‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’: Film Review | Berlin 2020

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Director Burhan Qurbani updates Alfred Doblin’s classic novel as a modern-day gangster story.

It’s a brave young director who has the gumption to revisit Alfred Doblin’s 1929 Weimar Republic classic Berlin Alexanderplatz. A 1931 film version directed by Piel Jutzi was notably followed by Rainer W. Fassbinder’s 15-hour adaptation for German television in 1980, starring Gunter Lamprecht, Barbara Sukowa and Hanna Schygulla. Given that 40 years have passed since Fassbinder’s opus, perhaps it’s time for the current generation to experience some of the novel’s noble seediness in a contemporary idiom. This is the task Afghan-born, German-based director Burhan Qurbani (We Are Young. We Are Strong) sets himself — with very mixed results — in the newest version, which premiered in competition at Berlin.

In the revisitation written by Qurbani and Martin Behnke, which clocks in at a serious three hours, the major innovation is to set the story in the present day, among African immigrants in Berlin, jolting it into a very different arena compared to its predecessors. Still, it retains some of the book’s very grandiose ideas about the nature of good and evil and what it means to be a man — heavy concepts that are likely to find more acceptance with German audiences than elsewhere.

A criminal gang of drug pushers who deal in Hasenheide park is masterminded by the bland, old-style German gangster Pums (Joachim Król). His colorful right-hand man is the psychopath Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a snake-like wraith whose twisted arm mirrors his twisted mind. He visits the community housing where the stateless arrivals from Africa live to pick new pushers from the endless supply of young men who want to work legally but find all doors closed.   

Standing out from the others in the dorm, both physically and for his proud character and dangerous temper, is tall, statuesque Francis, played by the striking Portuguese-Guinean theater actor Welket Bungué. He has barely survived a boat trip from West Africa, in which his companion Ida tragically perished, and he is tormented by survivor’s guilt and a hunger to make a new life for himself in Germany.

At first he resists Reinhold’s insidious offer to earn big money and get an apartment and a car by dealing drugs, yet he finds himself drawn into his inner circle as if by fate. As a portentous offscreen narrator (later revealed to be the call girl Mieze) keeps repeating, Francis wants to lead a good life, but they won’t let him. This kind of fatalism oozing with self-pity becomes grating after a while, especially as it ignores the role played by Francis’s blinding temper and his unbelievable naivete, which prevents him from seeing Reinhold for the demon he is.   

But it is certainly true that the immigrants (Francis hates to be called a refugee) have their backs to the wall and can’t sit around doing nothing indefinitely. Soon we find him knocking on Reinhold’s door after a nasty incident on a construction site. Reinhold recognizes something special in this towering African, whom he renames Franz, just like Doblin’s hero Franz Biberkopf. In the beginning, he gives him room and board in exchange for cooking lunch for his pushers and helping him out with his girlfriends. Reinhold’s attitude toward women is noxious: he seduces them easily but soon tires of them; Franz is supposed to offer them sex and get them off his back so he can bring new ones home.

These sad, victimized, sex-starved women seem to come out of a sick male fantasy, however, and they are far from convincing — more like straw figures in a high-stakes battle to see whether Good or Evil will win Franz’s soul. He actually uses words like soul, spirit and heart to describe what he feels is at stake. And yet a man capable of this kind of introspection should be able to see the trap he keeps walking into when he teams up with pal Reinhold. It’s the major contradiction in Bungué’s otherwise impressive construction of Franz’s character, and it just refuses to go away. As Reinhold, Schuch (a versatile actor who was memorable as the compassionate educator in System Crasher) is just as mythic but more coherent, a Faustian devil who seems to intuit his victim’s every weakness.

One night, Franz meets the beautiful Nigerian club owner Eva (Annabelle Mandeng), who is instantly attracted to him. But before they can get very far, he’s taken for a joy ride by Pums that ends in ramming the car into a jewelry store, just for fun. When the cops start chasing them, Reinhold pushes Franz out of the car and he is run over, losing one of his arms.

And still he doesn’t completely break with the psycho.

In the film’s last hour, Franz meets the soft blonde Mieze (Jella Haase), a prostitute with a child’s innocent face and the proverbial heart of gold. They fall in love, but there is no way the finale can be anything other than Greek tragedy. Franz unwisely shares his happy plans for the future with the diabolical Reinhold, who plots how he can destroy the naive youth once and for all. The final scenes, the film’s most successful, really do feel like destiny is sweeping the action along to its terrifying conclusion. (The epilogue can be discounted.)

Production companies: Sommerhaus Filmproduktion in association with Lemming Film, ZDF und Arte
Cast: Welket Bungué, Jella Haase, Albrecht Schuch, Joachim Król, Annabelle Mandeng, Nils Verkooijen, Richard Fouofie Djimeli, Thelma Buabeng, Faris Saleh, Michael Davies
Director: Burhan Qurbani
Screenwriters: Martin Behnke, Burhan Qurbani
Producers: Leif Alexis, Jochen Laube, Fabian Maubach
Co-producers: Leontine Petit, Erik Glijnias
Director of photography: Yoshi Heimrath
Production designer: Silke Buhr
Costume designer: Anna Wubber
Editor: Philipp Thomas
Music: Dascha Dauenhauer
Casting director: Suse Marquardt, Alexandra Koknat
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Beta Cinema

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