Film Scouts Buzz

1997 Sundance Film Festival Buzz
Alexanderplatz: A Book of Berlin

by Karen Jaehne

Behind Fassbinder's 14-hour "Berlin Alexanderplatz" lies a 635-page epic called "Alexanderplatz, Berlin" and written by Alfred Döblin in 1929. (An English translation was published in 1983 by Ungar, with the title as in the film.)

The year 1929 brought not only the Great Depression, but also several literary manifestations of the times. Among them is Döblin's portrait of Berlin at the height of its decadence and as the first city to experience "urban sprawl". Berlin was a city that grew fast and furiously in the last half of the 19th century. The industrial revolution required a mass of laborers who soon typified the alienation and disorientation of working in one part of a city and being banished after work hours to the margins of the city - and society.

Alfred Döblin was a doctor and, as he commented after the novel became a bestseller, "My profession necessitated a certain contact with criminals." (And he didn't mean other doctors). Döblin was also a socialist and political activist with the vision to write about social injustice, harnessing the new forms offered by cinema.

"Berlin Alexanderplatz" was often compared to James Joyce's work, which initially irritated Döblin, who had been born in 1878, four years before Joyce. Döblin pointed out the obvious: visions and experiences of the world are often similar - the result of what the Germans call "Zeitgeist" (spirit of the time) and may be generated by the same social forces in different places. He also confessed ignorance of Joyce's work during the first quarter of his novel, but "later certainly his work was wind for my sails, as I have often written and said."

After being rejected by three publishers, Döblin found someone who did not think a novel about a city had to imitate Zola. The popularity of the novel spread to cities outside Germany and within five years it had been translated into eight languages. An early film was made of it starring Heinrich George as Franz Biberkopf.

Döblin often said that cinema was the lingua franca of his time, a language that communicated the spirit of the Futurist movement, another movement known as Mechanism (product of the Bauhaus), and Surrealism. Berlin was a hotbed of artistic and political movements, something Döblin tried to communicate with his novel - without making it "about" art or politics. Like Bertolt Brecht, Döblin recognized in the very structure of the modern city the potential for crimes both public and private.

When East Germany still existed (and when Fassbinder's film was made), Alexanderplatz was the heart of East Berlin, enshrined as the workers' square. That area of Berlin had always been a working class neighborhood with a huge police station nearby. It was a quarter where the outcasts, immigrants and displaced persons hung out, hoping against hope that somebody would care for them. That's what Döblin's book was about - and what all of Fassbinder's films were about, making him the ideal interpreter of the great Berlin novel about the great Berlin underclass.

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