Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the year’s most talked-about films, a gritty adaption of Alfred Döblin’s classic 1929 novel. Set in modern Berlin, it follows an illegal immigrant called Francis (played by Welket Bungué) on his quest to become “good”. The film’s Afghan-German director Burhan Qurbani turned a classic tale into a cutting-edge, future classic, touching on themes like masculinity and immigration throughout a story that’s more relevant than ever.
The film premiered to much acclaim at this year’s Berlinale in February, but the coronavirus delayed its release. It’s finally in cinemas, so we sent filmmaker Yony Leyser to ask its talented director a few questions.
How does one take on Fassbinder, one of Germany’s most legendary directors, and turn one of Germany’s most legendary books into a three-hour film? That must take a lot of courage.
I think it was more ignorance than courage. I was aware of Fassbinder – he’s an icon of German film – but I was never a big fan. I love some of his movies, but he often worked very sloppily, and I was never a fan of the Berlin Alexanderplatz series. It didn’t have this aura of greatness for me. I was more afraid of the novel, and how to find the right filmic vessel to transport the story.
What was the adaptation process like?
We took the novel apart and realised that with the experimentation, the stream of consciousness technique, the technique of collages and editing different sensual experiences, he was copying what was a very new artistic medium at the time: film. And the techniques he used are nowadays part of modern film. So by making a film from the book, we already took a lot of his craft into the film. But it was also about reducing and trying to find the core story of the novel, which for us was about somebody who is traumatised from fleeing. He loses his dignity, and struggles to regain it and find himself in the centre of society
The film is so Berlin. It’s Berlin in the 1920s and Berlin today, and an example of the connection between those two periods. How did you tie the 1920s into the modern narrative?
That was one of the biggest challenges in regard to the fears and responsibilities towards the novel. We knew we didn’t want to set it as a period piece. So, if we set it here we have to find some parallels. We have to build a world which is between the novel and our time. I came to Berlin in 2006, and it was overwhelming. I came from a quite rigorous city, Stuttgart, with very rigorous studies. I arrived in a city where there were parties every night and lots of drugs. I just went with the flow for a while and it was beautiful, and then I realised one day that I was losing myself.
We try to establish this feeling of getting lost in Berlin in the film. There are so many layers. You can live in the migrant community and never leave it, and never speak a word of German. You can be part of the expat community and also live here without ever speaking a word of German. You can work in a bar and never speak a word of German. On the other hand, you have the outskirts that are still very German. Expats or migrants are not so welcome there. So you have these two extremes, and in the middle everything is possible. I remember that when I arrived here there were still a lot of empty spaces, and they were sucking all the energy. If you don’t have a goal in Berlin, you will get lost.
And how did you do the casting? It was a beautiful cast.
My cast always ends up being much more beautiful than I have in my mind when I start. To find Albrecht [Schuch] and Jella [Haase] wasn’t so hard because they were in my mind when we started casting. It turned out that they were perfect for the roles. With Welket [Bungué], the first idea was to work with a non-professional, maybe someone who is a refugee themselves. But we realised that was too much, emotionally, to ask from a person to go through this kind of journey. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t save them if something were to happen within them.
So, then we were looking for actors in Germany, but we didn’t find anyone who had the spark. We went to France, Benelux, England and even flew in an actor from South Africa. But none of them compared to Welket, because he also has humanity and wisdom. He directed himself and brought so much into the story. You rarely find someone who can elevate your work to the next level
I liked the psychosexual tension between the film’s two male characters. Was that intentional?
It’s actually said in the novel. Reinhold, the character, is hyper-sexual. In most of the novel, he has heterosexual relationships. But in the end he falls in love in jail. I think there is certain ambiguity in the novel, but for us it was important to tell this ambiguity without directly putting a finger on it. For me, or maybe it is a Berlin thing, sexual ambiguity is part of everyday life. To be queer or bicurious is nothing special anymore. Why should we treat is as something special? Let’s keep it as bland as it is.
The structures of the industry are still 90 percent white, West German males. I think that this has to change.
Your main character didn’t follow the rules of how a refugee “should be” in the German eye. How did you get that interpretation, how did you decide to develop that character?
Because of my own experiences and state of mind in Germany, I tend to write stories about strangers who find themselves in strange places. So, my first film, Shahada, was about the Muslim community struggling in Berlin. The second film, even if it had a Vietnamese storyline, was about some East German boys who woke up and Germany was not a country anymore. They were strangers in a strange land. And now it was a logical step to tell a story of someone who’s stranded and tries to find their way from the outskirts of society to the centre of society. But did he succeed in that? Well, if you want to spoil it – and I think we can – the ending of my film is what is most critically discussed. I made a very clear choice for a happy ending, almost like a utopia of arriving. Because I think, especially nowadays with the AfD and other populist and right-wing forces getting stronger, I decided to sacrifice the more elegant ending for one that has more meaning to myself and the character.
What kind of feedback have the actors received? Do you think moving forward there will be more post-migrant cinema?
In numbers, over 20 percent of Germans have a migration background. We are already an Einwanderergesellschaft, a melting pot. We’re not there yet consciously, but we are a melting pot. And I think the film industry, like every other narrative industry, is adapting to that now. But the structures of the industry are still 90 percent white, West German males. I think that this has to change, and only then there will be a place for post-migrant cinema.
I saw a picture of you together with your mother and grandmother after the release. What was their reaction?
My mother’s first reaction was at the premiere. She hugged me with a smile and then said, “Your film is dirty” in Farsi. But my mother is one of the most emotionally agile people I know. Her journey fleeing Afghanistan and life in Germany forced her to be very agile, and she always managed that. She’s watched it a second time and finds it much less “dirty”. But I also have to respect that there are some people, and my mother is over 60, who are maybe not able to completely grasp or appreciate what I have done. But I stopped making films for my mother when I was in my twenties, so it’s okay.
Very few films in Germany have a person of colour in the lead role, and you put an African immigrant at the centre of your story. How was the reaction to that?
There were people in the beginning who were asked if it was possible to identify with and feel empathy for the black main character? Of course it was possible. That’s our job as filmmakers, and if it doesn’t work it has nothing to do with the skin colour of the main character – it has to do with our abilities as filmmakers and storytellers.
I’m able to watch a Pixar movie where dolls come to life and I find myself crying. Why shouldn’t that be possible with a human being, no matter how much melanin is in his skin? Although there were those doubts, we had a very different reaction. People were very moved, or at least the ones we were able to speak to, and could very much identify with the character and go with him on his journey. And again, I think that’s part of our trade. We have to create an “ultimate empathy” to reach our audience. The main character isn’t perfect. Some people have mentioned that it’s not the image they want or expect from a refugee. There seems to be a certain white supremacy to that idea.
I grew up with American cinema and the new Hollywood films like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface. And they all tell refugee stories set in a criminal parallel universe.
I grew up with American cinema and the new Hollywood films like The Godfather, Goodfellas and, especially, Scarface. And they all tell refugee stories set in a criminal parallel universe. They still manage to give us a reflection, a mirror of the American society. I love The Godfather for its beginning, the first line in the movie is: “I believe in America”. And I think that the crime setting that we chose is a very common way to tell stories about where our societies fail, and I think it’s completely legitimate to do that. Our main character has agency. He’s not perfect but he makes his own decisions. He’s a deep character and we understand why he’s driven to do what he does. So, you might criticise the surroundings, but then you didn’t understand the movie, nor the three-dimensional character who’s able to touch you.
Are you working on a new project or do you need time to decompress?
During the Berlinale, I had an interview with an American or English newspaper, and they asked me that. And I remember I was not at all at a point to answer that question correctly. And I said I’ll do a trilogy inspired by Kieślowski’s Three Colours of France trilogy, and I’m just going to do it with Germany. He took liberté, égalité, fraternité and the three colours of their flag, and I’m doing the same with Germany, which is unity, justice and freedom. And I’m going to make three films about that.