Berlinale 2020: Burhan Qurbani's Phenomenal 'Berlin Alexanderplatz'
by Alex Billington
February 26, 2020
"It's a sad and stupid thing to have to proclaim yourself a revolutionary just to be a decent man." What kind of world do we live in where being decent is an impossibility? That's the question this film answers. I had a good feeling about this beforehand, but it still exceeded my expectations in every possible way. I will never forget watching this at a packed press screening at 8 o'clock in the morning at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Burhan Qurbani's Berlin Alexanderplatz is an utterly phenomenal film, an astonishing work of profound cinema and empathetic storytelling that hit me deep in my gut. It is an epic saga in the life of one man, and one of the best examinations of modern Berlin and the way the city treats immigrants. It may be three hours long, but all of it is vital. There is not a single frame or any specific scene in this I would change.
This new Berlin Alexanderplatz film is an updated, modern version of the story of struggle originally written in the classic novel by Alfred Döblin, first published in 1929. It was adapted once before into Rainer Werner Fassbinder's iconic mini-series in the 1980s. Similar to Ladj Ly's Les Misérables film from last year, German filmmaker Burhan Qurbani updates a classic novel (that with time has come to symbolize the country) and contemporizes it by turning it into a story about black immigrants in the capitol city of this European country. And it seems he put everything into this, as the film is a masterpiece. A masterfully conceived, and confidently crafted cinematic commentary on racism and the eternal struggle for goodness in our modern society. It's one of my favorite films of the year, and will undoubtedly stick with me well beyond the festival.
The more films I watch, the more I can clearly see when a filmmaker's vision is clear and grasp of the story is strong. Qurbani is unquestionably assured in his filmmaking, his confidence is through the roof. Born in Germany, his family comes from Afghanistan and part of the modern multicultural make-up of Germany. He brings this inherit knowledge and understanding of the immigrant life right into his work, and expresses it through creative filmmaking, and all of the characters, and careful storytelling, every aspect of this film. We follow an African immigrant named Francis, played by actor Welket Bungué who is from Bissau just like his character in the film. After barely surviving the journey, he attempts to make a life for himself in Berlin as a "decent" person, but ends up in the criminal underworld, dealing drugs for unscrupulous crime bosses.
The best comparison I can make is to say that it's as good as City of God – which is also a masterpiece. I still remember the day I watched City of God when I was in college, it changed my life, and forever made me a fan of "indie films." It also felt so real, everything about it seemed to be authentic, almost as if it was a real documentary about Rocket. Berlin Alexanderplatz has that same jaw-dropping, profound feeling to it. It is a truly extraordinary, epic saga of a decent man who tries so hard to be good in an indecent world that chews up and spits out decent men. The depths it reaches are staggering, in terms of empathy, and storytelling, and its commentary on modern life. Much like City of God, it shows how certain moments define this man, and change him forever, and yet he fights on. He survives. He continues to live and learn and grow anyway.
It's also a vibrant film about how brutal Berlin can be, especially to immigrants and criminals. Qurbani is so confident in his filmmaking that he's capable of establishing a unique style that is inspired by the films that have come before it, but still entirely its own. And I expect many filmmakers will steal from him from now on. The robber masks they use with neon lights wired into them are the most striking visual feature. But the whole film captures Berlin in simultaneously a rich and gritty way. There are plenty of scenes where the famous TV tower can be seen, but it's not the usual shots you expect. Ultimately, Qurbani wants to make us experience the city from the perspective of an immigrant, and learn how it treats black men differently than everyone else. It's not just the people, it's the entire city – the clubs and the streets and everything about it.
From scene to scene, from moment to moment, I was enraptured by this film. Every scene has a purpose, and a point. He doesn't ever linger too long, or waste time with elaborately slow shots. It will probably get criticized as being too flash or campy, but that's not how I saw it. He meshes style with substance perfectly, and combines the storytelling themes with engaging experiences in each scene. This is the story of Francis, renamed "Franz" (like in the novel) by the Germans, and how he is beaten down three times, yet still gets up and continues to live. He struggles, and he stumbles, but there is a strength within him. Something that makes him stand out in a crowd, and something magnetic about him that makes him so watchable. Not only is the casting spot on, but the character transcends cinema and represents real people in a significant way.
I really hope that open-minded cinephiles and intrepid newcomers will discover this film and feel as moved and overwhelmed by it as I am. There's a lot to it, and much like City of God, there's an epic story to tell. But it's a worthwhile story, an important one, even if almost every character is a criminal or lowlife or idiot or troublemaker or whatever. This exemplifies one of the core themes - that it is impossible to be decent and good in a world that rejects and destroys decent people. To survive, to live, you must give in to the carefree and precarious ways of the city. In City of God, it's Rio de Janeiro; in Berlin Alexanderplatz, it's Berlin. And perhaps, through compassion, we can learn to build a better society, that respects and appreciates everyone no matter where they come from or what color skin they have or what they must do to try and live decently.