Designing Berlin Alexanderplatz

Jan 10, 2008

Appropriately for Fassbinder’s fifteen-hour masterpiece, the process of coming up with a design for Berlin Alexanderplatz was epic. With a monumental film like this, there’s obviously no shortage of possible concepts, but the biggest challenge is finding a design that can speak not just to one aspect but to the film as a whole. At first I didn’t really have much conceptual grounding beyond a sense of the color scheme I wanted (the particular browns of the film). The obvious solution was to focus on the main character, Franz Biberkopf, so that was where I started.

This was probably the best simple portrait image we had, but I was having trouble finding a compelling way to present it:

I tried incorporating this interesting archival photo of the actual Alexanderplatz in Berlin, but as I realized later, focusing on the history rather than the character wasn’t going to be the way to go:

The birds on this next one (which are some sort of clip art, I forget from where—I probably would have sourced better imagery had we gone forward with this idea) are, of course, a reference to the canary that Mieze buys for Franz. (As an aside, having worked on Miss Julie just after this—what’s up with the homicidal grudge these filmmakers seem to have against birds?) The birds were also inspired by John Gall’s design for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle cover, which I was obsessed with for a few weeks there.

There’s something about this gesture, where Franz grabs a woman by the neck as prelude to an embrace, that seems very evocative of the film to me: it’s brutish and violent, but it’s how he shows his affection and love. It’s typical of the way Franz seems to lumber through his life. Unfortunately, I was never quite able to capture it in any visually interesting way.

Normally, I do my comps in Photoshop, but for whatever reason I did all the above in InDesign—and quickly remembered why I normally do my comps in Photoshop. So I switched back to try to rethink the design. As I found in the first batch of comps, the existing black-letter title treatment from the film was difficult to incorporate into the design in a bold way, mostly because Alexanderplatz is such a long, unwieldy word (and I say that as someone who took seven years’ worth of middle- and high-school German classes). So I tried breaking it up and playing with scale, and wound up here (with the idea that we could print the type and ornamentation in gold foil):

Then I took that same treatment and applied it to the archival image.

But I was quickly becoming bored with that approach, so I went looking for design inspiration. Through some convergence of Google links, I stumbled on these posters advertising Egon Schiele shows:

There’s no direct connection (that I know of, anyway) between Schiele and Fassbinder, but they seem to have a few of the same preoccupations, and something about these images just clicked with me—finally, something that evoked the period of the film without sacrificing its modernist ambitions. So I decided to steal Schiele’s type idea: I broke out some Sharpies and started drawing the type. Once I got something I liked, I combined it with some photography, and voilà:

That image fit the space well, but I was a little worried it made the film feel too much like a traditional romance. (Mieze’s bloody nose certainly adds a bit of darkness to the photo, but a quick survey found that very few people noticed without having it pointed out to them.) So I tried the old standby Franz-at-the-pub shot:

I liked where those were going, but I began to get a little nervous that others wouldn’t like the hand-drawn type, so I tried a similar effect with regular fonts. Contrasting the portrait of Franz with the violent image above seemed like an interesting way to add some complexity that had been missing from the previous “portrait” comps.

I liked that idea enough that I tried it again with the other title treatment:

We all talked through that second batch. Producer Issa Clubb and I (as well as some others around the office) had a fondness for the handmade type, but Peter Becker had some hesitation, and no one was quite jumping up and down for joy about any of them, so I went back to the drawing board to try to come up with some new directions.

This next one was an attempt to capitalize on the shock value of the image—it’s repeated several times throughout the film and is clearly a defining event in Franz’s life. There's something compelling about an image that says so much about Franz without actually showing him—in fact, the photo is all about his absence, really—so I thought it was kind of a bold choice for a cover. Ultimately probably not expansive enough to represent the whole film, though.

Another simple, elegant (read: boring) take on the portrait idea:

And then this one, which I have no real justification for other than trying an unexpected approach:

But none of them had any real staying power. After a lot of back and forth, we had pretty much whittled it down to two options that stuck with everyone:

At some point, we started to frame the debate in terms of artistic confrontation vs. what Peter self-effacingly termed “bourgeois sensibilities.” The gold-foil black-letter title treatment with the nostalgic cityscape photo came to represent a monument to the film’s capital-G Greatness, and the gold-foil idea would have gone a long way toward convincing people they were getting their money's worth when they shelled out their hard-earned cash. The hand-drawn type came to represent the particular ambition and more confrontational sensibilities of Fassbinder or novelist Alfred Döblin, an attempt to engage the film on its own terms rather than from a critical distance.

After submitting that “nostalgia” comp, I became convinced it was the wrong way to go—the film doesn’t really feel like a period piece, and I think that image promises a kind of nostalgia that doesn’t have anything to do with the film. So I was pushing pretty hard for the hand-drawn type, but there were still some reservations. Peter was worried about evoking what he called the “Mickey Hart Drumming Around the World” look. (Speaking of that type, which I don’t really think is that close to the Berlin type, actually, here’s a very interesting article on the bizarre, “jingoistic” use of that particular style of typography [link via India, Ink].) So we asked font guru F. Ron Miller (designer of such Criterion titles as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Masculin féminin) to delve into the history of that type, to double check that we weren't making any references we weren't comfortable with, and he sent us the following background info:

“According to The Modern Poster (Museum of Modern Art, 1988), the second image you referenced—the one of the figures at the table reading—is a lithograph solely attributed to Egon Schiele. I assume the whole thing was created by his hand. The poster is dated 1918. The style of the type is by no means his alone, though I’d say it’s emblematic of the expressionist movement. I’d call the style Germanic rather than German per se. The Austrians affect it, as do the Swiss. Birds of a feather. Here's a couple more in the same ’style.’ The first is Oskar Kokoschka (1907), and the second is Max Oppenheimer (1911).”

So with Ron’s help we all got more comfortable with the type on an intellectual level, but something about that comp was still rubbing Peter the wrong way—eventually, he came to the conclusion that he just didn’t like the way it was interacting with the photography. The original posters, he said, had a coherence that was lacking here, since they were all produced by a single hand. That's hard to argue with, especially considering the hand in question was Egon Schiele’s!

So, as kind of a Hail Mary pass at the hand-drawn idea, I decided to try drawing it myself. Apart from the Wajda box, I’ve been kind of out of practice with actual hand-drawing the past few years—I’ve definitely focused more on Photoshop and InDesign. I decided to take an old drawing style I hadn’t used since college out of mothballs, one that I thought had a bit of Weimar flavor without being a particular reference to anything other than itself. Certainly it doesn’t look anything like Schiele. Using that as a foundation, I built an image of Franz to fit into the existing title treatment. I wound up being pretty happy with it, and everyone else was too, as that wound up being the approved cover:

(For more on the technique involved in creating the final image, check out my design process blog, Cozy Lummox.)