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January 02, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz


Phil Jutzi - 1931
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

I attempted to watch Fassbinder's version of Berlin Alexanderplatz within a very short time frame. The more I watched, the more difficult it was for me to continue. I got almost half way, but will watch the rest the way a television mini-series should be viewed, spread out over several days. I did take advantage of the inclusion of the 1931 film version which at less than ninety minutes takes as much time as a single Fassbinder episode. That one of the three screenwriters is author Alfred Doblin also makes this film of interest.

Even if you haven't read Doblin's novel, and I haven't, what makes Jutzi's film remarkable is that it demonstrates that the fluid camera work and artiness associated with German films of the late Twenties did not end when Murnau went to Hollywood. True, many of the traveling shots were shot silently with post-production sound, but most of the dialogue scenes have camera movement as well. Between the use of extreme close-ups of faces, and quick cuts in some scenes, Jutzi proved himself more adept at making a visually dynamic film that some of his Hollywood contemporaries. The first few minutes of the film a virtually dialogue free as the walrus sized Heinrich George portrays Franz Biberkopf's first steps out of the the quiet order of prison life into the chaos of 1931 Berlin.

heinrich geoge.jpg

The footage of street life in Berlin is of interest simply as a record of what Berlin looked like before World War II. A couple of scenes, one staged for the film, show cheerful disregard for official postings. In the scene where Biberkopf meets Mieze, a street singer, we first see a sign indicating that singing and begging are forbidden in this particular neighborhood. Likewise, a scene at the beach is preceded by a shot of a sign stating that short swim wear is not allowed, obviously ignored by the many at the crowded beach. It is worth noting that when Jutzi's film of Berlin Alexanderplatz opened in New York in May of 1933, the title was the French Sur Le Pave de Berlin (On the Street of Berlin). Additionally, New York Times film critic mentions in his May 11 review that the original novel, "is said to have been among those tossed to the flames in Berlin yesterday."

The 1931 version of Berlin Alexanderplatz lacks any production credits. Even the booklet that comes with the seven DVD set lacks any written information. One has to go to IMDb to know that one of the producers was Arnold Pressburger. The music is by Allan Gray, who wrote music for several films that son Emeric Pressburger made with Michael Powell. Jutzi and star Heinrich George were both former Communists that stayed in Germany as Nazi party members during World War II. Of the two co-screenwriters, Hans Wilhelm wrote a couple of films for Max Ophuls and later went to Hollywood where one of his credits is Don Siegel's Ninotchka knock-off, No Time for Flowers. The other writer, Karl Heinz Martin, was a silent era director who returned to directing in the Thirties, ending his career in 1939. In a small role is the character actor Karel Stepanek. If this film is any indication, Phil Jutzi deserves some deeper English language scholarship. Fassbinder also liked the film, even though he pointed out that it was not truly representative of the novel. At the very least, Jutzi's film of Berlin Alexanderplatz has enough value of its own to merit consideration as more than a footnote to its better known remake.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 2, 2008 03:23 PM