There are long movies, and then there is Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Produced for German television in 1980, at a time when the miniseries was accepted as the zenith of grown-up storytelling - remember when The Winds of War was regarded as high art, rather than high camp? - Rainer Werner Fassbinder's gargantuan adaptation of Alfred Döblin's sprawling 1929 novel is positively Dickensian in its ambitions.
Stretching over more than 15 hours, it's the tale of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), who's released back into society after serving a prison sentence for murder, and finds his homeland gearing up for the Nazi era after years of post-war ennui.
As Biberkopf descends into rampant criminality (despite having sworn to improve himself as a person), Döblin's kaleidoscopic narrative stretches out across multiple characters and incidental moments, each new side trip serving to expand our sense of the story. It's an exhaustive, exhausting work, peppered with appearances from such Fassbinder buddies and German New Wave icons as Hannah Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, Gottfried John and Volker Spengler.
Berlin Alexanderplatz achieved lasting fame on this side of the Atlantic as an art-house fixture in the late 1980s; rep cinemas facing a programming drought could book the film prints and fill up a week of playdates, or even two. A friend once told me he'd seen the whole thing over a weekend at the Angelika in New York; I've always wondered whether that was true.
This weekend, you can make your own bid for Alexanderplatz marathon glory as Cinematheque Ontario runs the whole damn thing in three instalments. Part One (episodes 1 and 2) shows tonight at 7 pm; Part Two (episodes 3 to 9) Saturday at 1 pm. Part Three (episodes 10 to 13, with the two-hour epilogue) Sunday at 2 pm.
I know I usually make the see-it-on-the-big-screen speech around this point in the column, but in all honesty I'm not sure that's warranted here. Berlin Alexanderplatz was never intended to be experienced all at once; it ebbs and flows like the television series it is. It seems almost sadistic to ask people to sit through more than seven hours watching it on Saturday, and then return on Sunday for another six and a half hours.
Then factor in the reality that this is a pretty busy weekend for most people, with holiday parties and shopping and whatnot - as well as the first-ever live vote of the Toronto Film Critics Association, which means at least some of this town's more prominent cineastes are gonna have to miss Sunday's conclusion - and the Criterion Collection's DVD boxed set starts looking like a much more practical way to watch the thing. (The Criterion set is even mastered from the same restored source as the print Cinematheque is screening.)
So, well, I guess it boils down to a question of will. How badly do you want to see Berlin Alexanderplatz in a theatre? And how badly do you want the bragging rights to watching it all in a weekend?
If the answer to both is "really badly", tickets are still available - $30 for members, $40 for non-members. Go. Enjoy it - it is, after all, a staggering accomplishment in the history of cinema, and something that certainly deserve to be seen. Just remember, you still won't be as cool as the Berlin Film Festival attendees who sat through an uninterrupted screening of the whole damn thing in 2006.