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Berlin Alexanderplatz

Franz Biberkopf becomes an African refugee struggling to settle into modern-day Germany, in this astounding adaptation of Alfred Döblin's classic - live from the Berlinale


The weight of the responsibility on the shoulders of 39-year-old Afghan-German film director Burhan Qurbani is no less than gigantic. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a screen adaptation of one of the most innovative German novels ever written, and the one most closely associated with the nation’s capital, penned by Alfred Döblin in 1929. Even more crucially, the book had been previously turned into a film in 1980 by not less than Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The 40-year-old production had a mammoth budget of 13 million DM, a record at the time, and the late Bavarian director considered it his masterpiece (he claimed: “I am Franz Biberkopf, in reference to the film’s protagonist). Fassbinder’s 15.5-hour epic is one of my favourite movies of all times. Plus the film premiered at prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, in the heart of the very city where the action takes place. That’s why I walked into the cinema with very high expectations, and a very sharp eye prepared to challenge and criticise every little detail. I was not disappointed, and I doubt that Fassbinder and Döblin would.

In Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf becomes Francis from Bissau (Welket Bungué), a Portuguese-speaking refugee living in the German capital. The Tegel Prison from which Franz Biberkopf is released in the beginning of the 1929 story becomes the Atlantic Ocean. That’s because Francis departed from the coastal African nation of Guinea-Bissau by sea, in a dangerous and deadly journey familiar to many African refugees.

This is not a pointless remake. This is an audacious film that places a 100-year-old story in an entirely new context. And it all fits together incredibly well. Perhaps that’s because the plight and the stigma of an African refugee in modern-day Europe isn’t too different from the plight and the stigma of a former inmate. It’s as if Francis had committed a horrific misdeed, except that immigration isn’t a crime at all.

Francis befriends Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a dealer working for the drug lord Pums (Joachim Król). But Francis does not wish to get involved in the illegal trade, and so he merely cooks for the gang. The pressures for him to corrupt himself, however, are enormous. It’s borderline impossible for a vulnerable refugee to survive without breaking the law. Reinhold resents Francis’s reluctance to support his criminal activities and attempts to kill him, throwing him off a moving vehicle but instead Francis just loses an arm.

Despite his disability, which has a strong impact on his morale (he feels like “half a man”, he confesses), Francis begins a relationship with the beautiful prostitute Mieze (Jella Haase). He forgives Reinhold and eventually deep dives into the criminal trade, having now given up his intention to stay “pure”. But Reinhold is a selfish and deceitful psychopath. Unbeknownst to Francis, his best friend envies his relationship with Mieze, and he will do everything within his reach in order to destroy it.

As Francis progressively fits into German society, he encourages recently-arrived refugees to embrace their newfound national identity wholeheartedly, in the same way he did. He acquires a German passport under the name “Francisco Cabeca de Castor” (Portuguese for “Franz Biberkopf”). It’s as if Francis was saying: “The new German is foreign-born, foreign-speaking and black”. This is a very transgressive and courageous statement. While Brits have been debating for years whether their national film hero James Bond could be black, Germans moved one step ahead and put a African actor to play the movie character most closely associated with their capital.

Qurbani enjoyed some advantages that Fassbinder did not in 1980. Firstly, he could shoot in the actual Berlin Alexanderplatz area. Fassbinder couldn’t do that because Berlin Alexanderplatz was under communist rule 40 years ago, and therefore not accessible for Western filmmakers. Plus, digital technology has helped to make Francis’s amputation far more visible and credible. In the old film, the actor Günter Lamprecht had to wear a shirt the entire time, even when he was alone at home. This time, the wound is graphic and vivid for viewers to see.

Modern-day Berlin has many similarities to the Berlin of the Weimar Republic depicted in the book and the 1980 movie. The Golden Twensties were a time of sexual freedom and transgressive artistic expression, and the German capital possesses these qualities at present. The fetish clubs described in the novel are conspicuous is Qurbani’s film, just like in reality. The slaughterhouse and slaughter analogies are also present. The director opts for voice-overs for the most lyrical parts of the book, without ever slipping into cliches and platitudes (a very common pitfall when portraying brothels and such).

I do miss some elements that Fassbinder that explored in a lot more detail. such as the various lovers that Reinhold and Franz shared, the profound friendship between Franz and Eva (Annabelle Mandeng) and Reinhold’s homosexual tendencies. But I can’t hold that against Qurbani. You can’t do in just three hours what someone else did in 15.5.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is showing in Competition at the 70th Berlinale. An instant classic, and a fitting tribute to the German capital, cinema and literature. Plus a timely commentary on fast-shifting national identity of the Teutonic nation. It’s a very strong contender for the Golden Bear, and I will be rooting for it.

By Victor Fraga - 27-02-2020

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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