By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
An African immigrant struggles to make a new life for himself in the big city in director-co-writer Burhan Qurbani’s audacious, neon-lit reinterpretation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. After surviving his perilous journey, Francis (Welket Bungué) vows to be a good man, but he soon realizes how difficult it is to be righteous while undocumented in Germany—without papers, without a nationality, and without a work permit. When he receives an enticing offer for easy money from the psychopathic gangster Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), Francis initially resists temptation, but eventually he is sucked into Berlin’s underworld and his life spirals out of control.
Qurbani is the third filmmaker to reinterpret “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (a previous 15-hour mini-series by Rainer Werner Fassbinder was released in 1980 and has since been re-released theatrically and on home video).
Francis can’t catch a break. He is in a foreign land after swimming and nearly drowning on his trek from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. He lost a family member who was trying to find safe passage to Germany, as well. Francis has prayed to God that since his life was spared and he was able to begin anew in Germany, that he would do good.
And he is aiming toward that. He does back breaking work at a factory, where other immigrants or refugees live in a communal style, but he is enamored by a speech from Reinhold that entices with the chance to make more money.
After a while, he moves in with Reinhold, who is essentially the devil in disguise. Reinhold has this weird thing about sex, where he invites a woman over and immediately wants her to leave—after she believes she will have a lingering romantic interlude. He orders Francis to take over when he is done with sex and degrading and often physically abusing his date. Reinhold has sadistic tendencies and says he has no need for women, and that he goes through many women because he doesn’t want to become attached to any one woman.
Francis eventually starts cooking for the drug dealers in a park and soon becomes involved in the drug trade at the urging or insistence of Reinhold. He meets a couple of women who are attracted to him because he is an African man in a German bar. However, one of the women is also from Africa, and she and Francis form a bond. He moves in with them a bit, right before he goes on a robbery run with Reinhold and his crew. Afterward, there is a terrible accident that renders Francis disabled.
He wants to do well and “is still dripping with the sins of his past.” He even finds a girlfriend and decides to get out of the drug trade. But evil Reinhold keeps popping up to muddle the waters, mostly because he’s jealous and partly because he is just a monster. In the end, Francis loses much more than Reinhold ever could—although Reinhold gets his just rewards, as well.
This is a nearly three-hour film that toggles back and forth to show Francis’ life often as he would want it, but mostly as it has become. This was a tremendous novel and a tremendous undertaking with the television series. Bungué is excellent as the tortured soul, and Schuch is equally as great in his role as the master manipulator.
The themes and situations in the film are not as simplistic as this review may seem. However, in the end, even with its run time, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is truly a poetic, cinematic reflection on the nature of good and evil. It shows a beautiful Berlin but also highlights the underbelly of drugs, decadence and violence. The film starts April 30 in virtual cinemas throughout the nation under Kino Marquee distribution. Take a look at the trailer http://tinyurl.com/2nsa3fpu.