Boatload from the south

This screen reinterpretation of Alfred Döblin's important 1929 novel, the first since Fassbinder's famous 1983 miniseries, follows a doomed refugee from Africa living illegally in Berlin in the grip of a madman drug dealer while believing he is leading a decent life. That he, the African, can think that suggests he may be rather unhinged himself. The film plays a cat and mouse game with its African protagonist Franz (the sculptural, preternaturally calm Welket Bungué), and of course in the way it plays with us. Mietze (the tough, gutsy, sweet Jella Haase) plays with him, then Reinhold (a hunched, fidgety, deranged-seeming Albrecht Schuch). Frantz (originally Francis here, then renamed by Reinhold) will be broken and tattered when they're done. We know at the end he won't survive: Mietze in her quiet voiceover tells us that from the start. And our patience will be strained, when, as the protagonist is saved only to be thrown in danger once more, like a serial melodrama(though the film's switchbacks of fortune and its exaggerated personalities more closely suggest a graphic novel).

This is a game that tries the viewer's patience. But, tortuous as it is, it fascinates - and, yes, entertains - us. Everything is beautiful and watchable in Qurbani's film, thanks above all to the images of dp Yoshi Heimrath, and listenable too, thanks to the genre-ranging score of Dascha Dauenhauer. The actors are admirable. Welket Bungué, a multilingual international man of the theater, has a powerful presence. His Franz has sudden flashes of dangerous anger and soft sudden smiles. He is almost too sculptural - he can't help it, I guess; the camera seems to spend a lot of time admiring his profile from alternate angles. I'm not such a fan of the disconcertingly boyish and ordinary-looking Albrecht Schuch: he's too mannered, and it's hard to figure how such a nutcase could be running a substantial segment of Berlin's street level drug dealers. Jella Haase has something equally hard to sell us, the whore with the heart of gold. If she's a whore, how can se be so nice? Luckily, Welket Bunqué remains somewhat enigmatic. HIs complexity is left to us, and to a few gorgeous and in themselves somewhat enigmatic flashbacks, steeped in red, some of them upside down, and under water. This is a gorgeous movie that plays with many cinematic tricks.

And it has several other interesting characters. There is Eva (Annabelle Mandeng), a glamorous nightclub boss with a trans helpmate (Nils Verkooijen) who repeatedly lends Franz a hand, and Joachim Król as Reinhold's racist but flexible old guard gangster overlord Pums (Joachim Król), who makes the rounds through his territory in Hasenheide in nondescript pensioner beige. Hasenheide is a park Qurbani himself lived near to, with black Africans dealing drugs on its pathways: the director originally wanted to make a film about it, and the famous novel was his means of entry.

At least in the Anglophone world, for every critic who is ecstatic there are several who're dissatisfied: they find the new Alexanderplatz a little thin. The principals do so much with their lines but they are not given enough material. These few main characters drain the stage of all other life from a story originally meant to have panoramic sweep. Some of the raw rough reality of the essential "Berlin" has been left out this time, even though a lot of details have been worked in and the transfer to a contemporary "multicultural" Germany has been made.

Fans of European art film may want to see this creative new movie. I differ, though, with the citizen critics who call it a triumph of new German cinema. It lacks the latter's edge - the kind of edge that arguably Fassbinder may have had in his day. Maybe this would be seen as closer to Fatih Akim - German born Turkish descent to Qurban's actual Afghan birth - rather than people of the new 2000's Berlin School like Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach, or Benjamin Heisenberg. Burhan Qurbani probably sought to reinterpret Berlin from something more of an ausländer point of view, or from the angle of a more diverse Germany than existed either in Döblin's or Fassbinder's time - a very much more diverse one. But whether this was the best way to approach that task, whether this depicts a diverse Germany or a "real" Germany of any sort, may be debated. Qurbani is a fluent director of " unimpeachable craft" (as Jessica Kiang wrote in her Variety review) who combines a taste for melodrama with a sense of the contemporary. But I view his planned next glamorous remake, of Kieslowski’s Three Colors, a favorite film trilogy of the nineties, with some apprehension.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, 183 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2020, opening in nine international festivals including Moscow, Haifa, São Paulo, Busan, Stockholm. Starting April 30, 2021 in the US in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.