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'Berlin Alexanderplatz': A daring film adaptation screens

Jochen Kürten
July 16, 2020

In a radical departure, the latest cinema adaptation of Alfred Döblin's great Weimar-era novel updates the story with an African refugee as the protagonist.

Filmstill Berlin Alexanderplatz von Burhan Qurbani 2020
Welket Bungué stars in Burhan Qurbani's 2020 film adaptation of Alfred Döblin's "Berlin Alexanderplatz"Image: Imago Images/Prod.DB

In Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf, a working class petty criminal, emerges from Tegel prison into an unforgiving big city. Fast-forward 90 years, and Francis, as the protagonist in this second film adaptation is called, is from Guinea-Bissau and has barely survived the sinking of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean before making his way to Berlin. 

Despite these differing circumstances, both want to start a new life in the German capital. Both long for work, normality, love. As German-Afghani filmmaker Burhan Qurbani said of the novel's key theme when his film adaptation premiered at the Berlinale this year: "His message of human dignity, that we dare to demand a decent life ... was translated into our film.

Contemporary relevance

Now being released late due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film is an epic, contemporary take on the Weimar-era novel with a three-hour running time — unlike the first film adaptation in 1931 that ran just under 90 minutes. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's multipart television version of 1980 was also more in keeping with its literary namesake, reprising the key motifs, themes and plots and delving deeper into the historical context.

Read moreGerman Expressionist cinema revival at the Berlinale

Burhan Qurbani's bold adaptation will likely connect with audiences because for the first time, it is set in the here and now. The protagonist a victim of the contemporary refugee crisis, Berlin Alexanderplatz addresses one of the fundamental issues of our time as Francis flees from West Africa to Europe and winds up in Berlin without asylum papers.

Retaining the core structure

As a stateless person with no work permit, Francis is treated with the same contempt as Franz Biberkopf in Döblin's novel. After he declines an offer to deal drugs in a city park, he is drawn into the world of the criminal Reinhold, a sex addict who tries to corrupt the newcomer. 

But after Francis meets Eva, a club owner, he falls into a love affair with a young escort named Mieze. In this, the basic structure of Qurbani's film follows the three-act original story. What differs are time, characters, and the milieus they move in. 

In an interview with the German Press Agency, Qurbani said the focus was ultimately on the individual: "I think that the book wants to tell us something about people. The book is interested in people and how they move in this juggernaut metropolis."

It is an issue that relevant to Berlin today. "Our film is limited above all to the actual plot: the love triangle, this ménage-à-trois between Franz, Mieze and Reinhold. How they meet, drag on each other. And how Franz Biberkopf must find himself."

Scene from Berlin Alexanderplatz by Burhan Qurbani 2020
An exile in contemporary Berlin finds rare comfort in the demi-mondeImage: Imago Images/Prod.DB

Qurbani: 'Berlin was a dangerous city for me'

According to the director, the story's setting has not changed significantly: "Berlin has lost none of the quality it had in the 1920s or 1930s. We tried to translate that into our film as much as possible."

Reading the book carefully, one recognizes a lot in the filming, Qurbani says. It retains the form and aesthetics of the modernist masterience: "What totally fascinated me was the form of the novel. The montage technique, the wild language Döblin uses, the religious and moral images he builds up."

Burhan Qurbani was born in West Germany — in Erkelenz in North Rhine-Westphalia — after his parents emigrated from Afghanistan in the late 1970s. He moved to Berlin as a teenager. 

Even though Qurbani's life path cannot be compared with that of his main character Francis, his own experiences have been incorporated into the screenplay, which he wrote himself.

"The Berlin I came to was an incredibly dangerous city because there are so many ways to distract oneself and lose oneself," the director said.

Also confronted with a completely different world, Francis is vulnerable, pulled into a journey described as the "dark night of the soul." But because he demands his dignity, his "right to a decent life," he is determined to make a leap of faith into this new alien culture.

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