There’s not a lot about Burhan Qurbani’s updating of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” that declares itself “adapted from one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.”
It’s stately and long — nearly three hours. But Rainer Werner Fassbender’s definitive 1980 version, for German TV, ran for over 15 hours and was shown in theaters over multiple nights in the US.
Reduced in scale and stripped of the moment-in-time poignancy of Alfred Döblin’s Weimar (“Cabaret” without Liza) gangland morality tale, it seems more run-of-the-mill than intended.
But Qurbani — “We Are Young. We Are Strong” was his — gives his version a cable-news-headlines currency, making our anti-heroic hero “Franz” into “Francis (Welket Bungué), a traumatized immigrant from Bissau on the west coast of Africa.
His transition, from troubled, exploited and unwanted Francis to gangland player Franz may seem genre picture routine, with grim flashbacks and overt oxen symbolism reminding us that Döblin set his 1920s story in a poor neighborhood previously known for its cattle pens. But it’s still an arresting slice-of-underworld-life tale, as lurid and seamy as ever.
Francis loses his unpermitted subway building job thanks to his temper and morality. He insists on summoning a doctor to help a gravely injured colleague. It’s what the man falls into that makes his story interesting.
His journey began “washed up on the shores of a new life,” as the unnecessary voice over narration notes. But it truly picks up when he hears the pitch of fey, faintly insulting and almost thoroughly-corrupt Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch). Others may tell Francis “This isn’t for you” or “You’re not a real man.” Reinhold tells all the Africans crammed into their apartment, “You deserve more from life.”
Francis finds himself cooking meals for Reinhold’s vast drug-trade street team, a well-oiled machine consisting of “the cash boys,” “the stash boys,” “the couriers” and “the scouts,” moving from group to group with a baby stroller filled with today’s freshly-cooked African cuisine.
As he is befriended, used and abused by Reinhold, he faces up to sexual guilt and uncertainty (someone drowned with him on the way to Europe) dealing with Reinhold’s “girls,” and earns some standing with the racist boss-of-bosses, the much-older Pums (Joachim Król).
Francis completes his journey to Franz when he meets the successful, imperious but sympathetic Nigerian club-owner/madam Eva (Annabelle Mandeng) and is “saved” by the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Mieze (Jella Haase).
But are there ever happy endings in “Berlin Alexanderplatz?”
Bungué makes a compelling, confused lead. We spend much of the first two “parts” of this five-part story wondering if he’s gay and confused or guilt-ridden by the drowning-nightmares that fill his nights.
Haase and Mandeng make terrific female foils, women with agency and the smarts to see what Francis/Franz may not, that Reinhold is nobody’s friend.
But if this tale depends on a complex, cruel-to-be-kind villain, Schuch more than fills the bill, an Iago to Franz’s Othello. His affected, effeminate stoop and way of keeping one hand on his hip suggests “underestimate me.” His motivations aren’t the clearest, based on the movie.
Which underscores the film’s overarching weakness. As familiar as such rise-and-fall tales are, “Alexanderplatz” leans on the invisible novel that’s not entirely lost in this adaptation. It’s as if Qurbani expects the viewer to know Döblin and Fassbender’s texts as canon. In Germany, this may very well be the case.
But it’s been a long time since I plowed through the Fassbender film, and two generations have come along, outside of Germany, who have no acquaintance with it or the novel (recently given a readable and faithful English translation).
That renders this saga into a skimming of that book, and a rehash of dozens of Hollywood films of the same genre and structure. Its power to move and shock is reduced accordingly.
The filmmaker has boiled it down to make it practical and watchable, and updated “Berlin Alexanderplatz” to make it topical. But he’s lost too much of what made it special.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity, drug abuse
Cast: Welket Bungué, Albrecht Schuch, Jella Haase, Annabelle Mandeng and Joachim Król
Credits: Directed by Burhan Qurbani, script by Martin Behnke and Burhan Qurbani, based on the novel by Alfred Döblin. A Kino Lorber (April 30) release.
Running time: 2:55