One of the blessings (and curses) of working at Criterion is that every film we put out inspires a passionate response from someone, somewhere. Knowing how deeply people feel about a movie as I’m producing the DVD leads to some very nervous moments, and usually a sleepless night or two, before the disc hits the shelves. I’m always worried about the possibility of a technical error, in addition to wondering if the disc’s special features tell the whole story, or if the cast list might have someone’s name wrong.
So I suppose it’s something of a relief to have a controversy crop up before I even have to have menu text in to the editorial department. As many of you already know, Criterion has obtained the DVD rights to the restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s monumental 1980 epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, which premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. We plan to release it this fall.
Recently there has been quite a dispute surrounding this restoration, specifically regarding whether the film has been rendered too bright. A site I read every day, Greencine Daily, has devoted several posts to the topic, mostly laying out the case for the plaintiff, as it were. As a result, many of you have written in to ask about our plans for the DVDs.
One of the bedrock principles to which we have always tried to adhere is that the primary arbiters of how a film should look are the people who made it. It’s why we always try to get the filmmakers involved in our transfers. Absent the director, we generally feel that the best judge of how a film should look is the director of photography. Last Thursday, June 17, Xaver Schwarzenberger gave an interview to Susan Vahabzadeh of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper to articulate his views on the restoration. Our colleague Robert Fischer translated it and sent it along to us.
The Only Witness:
Schwarzenberger on the Restored Alexanderplatz
SZ: What is your reaction to the attacks on the restoration of Berlin Alexanderplatz? No one else but you can know more about the desired degree of brightness, and you were also instrumental in the restoration process.
XS: I don’t even know what the people who now criticize the brightness saw way back when the film was first shown. The technical possibilities of television broadcasting simply weren’t advanced enough at the time to accommodate the material we had shot. So the 16 mm negative wasn’t even used for the original TV transfer—they used a positive instead, which means that another generation was added between the original film footage and the broadcast tape. Sadly, the negative hasn’t survived in its entirety. In our restoration we have tried to eliminate these problems, and the result is the very best possible solution. There are still shortcomings—the crossfades were done with duplicates at the time, and the original material doesn’t exist anymore, so in these instances you can still see a large amount of grain and color shifts. In parts I find this almost pointillistic. But we simply couldn’t do anything about that. The rest is exactly how it was meant at the time.
SZ: And how it was meant was decided upon between you and Fassbinder.
XS: Yes, of course! Nobody else was present, and when I hear these comments now, by people I have never heard of and who had nothing to do with the project, I am more than a little surprised. These are people who weren’t around Fassbinder anymore by the time I worked with him. They may have played their part in Fassbinder’s early time, and that’s perfectly okay, but when I was working with him—between 1979 and 1982—none of them were there. In my opinion these people have no reason and no right to interfere in such an amateurish way. This is pathetic.
SZ: How much were you involved in the restoration?
XS: Juliane Lorenz and Bavaria Film called on me because I was clearly the only one who could supervise this project, as it was I who was responsible at the time. So of course I accepted full responsibility. And whoever says something against this solution says something against me.
SZ: So you did supervise the restoration from the very beginning?
XS: From the first minute until the last. This was a long, winding, and complex task. It was a lot of work, and the people at the lab at Arri did a wonderful job—and it worked out to perfection. This is the result, which I can endorse from the bottom of my heart. If someone has a different opinion, he’s entitled to that—but then his or her vision has nothing to do with the film as we shot it and as it was meant to be.
SZ: Isn’t it a very rare and wonderful situation for a restoration when the original director of photography is personally involved in it?
XS: I should think so. The restoration of The Leopard, for example, was supervised at the time by Giuseppe Rotunno, and I do assume that is how Visconti would have wanted it.