Wisconsin Film Festival: Burhan Qurbani’s adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” keeps its stylized stride in the present

This new three-hour update to Fassbinder’s famous 1980 miniseries is an ever-evolving journey.

This new three-hour update to Fassbinder’s famous 1980 miniseries is an ever-evolving journey.

Despite drawing from the same source material as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour theatrically staged epic melodrama, Burhan Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (2020), an official 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival selection (available from May 13 through 20), plays more like City Of God (2002). In lurid neon, Qurbani’s film mixes the aerial photography of Gaspar Noé with a bit of poetic voiceover narration that recalls the work of Terrence Malick.

The protagonist is Francis B (Welket Bungué), a modern update of the 1929 novel’s Franz Bieberkopf. Instead of a Weimar-era convict fresh out of prison, Francis is now a refugee newly arrived in Germany from Guinea-Bisseau. He has done some regrettable things en route to Europe, and promises himself that he will go straight now that he is in a land of opportunity. However, this promise is short-lived. Or, as the narrator relays, “the world didn’t want him to be good.”

Francis’ route to the world outside his refugee housing is Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a persuasive but unstable mid-level drug dealer who offers him a much more lucrative opportunity than being an undocumented construction worker. He has the pretense of keeping his hands clean by serving food to the drug dealers, but not dealing himself. In Reinhold’s world, he allows Francis to keep his pride while enticing him further by sharing everything. This includes his business, his apartment, and even sexual partners, thus drawing Francis closer by obliging him to mitigate situations created by Reinhold’s sociopathic behavior.

Eventually, Francis’ rise leads him to the modern successor to Weimar’s uninhibited dancehall, a Berlin rave where he meets Eva (Annabelle Mandeng), a German woman of Nigerian descent. She tries to protect Francis from the consequences of his ambition, but to no avail. Later, she introduces Mieze (Jella Haase), a sex worker who first begrudgingly nurses him back to health, and then becomes his lover after he helps her get retribution on a violent john.

In contrast to Fassbinder’s sparkling brown and green color palette, Qurbani makes ample use of the modern setting while retaining the loose sexual mores of the source material. In perhaps some parallel thinking with Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side Of Hope (2017), the European everyman is not of European birth. The identity of Berlin that author Alfred Döblin helped solidify in his original 1929 novel is now a haven for artists and hedonists, and home to a world-renowned club scene.

Bisexual lighting abounds, particularly in a key scene that sets up the bond between Francis and Reinhold. Reinhold explains his justification for why he’s so impulsive— normal people shipped him off to reform school, labeled him as “too aggressive,” and left him to fend for himself. In the original novel, Reinhold is one of only two people who Franz truly loves, despite the wrongs done by the former to the latter. That relationship endures with the two men being continually attracted to each other in a way that they can attribute to destiny without having to admit to any kind of sexual component.

Others who observe Francis and Reinhold’s relationship see plainly that Reinhold will only exploit and destroy him, mirroring the historical relationship between Europe and Africa. Reinhold freely acknowledges this, justifying himself by essentially explaining this is just how the world operates. Europe has never paid fairly for resources stripped from other parts of the world, always undercutting the price and therefore necessitating the migration to Europe for a better life. If the global economic system is set up this way, then who can fault him for operating similarly on a smaller scale? Reinhold hopes that by acknowledging his part in the exploitation and offering riches previously out of reach, he can keep Francis anchored to his operation instead of losing him to a more stable and attractive connection with Eva or Mieze. 

The film’s three-hour runtime may seem intimidating at first, but Döblin’s epic modernist narrative is seamlessly updated to a neo-noir crime film that can be appreciated with no previous knowledge of other iterations of the story. There is more Henry Hill than Leo Bloom in Bungué’s performance, which starts and ends with his heavy breathing on his way to a club, or a heist, or wherever his ambition is leading him; it’s honestly exhilarating to keep pace with his journey that never languishes. While preserving the core of the original story, Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz keeps the focus tightly on Francis and those in his orbit while touching upon contemporary social issues.

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