Burhan Qurbani surprised audiences by delivering an incredible version of the epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz that’s exciting, compelling, touching, fun and thought-provoking – no easy feat with a complicated piece of literature already twice-before adapted.
One could say that doing a film adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s sublime 1929 modernist masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz would be foolhardy at least and impossible at most. Except it’s been done, twice. Once quite commendably in 1931 and again as a masterpiece in 1980 by maestro of the German New Wave, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The first (with Döblin’s assistance), at 90 minutes, stripped away much of literary device that gave the sensation that Biberkopf was in the middle of whirring machine and the second from Fassbinder, at an epic 15 ½ hours, crammed everything in.
It’s must have been a tough undertaking indeed for Afghan-German director Burhan Qurbani to attempt to find middle-ground (sort of) at three hours…. As well as set it in today’s Berlin. Qurbani replaces the working-class ex-con Franz Biberkopf with Francis, a refugee from Bissau who washed up on the shores of Europe after nearly drowning in the ocean, who tries to make his new life in Berlin (although mostly in Hasenheide as Alexanderplatz is kept more in title than actual location).
Berlin Alexanderplatz opens with two heads in the dark, bathed in a glowing red light, about to plunge into the water at the top of the screen. Right from the start we know that Francis’ life is upset down and awash with blood. Francis, just as Franz Biberkopf did, makes an oath to lead a good life – “ein anständiges Leben” and makes his way into Berlin. Without detailing a story that can be found nearly everywhere (Qurbani is fairly faithful to the main plot points – save for the obvious modern liberties and one or two small things), Francis’ oath is mocked as his world is plunged over and over into darkness at a breakneck pace. Be warned: if Francis’ has any joy in this world, he’s not allowed to relish it for long. The audience is reminded as well… “Es ist ein Schnitter, der heißt Tod” says the female voiceover (who we learn is the prostitute Mietze, played by a perfectly cast Jella Haase) we hear over and over. “There is a reaper and he is called Death.” And so we watch Francis dance with this reaper for most of Qurbani’s five-part (plus epilogue) film.
If there’s a reaper waiting, a snake is driving Francis’ to it… Reinhold. True to the book, Reinhold is the devil on Francis’ shoulder manifest – awful to women, duplicitous, murderous, jealous, greedy and scheming. Reinhold’s character gets more screen time than he did in Fassbinder’s version or the book, but what a fantastic choice to do that it was. There hasn’t been perhaps a better performance in this year’s Berlinale than Albrecht Schuch (who some may know as the male lead in System Crasher) as Reinhold. His posture at an s-curve, an almost floating gait and frequent flicks of his tongue make his performance downright serpentine. It may be over-the-top as evil for some, but it is pure delicious fun to watch (the scene where he slithers into bed with Francis’ gave this critic chills).
With Qurbani choosing to change Francis’ status from the marginalized ex-con to the worst you can probably be in Europe, a black man with no visa, it’s tempting to politicize Reinhold himself. Reinhold however is simply evil, and both drives Francis’ tale and makes him the fleshed-out character he should be. Döblin’s Biberkopf was no angel, nor is Francis (Mietze reminds of this, too). Reinhold may be the villain but he’s not the root cause of all of Francis’ trouble. Likewise, it could be said that Mietze, Francis’ sex-worker girlfriend, is the manifestation of good in the film – a comparison that wouldn’t be possible had Qurbani not given more time to both Reinhold and Mietze than Döblin had.
It’s not to say that the film isn’t making commentary on the situation. Qurbani has created a character in one of the most vulnerable positions today and placed him in Germany (a predominantly white country with an extremely troubled past and relationship to “home”). And Qurbani demonstrates this excellently, but not through encounters with far-right parties like the AfD or the bureaucracy of a broken asylum system. Francis’ belongs to the underworld. Qurbani does this through the casual racism of the people around Francis and the futility of his situation. At one point Francis’ ascends in the criminal underworld and attempts to recruit other refugees into the world of drug-dealing. Grandstanding, he coaxes by bragging: he has a job, money, “a German woman, a German car”, and finally ends with “I am Germany, ich bin Deutschland!” not realizing the irony of the predicament he is in. In Döblin’s novel, Germany was impoverished and politically unstable. The interwar period left for turmoil and inflation and an uncertain future for the country’s inhabitants. In 2020, financial instability isn’t the question. Francis is living the ‘German dream’. The viewer can almost feel the nod to the American gangster drama as the lowly henchman rises to the top and achieves the American Dream. A dream of empty wealth, a wealth that carries immense baggage with it.
It must be said, Qurbani’s vision may be one punch in the stomach after another (as is Döblin and Fassbinder’s), but there is one glimmer of hope for people in situations like Francis – embracing their outsider-ness. The truly successful (and morally upstanding) people in the film call themselves “the freaks” in an exquisite cabaret act extolling the “black Amazonian” club owner, the “Transe” (“transgender”) and Francis as well. These are the characters that have risen above an uncaring larger Germany (or world) and by the end, could be Francis’ only redemption.
The world chose another road for Francis, however. And you would do well to choose to travel that road too in Qurbani’s excellent film. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one to watch out for, either at the fest or on screens this year. Der Film will gut sein. And it far exceeds that.