Much like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz yoked the novel from the 19th century into the 20th. But unlike Ulysses and The Magic Mountain, Berlin Alexanderplatz has lent itself favorably to the screen. First in 1931, with director Phil Jutzi parring the novel down to fit a 90-minute runtime. Then in 1980, from filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder—his version ran anywhere from 894 to 931 minutes, depending on where you saw it. Now Burhan Qurbani tosses his hat into the ring with a 21st century take on Döblin’s working-class underworld, bolstered by pitch-perfect performances, spectacular cinematography, and a racial bent that further underlines the protagonist’s outsider status.
And it opens with one of the most arresting shots I’ve seen in a long while: The image of two people adrift in choppy waves, gasping for breath and each other. The image is bathed in deep red and dark blacks. And it’s inverted, so it looks like they are drowning in the ceiling. Silent black frames fracture the chaos, then a red flare descends from the sky, into the water, and out emerges Francis B. (Welket Bungué), an African refugee—a word he will grow to hate—who claws his way to the shore, “dripping with the sins of the past.”
A woman’s voice narrates Francis of Bissau’s story, though we won’t meet her until much later. First, Francis has to meet Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a drug dealer who likes to recruit African refugees partly because he sees them as disposable and partly because he sees himself as one of them. Lanky and twisted into the shape of a broken teapot, Reinhold suffers from a series of ailments and a closetful of emotional hang-ups he hasn’t the time to list. Francis sees opportunity in Reinhold. Soon, Reinhold will see opportunity in Francis.
Francis, rechristened Franz by Reinhold, rises from dealer to gopher to right-hand man quickly. The two become close—in a contentious brotherly way. When Franz is allowed to speak in front of Pums (Joachim Król), Reinhold’s boss, Franz displays comprehension well beyond Reinhold’s. And the higher Franz climbs, the sooner Reinhold drags him back down to his level. Franz looks for a way out, first through Eva (Annabelle Mandeng), then through Mieze (Jella Haase), the high-class call girl whose been narrating Franz’s story all along. They are, as a series of shots succinctly illustrates, “two souls chained together.”
Sporting wigs and dance moves reminiscent of Anna Karina, Mieze conducts her life with rigorous detachment as a form of protection. Franz upsets that detachment. Mieze upsets Franz’s relationship with Reinhold. And Reinhold’s whistling of “Oh My Darling Clementine” morphs from harmless affectation to sheer dread as the movie hurtles toward the third act.
It’s potent stuff, and Qurbani, working with co-screenwriter Martin Behnke, marry a novelistic structure with the high-octane energy of cinema. The images from Yoshi Heimrath are either bathed in the ghoulish glow of neon or the clear light of day, as references to angels and devils pepper the narration—references not lightly introduced. As the story plays out, it becomes clear that Franz’s last temptation was also his first and only. Maybe it wasn’t even a temptation. As Milton’s Lucifer proclaimed: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
Berlin Alexanderplatz (2020)
Directed by Burhan Qurbani
Written by Martin Behnke, Burhan Qurbani
Adapted from the novel by Alfred Döblin
Produced by Leif Alexis, Jochen Laube, Fabian Maubach
Starring: Welket Bungué, Albrecht Schuch, Jella Haase, Annabelle Mandeng, Joachim Król
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 183 minutes, Opens April 30, 2021 virtually.