The over-arching question in BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ is how to be a good man in a society that’s corrupt and wicked. In the novel, Franz Biberkopf killed his wife in drunken rage. He knows he can’t atone for it but, after serving his sentence, he desperately wants to live the rest of his life as a good man. What the novel then dramatizes in its detailed, montage-y, kaleidoscopic and cacophonous manner is the impossibility of such a quest in a society’s whose single-minded pursuit of profit reifies and dehumanises. Biberkopf won’t be allowed to be a man at all much less a good one. Ideas of masculinity and goodness are intertwined and central to the novel’s drama and its critique.
The strength of the narrative through-line, and the elasticity of its central, now archetypal characters, is evidenced in Burhan Qurban’s 2020 adaptation. Franz (Welket Bungué) , formerly Francis, an undocumented refugee from Guinea-Bissau, arrives in Germany having seen and done terrible things to get there but now determined to be good. The impossibility of that is narrated by Mieze (Jella Haase), the woman he loves and who he ends up pimping. Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) is here a misogynistic repressed homosexual with an unacknowledged desire for Franz and an active hankering to impede every happiness that’s not shared with him. The world they move in is one of human trafficking, drugs and sex work. And it’s one that’s updated from the novel to include people of colour and an expanded range sexual identities (there’s an important trans character).
It’s a very slick film told in five episodes lasting over three hours. It’s a pleasure to see but ultimately unsatisfying. Whilst the filmmakers do an interesting job of reinterpreting the world and the characters in terms of race and sexuality, they’ve not quite updated the attitudes to gender. Thus practically every woman we see in the film is a prostitute. Of course, we are seeing a particular world, but they could have made Pums, the gang leader a woman, or had women drug-dealers or nightclub owners. It’s a problem and creates a particular tension in the film, one somewhat mitigated by having Mieze narrate. Though this tension between Mieze’s narration and what happens to Franz also sadly sideswipes the particular sexual fetishization involved in black masculinities in a white culture. It’s not acknowledged therefore the film can’t dramatize how Mieze and Fritz negotiate such questions between themselves to arrive at a more personal and human interaction. Lastly, the film also has a utopian epilogue that seems to betray everything the film (and the original novel) has been about. That said, a very interesting work that I’m very glad I saw and recommend.
Those of you interested in comparing the novel, the 1931 version, and the TV series will enjoy this lively and informative discussion between Peter Jelavich and Johannes Binotto. Jelavich considers the Qurban 2020 version a masterpiece: