Berlin Alexanderplatz fails to build to any climax that would justify its length, instead spinning out into infinity and confusing circuity for world-building.
If Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz — one of the greatest pieces of modernist fiction produced during the 20th century, comparable to such achievements by Joyce or Woolf — is thought to be inextricable from the Weimer era it both surveys and exists within, then Burhan Qurbani’s recent adaptation seeks to dispel such an unbending notion. Where Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 miniseries proffered more interrelated characters in order to thoughtfully condense its sprawling source material, Qurbani’s film is a staunch transposition, reprising iconography, character names, and the book’s narrative skeleton in modern-day Berlin.
Such contemporaneity is overwhelmingly present in the filmmaking itself, the opening scene a flipped-image sequence of a man and a woman struggling not to drown, lit with bloody reds and soundtracked to a low bass rumble that would slot in neatly within the recent work of Hans Zimmer or Ludwig Göransson (the score itself is by Dascha Dauenhauer). The couple are two immigrants from Guinea-Bissau, Francis (Welket Bungué) and Ida (Thola von Hulber), the former being the only one to survive the passage to Germany, washing up on the shore and, in keeping with the novel, pledging himself to a life of decency, after losing his lover. The temptations retain an unimpeachable attractiveness, and some of the attempted benevolence is misguided — following an accident on a construction site where Francis works, he leaves an injured immigrant worker in the care of an ambulance, which will surely lead to the man’s deportation — but the Berlin Alexanderplatz mythos vaporously wends its way through these pitfalls and superficial pleasures, never offering any sort of easy binary to categorize its protagonist’s decisions. However, as is of course his right, Qurbani actively ignores such groundwork, but he can’t have it both ways, inviting comparison after comparison in even the smallest of gestures and visual cues, only to clumsily veer away in more than one instance.
Any sort of malicious influence is shouldered by the character of Reinhold, the womanizing petty criminal who maintains a violently manipulative friendship with Franz — in Qurbani’s adaptation, Reinhold is the one to rechristen Francis (“a girl’s name”) as Franz. Portrayed as a weed-dealing, bleach-tipped fuckboy by Albrecht Schuch, Reinhold is one of Berlin Alexanderplatz’s more creative, modernized liberties taken with Döblin’s text. Schuch is appropriately vampiric, roping in the men of Franz’s boarding house into his drug operation by waving his bills in the air as he gives his recruitment speech.
The appearance of a second-act character in the first hints at an unorthodox shift in focus; Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t a city symphony — in fact, its settings are disappointingly limited — but a two-pronged character study with Berlin as a backdrop. Almost every scene originates from either Reinhold, Franz, or both, as they bounce between their various heists and drug deals, and subsequent celebrations of a job well done at superficially gaudy clubs, a generic and repeated trajectory to telegraph “shallowness.” Lit like one of Nicholas Winding Refn’s puked-up pastiches, Qurbani’s depiction of debauchery is so lifeless that it seems to be encouraging puritanical sympathies, an issue compounded by the relatively diffuse element of guilt that motivates Franz, which is only to be taken at the word of the protagonist, so much so that it becomes something of a nonentity in a film that otherwise defers to such culpability as a storytelling fulcrum.
So, instead of building to any sort of climax to justify its three-hour runtime, Berlin Alexanderplatz spins out into infinity, confusing circuity for world-building. Fassbinder, beholden to the period specifics of his “straight” adaptation, had to largely eschew Döblin’s documentary impulse, a product of an incredible accumulation of research and journaling that was partially attributed to the author also being a doctor. But Qurbani initially appears to be applying such a lens to the Berlin he knows — the construction site is dumbfoundingly real, a monstrosity of industry — only to lose the thread amidst interpersonal relationships that never elucidate nor fascinate. His characters live without specifics, and thus, our sympathies (or lack thereof) are merely occluded, rather than interrogated.