‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ Review: Reframing an Urban Classic

Alfred Döblin’s masterpiece “Berlin Alexanderplatz” received its most famous dramatization not at the movies but on TV, with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour adaptation in 1980. Burhan Qurbani’s ambitious film by the same name re-centers the Weimar Era original on a 21st-century immigrant from Guinea-Bissau who seeks the straight and narrow but works for a psychopathic drug dealer.

Cash is one reason that Franz (a quietly winning Welket Bungué) stays in the orbit of Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a sniveling underboss who promises newcomers to Berlin a way out of poverty and discrimination. But Franz’s loyalty is rewarded with Reinhold’s sadistic betrayals, which leave Franz near dead and missing half an arm. Reinhold exerts a Svengali-like hold on Franz and the women they know, though the character’s questionable magnetism makes this dynamic increasingly baffling.

The clubs and flats that Franz frequents evoke a Berlin demimonde that’s colorful yet curiously routine. A breathy voice-over attempts to imbue Franz’s travails with a tragic air, but it all just feels like a stew of unheeded warnings and wild missteps. And when Mieze (Jella Haase), a savvy and gemütlich escort, enters as Franz’s possible savior, she proves to be trusting to the point of incredulity (like other female characters in the film).

Qurbani eschews Döblin’s panoramic view of Berlin and urban montage for a steady low fog of despair (until a tacked-on epilogue lets some sunshine in). His “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is a nice place to visit but you might not want to live there for three hours.

Berlin Alexanderplatz
Not rated. In German, with subtitles. Running time: 3 hours 3 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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