The twin pillars of Alfred Döblin’s epochal 480-page 1929 German-language novel and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s deeply influential 15-hour miniseries, first broadcast in 1980, together create an overarching shadow from which Burhan Qurbani’s relatively svelte three-hour contemporary reworking of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” struggles to escape.
Although promising a deep-cut dash of contemporary topicality by reimagining the main character as an undocumented African immigrant, there is the sense that the unimpeachable craft and performances — especially from rivetingly charismatic lead Welket Bungué — ultimately add up to just too slick a package. Qurbani’s take starts off confident in the newness of its approach but soon comes to operate as a well-oiled, smoothly functioning machine for the manufacture of bad luck, fatal flaws and tragic, poetic justice. It misses out on the source material’s caustic, messy edge: the way the grime of the very Berlin streets can work itself like grit into the gears of fate.
Divided into five parts (and a deeply inadvisable epilogue) and narrated poetically, ethereally in Jella Haase’s dulcet, musical German, we’re warned at the outset that the film will bear witness to the three times that Francis (Bungué), a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, will stumble in his attempt to become a good man. This we’re told over powerful, abstract scenes representing Francis’ metaphorical rebirth, choking with seawater and “dripping with the sins of the past,” on the shores of some European country. Soon he is in Germany, staying in a flophouse/hostel with scores of other immigrants, working a low-paid construction job for a racist foreman. When his friend Ottu (Richard Fouofié Djimeli) sacrifices Francis’ job to save those of the rest of the crew, Francis is driven into the orbit of Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a local drug dealer who relies on the African hostel residents as his crew.
Francis resists dealing initially, instead making himself useful to Reinhold by cooking meals for his dealers and calming down the girls that Reinhold takes back to his apartment almost nightly, only to turn violent in his disgust towards them. This fairly stable state of affairs ends, however, when Reinhold insists on Francis coming along on a clown-masked ram-raiding spree organized by his boss Pums (Joachim Król, appropriately colorless), while Francis also meets Eva (Annabelle Mandeng), a nightclub owner with whom he strikes up a relationship. Reinhold’s growing jealousy leads to an incident in which Francis loses an arm (thus mirroring Reinhold’s twisted arm, in an underdeveloped parallel), which in turn leads to him meeting Mieze (Jella Haase), a successful escort who cares for him as he recuperates. Mieze and Francis fall in love, and of course beckoning domestic contentment for Francis only increases the sociopathic Reinhold’s envy and volatility.
It’s never very clear whether Reinhold’s jealousy is on account of Francis’ professional success, personal life or out of thwarted homosexual desire. And while that’s a promising ambiguity that could lend the film some provocative, even transgressive textures, the queer subtext — like all subtext — feels curiously undernourished. The episodic, sometimes almost soap-operatic nature of Qurbani’s storytelling sacrifices a great deal of thematic depth for a great deal of eventing instead.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz,” however, is a treat to listen to, with a clever ragged-breathing motif worked into Dascha Dauenhauer’s remarkably wide-ranging score, that flexes acrobatically from ear-ringing electro to haunted flutes to pounding house, while Reinhold’s presence is usually sonically indicated by the buzzing of a fly. And it is almost inappropriately pleasurable to look at: The attractive actors are flattered by scrupulously hip production and costume design, lit in pulsating hot-pink filters, and tracked smoothly through parks and clubs and brothels in the sinuous following shots of Yoshi Heimrath’s glossy, neon-lit photography.
But despite the assiduously correct locations dressed to evoke the graffiti-raddled walls of Berlin in all their grimy glory, the film presents a strangely Teflon-coated view of the city. It sometimes feels like the four or five characters at the heart of the story are the only people who exist within the city limits. So while drug dealing scenes, set in Hasenheide park, seem to come from actual Berlin in the late-2010s (when the turf rivalry between Arab and African gangs became a well-known facet of the city’s drug trade), that recognizably real-life city only ever appears for brief moments. Like when Reinhold, listing off the trade’s guidelines, tells Francis, “No selling to pregnant women … and hipsters pay double” (a line that garnered the one big, knowing laugh at the film’s Berlin press screening). But elsewhere, in the battle between the mythic resonances that Qurbani and co-writer Martin Behnke have identified in Döblin’s text, and the prosaic reality of gray, unromantic Berlin, the former always wins out.
Despite Bungué’s magnetism (which is also a drawback — his palpable air of intelligence makes us wonder why it takes him so very, very long to notice that his best friend is a raging psycho), the immigration issue feels like an insertion rather than a fundamental addition. Moments of explicit verbal abuse from already villainous characters, and one uncomfortable scene when Francis becomes complicit in his own degradation by dressing up in a parodic tribal costume, hardly amount to incisive commentary on the systemic racism immigrants like Francis do face. But then any sense of wider politics in general is absent here, a casualty of the apparent evaporation of the millions of other lives being lived in this bustling modern metropolis.
The main conflict, when it finally arrives, feels not so much born of contemporary urban Berlin, nor even that of Döblin or Fassbinder. It mostly feels Shakespearean, complete with Greek-chorus narration, and Reinhold as the reptilian Iago hissing poison into the noble but flawed Black prince’s ear. And while that’s hardly an embarrassing comparison, it is a curiously classical one. For a film that is supposed to be a contemporary update, it can feel — especially in its ill-fated female characters, who are almost all either sex workers or one-night stands of Reinhold’s — weirdly out of date. “Men like me have gone out of fashion,” says Pums at one point, and it will take more than a snazzy new set of clothes to complete the overhaul that Qurbani bravely, handsomely, but a little foolhardily attempts.