Fresh from its Berlinale premiere earlier this year, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a contemporary twist on Alfred Döblin’s famed 1929 modernist novel of the same name. Afghan-German director Burhan Qurbani distances himself from the historical setting of the source material as well as the previous adaptations – most famous of which is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour television opus. Instead of telling the story of Franz Biberkopf, a recently released white working-class convict plunged into the criminal underground and caught in the groundswell of Nazism, Qurbani updates the narrative to focus on Francis (Welket Bungué), an illegal immigrant from Guinea Bissau who washes up on the shores of Europe. “From now on, I will be good”, he vows, as he makes his way into Berlin. But he’ll soon discover that “it’s not easy to escape the devil once you’ve invited him in”.
So much could have gone wrong in updating the novel’s layered themes and spiritual undercurrents (let alone following in Fassbinder’s footsteps), but to Qurbani and co-screenwriter Martin Behnke’s considerable credit, this shrewdly constructed adaptation composed of five chapters and a (somewhat unnecessary) epilogue is very impressive and never buckles under the cultural weight of the text or its previous adaptations. Some minor wobbles along the way – chiefly the slightly heavy-handed approach to the theme of immigration – are more than made up for by meditations on the theme of (hyper-) masculinity, enough neon lighting to make Nicolas Winding Refn drool himself into a coma, and a trio of scintillating performances. The charismatic Bungué is excellent as Francis, and his performance is bolstered by his co-stars: a superbly cast Jella Haase plays sex worker Mieze and Albretch Schuch is magnetic as the psychopathic gangster Reinhold. Both represent salvation and damnation in the warring pull for our hero’s soul, and the to-and-fro is electric. Schuch in particular is a chilling onscreen villain: the actor flirts with caricature but reins it in enough to deliver a scheming rodent of a Mephistophelian figure, one exudes a chilling blend of erratic menace and psychosexual ambiguity.
Running over three hours, Berlin Alexanderplatz requires patience in its first act, but sustained attention is rewarded with a brilliantly compelling odyssey with ambition to spare. It’s a masterful and frequently moving adaptation that really should have left the Berlinale with a handful of awards under its arms.
Berlin Alexanderplatz / Directed by Burhan Qurbani (Germany, 2020), with Welket Bungué, Jella Haase, Albretch Schuch. Starts July 16.