Review by Sean Boelman
There has already been an iconic screen adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s acclaimed novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, so viewers are left to ask why there was a need to adapt it again. A modernized take on the epic crime saga, Burhan Qurbani’s vision of the source material is interesting, even if it isn’t as unique as he would have hoped.
The film follows a refugee living in Berlin who is drawn into a life of crime after befriending a drug dealer. To give credit where credit is due, Döblin’s novel — which came out in 1929 — set the bar for tragic crime stories such as this. However, this is an arc that has been told this way so many times before.
Qurbani and Martin Behnke have changed the protagonist from being a disillusioned ex-con to a disillusioned refugee in order to make the story feel a bit more timely. Although this does provide some interesting commentary on the hostility that Germany has towards immigrants, it also makes this classic story feel like an imitation of itself.
At three hours in length, the movie is much shorter than Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic television adaptation of the novel, and it moves along pretty nicely. Qurbani has figured out how to build and sustain tension through drama without making it feel overly soapy. The shocking moments don’t quite shock because of their familiarity, but they are entertaining nonetheless.
The character development in the film is what is lacking. All of these characters feel like stereotypes. Francis is the cliched refugee who wanted to make himself a new, better life, but ends up in even deeper trouble than before. Mieze is the prostitute with a heart of gold, whose only purpose is to push along the character’s arc. For a movie that wants to be socially conscious, it’s frustrating to see such reductive characters.
That said, the performances in the film are absolutely astounding. Welket Bungué is phenomenal as the lead. He does such a great job of commanding the screen and carrying the emotional weight of the movie. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Albrecht Schuch gives a slightly hammy performance as his drug dealing accomplice, and it works.
The film is also visually wonderful. The cinematography by Yoshi Heimrath is drenched in neon in a way that creates a dreamlike but not soothing feel. This, contrasted with the harsh reality of the Berlin streets on which much of the movie’s action takes place, is a unique tone that fits the project quite well.
Berlin Alexanderplatz impresses in many regards but falls flat in others. Ultimately, it’s another arguably unnecessary attempt at re-adapting classic source material, even if it does have its own merits.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is now in theaters and virtual cinemas. A list of participating locations can be found here.