Berlin Alexanderplatz originated as an epic 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin; it’s the story of a man who sinks into an underworld of crime as he tries to create a life for himself and the many ways he tries, unsuccessfully, to extricate himself from it all. As is the industry’s way, it was quickly adapted into a film; a 1931 version was made with the help of Döblin himself. It was another nearly 50 years before it received its next adaptation, this time as a marathon 15-hour production by none other than Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. And now, story gets its most contemporary adaptation to date, as Burhan Qurbani (We are Young. We are Strong) presents an exhaustive (or perhaps more exhausting) version set in contemporary Berlin where the protagonist, Frantz, begins as Francis, an immigrant from Africa who finds himself swept up in a labyrinth of seedy characters, illicit activities and seemingly no way out of any of it.
Welket Bungué is Francis, newly arrived in Berlin from the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau and eager to create a better life than the one he would’ve had at home. He finds work in a factory where other immigrants toil away in dirty, unsafe conditions, quickly learning that it’s more important to stay off the authorities’ radar than, say, call an ambulance for help when a coworker is severely injured by the large, looming machinery. As the men gather on a break one day, an interloper named Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) engages them with stories of prosperity and success. They all deserve so much more than a bed and a slice of buttered bread, don’t they? Reinhold can provide everything they desire—all they have to do is become part of his expansive drug trafficking network in exchange. Francis isn’t terribly inclined to get into drug dealing, so Reinhold allows him to become the chef for his crew, making them lunches so they don’t have to leave their posts in the park where they hustle their illicit substances. Not that this arrangement is agreed to over a civil cup of tea and conversation; far from it. Reinhold, it’s quickly evident, is psychotic, an abuser and manipulator extraordinaire, one who can make anyone he encounters do anything he wants, by charm or force.
Francis soon becomes one of Reinhold’s most trusted and loyal men, the former holding out hope that the latter will get him a German passport as promised, ensuring Francis has some semblance of freedom in this new life of his. When Reinhold asks him to participate in a heist and Francis refuses, his boss’s unchecked brutality results in a gruesome accident that sees Francis lose his forearm entirely. On the mend, he’s sent to live with Mieze (Jella Haase), an escort who initially wants nothing to do with this stranger she’s putting up for the foreseeable future. But the two eventually warm up to each other, and she and Francis, who’s now going by Frantz, become an item, the two of them uniting personally and professionally. As pimp and escort, they begin to earn more money than either of them have ever had and eventually Mieze even finds herself pregnant with Frantz’s child. It’s looking like things might just turn around for these young lovers who’ve been through so much already.
But Berlin Alexanderplatzi has no interest in letting Frantz find the peaceful, law-abiding life he so desires, and so for the film’s seemingly endless three-hour runtime, he is caught up in crime, drama and devastation again and again. And again. And again. Curiously, as the film reaches its final hour, the narrative seems to be less and less about Frantz at all, instead shifting to Reinhold and his maniacal obsession with revenge. Plenty of films succeed as explorations of a troubled, dark mind, but between the inexplicable shift in focus and Reinhold’s general repugnant nature, watching him wreak havoc on Frantz’s and Mieze’s lives is at times more painful than interesting. By the time the story reaches a late, albeit heartbreaking, conclusion in the final act, the slog it’s been to get to such a place hardly makes any of it worth the time it took to get there. With so much to adapt from Döblin’s original work, this version of Berlin Alexanderplatz falls somewhere in the mediocre middle, ultimately exhausting those brave enough to sit down for the full three hours but ironically not long enough to elicit the connections and investment these multifaceted characters deserve. Perhaps Fassbinder’s 15 hours worth of Frantz’s story is the right approach after all.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is now streaming on virtual cinemas, including through Music Box Theatre.
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