Alfred Döblin’ controversial 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz is regarded as one of the most original and influential books of the 20th Century. Set in the titular working-class Berlin neighborhood, it utilizes a wide variety of stylistic techniques from multiple narrators to songs and newspaper articles, as it follows the dire misadventures of Franz, a criminal released from prison, to discover misery and hopelessness. It’s been faithfully adapted for the screen by director Piel Jutzi, with Döblin’s help, in 1931, as well as by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980, who turned it into the instant-classic 14-part crime miniseries.
Burhan Qurbani takes another stab at a film adaptation. The director makes several bold moves in an attempt to make the story topical. Now named Francis (Welket Bungué), the protagonist is an undocumented Black immigrant from Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. Oddly enough, the film achieves the exact opposite effect, feeling outdated and out-of-tune with contemporary audiences. Running at three hours, Martin Behnke and Burhan Qurbani’s screenplay is indulgent to the extreme, basking in its excesses.
“...an undocumented Black immigrant…becomes a migrant worker for a crappy boss…”
Split into several parts, the film follows Francis’s frenzied journey, from the moment he steps foot on German soil and becomes a migrant worker for a crappy boss, through his friendship/rivalry with low-level drug dealer Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch). The path is predictable and extremely protracted, but Qurbani is a skilled enough director to hold our interest, even when his film goes off the rails.
Whether it’s purposeful or not, the depiction of minorities is grating. Lines like, “All Arabs are retards,” or “You can’t throw your n*****s out of your car if they don’t obey you,” plus multiple referrals to Francis as a gorilla, may bewilder audiences. The film doesn’t delve deep enough into the nuances and implications of the immigrant experience to get away with the slurs.
"…I'm not sure if it's a good performance, but it owns the film."