Lebenszeichen (1968) (aka Signs Of Life)
Werner Herzog

“Dammit! This place is full of roaches. They’re not harmful. They are the most repulsive things on earth. They don’t even bite.”

Signs Of Life

German master Werner Herzog has made more than 50 feature films and he is as intriguing as ever. His films, though he has requested people not to read too much into them, have made us raise so many questions about the world we live in. His first feature film Signs Of Life(1967) holds as many questions for us as does his recent Oscar nominated documentary Encounters At The End Of The World. Herzog’s natural affinity for documentary filmmaking shows as he presents the film in a cinema vérité style employing low-lying camera angles and without a soundtrack for most part of the film.

Signs of Life, at first glance, seems like an extension of his short film, The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967), which also followed a group of soldiers trying to take down a bunch of non-extant enemies. Here, Herzog presents us a soldier, Stroszek, who has been injured in war and has been relocated to a quieter place in Greece’s countryside for recuperation. He is put in charge of the defense of an isolated fortress housing 50 tons of ammunition along his Greek wife Nora and two other soldiers Becker andMeinhard. He spends the nights guarding the fort against nothing and the day time lazing around.

This radically new environment has variegated effects on the psychology of the three people who are used to bloodshed and constant unrest in the battle fields.Meinhard seems to rip apart every critter that comes his way and conjures up contraptions and techniques to eradicate the lesser creatures. Stroszek is petrified as he desperately looks for signs of life. He tries to invite a passing gypsy into the fort but is stopped by the probable-misanthrope Meinhard. He looks at Meinhard’s “victims” with childlike curiosity and even goes on to mentally animate the wooden owl that the gypsy presents him. And between these two people is the well-read Becker who tries to adapt himself to the milieu and stay flexible unlike the other two.

In the short film, the soldiers mention that it is an obligation for the enemy to attack and a defensive stance is equated to cowardice and desertion. They say that a state of passivity is just an illusion of peace and a delusory cover for barbarism that is to be unleashed. The soldiers in Signs of Life find themselves in a similar state of mind. They are supposed to guard an arsenal that they cannot use. The town that surrounds them is either made of toddlers or old men. The animals in vicinity are passive insects and lazy pets. Even the landscape is pacific yet carries a sense of foreboding with it. The walls of the fortress they defend are decorated with artifacts resembling human body parts (which may have been real human parts, considering what Becker tells us about the ancient Greeks). It seems like almost an insult to the soldiers that they have to defend the fort against dead partisans and a peasant crowd. And Herzog’s B&W cinematography adds to the barrenness of it all.

Why Signs of Life is all the more surprising is that the themes that would haunt the director and his works in the decades to come not only show their roots in this film but establish themselves with as much conviction as their descendants.Herzog translates his cynical view of Mother Nature and the inherent savagery that it conceals with its beauty using the landscape of the environment and of his characters’ mind that manifests itself through the bizarre acts they perform. We regularly see flora and fauna obstructing our view of the characters as if devouring them. There are bugs flying around he household irritating the soldiers.

It seems like Herzog is suggesting that humans and perhaps even the whole of nature is self-destructive to the core and would perish if not controlled by a higher order. Like the “cannibalistic” chicken in Even Dwarves Started Small(1970), Stroszek seems to be celebrating self-mutilation as he tries to hold explosives in his hand while they go off. This rage for self-destruction escalates to the point where he threatens to blow up the whole town with the stack of explosives under his control. This pervasive need to constantly expose oneself to danger may perhaps be the reason he opens fire at random in the first place. Now, once Stroszek is rendered a threat for the greater part of the human community, it is up to higher establishments of the society – Law and Science – to bring him down and save the town. Is Herzog suggesting that slavery is the only way of survival? Are we all subconsciously Darwinian in the way we tend to trivialize the lives of lesser beings? I don’t know, but Herzog sure does know the knack of both entertaining us and making us think.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder

“A chicken consists of the outside and the inside. Remove the outside, and the inside remains. Remove the inside, and the soul remains.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz

The prolific career of German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder has been marked by decidedly minimal and vital films that have almost single-handedly defined German cinema during that period, with no credits taken away from Schlöndorff and Herzog. His mastery over the melodrama genre and understanding of the medium have consistently placed him at par with world cinema giants. But Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) forms the core of his cinematic achievements with the sheer length of the film capable of accommodating ten of his other films. Pulling off a film with a mammoth runtime of 931 minutes by itself is a landmark that only a few gifted souls can dream of.

Adapted from Alfred Doblin’s novel of the same name, Berlin Alexanderplatz was originally made as a 14 part television mini-series but is widely accepted as a monolithic piece. The film follows the life of Franz Biberkopf (played to perfection by Gunter Lamprecht), a visibly tormented man, right after he steps out from Tegel prison after serving for four long years. He tries gradually to return to normal life and meets his old acquaintances in the process. He is determined to turn over a new leaf and sets a strict moral code for himself that forbids him from taking to violence in even the most testing of times. He attempts to get a permanent and legal job but the city turns him down because of the prevalent social, political and economic conditions. He sells sleazy magazines, takes in women and dumps them later and takes up a fake political stand in order to earn but strictly adheres to his questionable code of conduct. His policy gains him more foes than friends and he is soon left with one arm amputated. In these testing times, his source of support comes from the various women he takes into his house. They are strangely attracted to him and believe Franz can really give a reboot to everything. He takes to alcoholism and casts off his policies. He continues to exist.

One will be tempted to think in the first scene as Biberkopf steps out of the jail that Fassbinder is going to show us what the cruel city is going to mete out to him and its consequences on his life. But Fassbinder adopts a totally different path. It isn’t the city that has brought Biberkopf to where he is, but his personal policies and principles that have got the better of him and have made him virtually devoid of any firm footing in life. Biberkopf is neither able to adopt himself to the changing times and its corruption of daily life nor is he able to fight it out in order to stay true to his resolution. As a result, he remains willingly passive to all the changes around him and hence becomes a victim of these very changes. He shuts himself from the world and immerses himself in excessive alcohol helplessly observing the world as it moves past him.

I’ve not read Alfred Doblin’s novel but Fassbinder’s visual version reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both are set in tumultuous times where revolution is but evident and follow a simple individual battling his own troubles that are near independent of the socio-political conditions. Crime and Punishment is set when socialism was to take over the Russian elite administration whereas Berlin Alexanderplatz is set when “Fascism” was to oust the Socialistic regime in Germany. Both Raskolnikov and Biberkopf are individuals who have set high moral standards for themselves and get into deeper morass just because of that. Raskolnikov’s resolution is of utmost purity that he sticks to till the very end. On the other hand, Biberkopf’s fickle resolve is a product of his fear and is broken even before halfway. Also, Raskolnikov’s character is a mystery that grows more so as we progress whereas Fassbinder strips Biberkopf off all symptoms of a complex personality and leaves him as unsophisticated as an infant.

With such a huge runtime, one would naturally expect a meticulously etched character arc that takes a remorseful soul such as Franz Biberkopf and gradually portrays his transformation and ultimate attainment of redemption. Fassbinder, or perhaps Doblin, exactly shatters that presumption. Fassbinder carefully intersperses Biberkopf’s present with his moment of sin at multiple places. At one point in the film you feel bad for what the city has done to the man and appreciate his yearning for transformation and his mettle to put up with all this mess. In another, you loathe him for his reversion to crime and his attitude of acting upon impulses. This way, Biberkopf naturally becomes a multi-dimensional character and ultimately we come to know that he is as ordinary as a man can be with his own ideas of morality, with his own earthy human instincts and with his own set of flaws.

The two most critical factors for sustaining the film’s atmosphere are evidently its cinematography and production design. Xaver Schwarzenberger replaces long time collaborator Michael Ballhaus and does an equally impressive job. His organic camera movement sometimes cowers behind obstructions and at other times, accosts the characters aptly reflecting the mood of the scene. The masterful cinematography is enhanced by the haunting score by Fassbinder regular Peer Raben whose theme track is the X-factor the epic needed for its melodramatic completeness. For most part of the film, Fassbinder uses a brown tinge for his images which are supported by the excessive yellow lighting that provide the images the melodramatic quality it requires. Schwarzenberger employs the lens flare to the maximum extent with even the pupils of the characters looking like micro light sources. As a result, each image looks like an impressionist painting and the quality of the production shows in each frame.

The most and perhaps the only debated aspect of the film is its out and out surreal epilogue that sums up Fassbinder’s understanding of Doblin’s novel. Fassbinder sheds reality and shows us Biberkopf’s tour of the limbo using the most bizarre of images that include a torture factory and a human slaughterhouse. It is this chapter that will either increase the vitality of the film manifold or will pull it down to a wasted effort depending on your inclination to accept it as it is. We interestingly see Biberkopf being crucified with all his kith praying before him. Indeed, Biberkopf is like the messiah himself but his suffering has brought more sorrow to others than salvation. The epilogue by itself can concoct a full length film that forms an intensely personal chapter in Fassbinder’s life.

Berlin Alexanderplatz forms the central showpiece in Fassbinder’s glorious career. It effortlessly obscures his other brilliant films and perhaps even sums up his whole style of working. Performances of a lifetime, brilliant direction, gorgeous camera work and a memorable score are but some of the reasons that the film is of perpetual interest. Agreed that it is depressing and unconventionally uninspiring but that is precisely the reason why it must be seen. Till date it remains the best representation of an ordinary life of an ordinary person entangled in extraordinary situations.