactic murder-suicide sees him as Fassbinder’s first sacrificial lamb, preceding both Berlin Alexanderplatz and In Einem Jahr mit 13 Monden’s literal slaughterhouses, after which the questions persist: How does one reconcile the death drive intrinsic to this adolescent identification, specifically to Biberkopf? And once this reconciliation has been tried, what next? Usually another film, with another Biberkopf and another death. Sometimes they were called Franz, other times not.

Unlike the previous Franz’s, the one in this epilogue can’t be killed so easily. Several attempts were made prior in this adaptation. We now see Fassbinder looking at his last manifestation, across the slaughterhouse room and sensing the assertion that is now ending. He’s no longer Franz Biberkopf. He stands silent to watch him die, hiding behind aviator glasses. But we don’t see them die, neither Biberkopf nor Fassbinder. They both died young, but their deaths punctuate lives that flirted with this fatalist-romantic complex. Fassbinder as Biberkopf or vice versa, his multiple deaths both depicted and – in so doing – stalled the inevitable. This delay still keeps something alive. The delusion is enough, at least for a while yet.