Berlin Alexanderplatz is a 2020 film adaptation of a 1929 novel by German novelist, Alfred Döblin. Without any context, this three-hour film will seem like a strange, problematic, and sometimes confusing story about an immigrant trying to succeed in life, and even with the context, it still pretty much is. The major difference between the 2020 Francis/Franz character and the previous versions are his skin color and native country. While there are some entertaining elements throughout this film, it ultimately reverts to the all-too-familiar representation of men and women even with the added modern immigrant lens.
The film opens with brief, disorienting cuts of Francis and a woman struggling in the ocean. Then, Francis washes up on a beach alone in a new country. We find ourselves at a German hostel with him, struggling to make it in this new country without any proper documentation, and when his so-called friend at the hostel does not defend Francis’ job, he turns to helping a local drug dealer, Reinhold, who preys on the hostel’s immigrant population to deal his drugs on the German streets.
Francis does not deal drugs for Reinhold (yet), but they grow a strangely intimate bond as friends and roommates while Francis cooks for the drug crew and “handles” Reindhold’s women in exchange for room and board. Living together, we see more of the sinister, downright psychotic nature of Reinhold. Reinhold preys on immigrants because he needs the street workers, and he preys on women to satisfy him then almost immediately feels hate and disgust for the very women he invites to his home. This is where the strange intimacy comes into play between the two men. Soon after Francis stays with Reinhold, Reinhold asks Francis to “take care” of his one-night stand. It feels predatory and grossly animalistic as Reinhold watches Francis and the woman like a perverted peepshow. They continue this arrangement where Reinhold gets everything he wants, and Francis continues trying to work towards his goal of obtaining a passport. But Francis’s two sides (one good and the other more like Reinhold) ebb and flow as he gets deeper into his friendship and business arrangement with Reinhold.
Eventually, Francis, by now christened Franz, meets more stable friends in the form of a couple, Eva and Berta, who try to look out for him against Reinhold. At the same time, the film depicts the LGBT+ community minimally. When the couple do get more of a place in the scene, its full of old stereotypes. Berta is jealous and catty, and Eva is flirty but almost motherly, too. Eva comes across as a savior type even though that part of the story is not fully fleshed out in the film. They mostly are depicted hypersexualized or in the shadows, which is typical of media in general.
Things start taking an even more radically weird turn when Franz gets into an “accident” that leaves him without an arm after being shoved out of a moving car by Reinhold. After the accident, Reinhold is nowhere to be found, so Eva and Berta put Franz into the care of their friend, Mieze, who is a sex worker. Mieze and Franz become lovers and begin taking what looks like a step in the right direction. They are not perfect, but it seems as that’s part of their charm as you watch them learn and live with each other. Things are looking up and happy for the two when Mieze tells Franz that she is expecting, but the happy times grow dark yet again because of Reinhold’s reentry into Franz’s life.
Franz gets deeper and higher up in the drug dealing food chain and loses his way again, even getting physical with Mieze once. Then, Reinhold takes an even more sadistic turn for the worst, and the audience is left feeling unsure what the whole point was. By the epilogue of the film, there are gapping holes in the story to the point you truly are left wondering, “So, what was the point?”
While the performance of the cast, especially leading man Welket Bungué, were interesting enough, the film did nothing new or exciting. We have seen all these characters before. We know the immigrant story, even if his is unique to his character, and we know the way sex workers are awfully treated and go unprotected in the world. I may not know anything about the 1929 novel or previous film adaptations, but I can speak towards what I watched in the 2020 version of Berlin Alexanderplatz. It is yet another sad story of pain and suffering for the minority. Even in Germany, Black people are abused, mistreated, and overlooked along with members of the LGBT+ and sex working communities. This film tried to be modern and new but ultimately fell back into the comfortable trappings of old tropes and circumstances.