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BERLINALE 2020 Competition

Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz

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- BERLINALE 2020: Burhan Qurbani’s opus huffs and puffs, but fails to blow the house down

Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz
Welket Bungué in Berlin Alexanderplatz

At this point, there must be an entire generation of filmmakers influenced by the neon-lit antics of one Nicolas Winding Refn, as Berlin Alexanderplatz [+see also:
trailer
interview: Burhan Qurbani
film profile
]
, shown in the 70th Berlinale’s increasingly exhausting main competition, could easily be mistaken for the Dane’s sudden venture into German-speaking territory. The only difference is that in the case of Burhan Qurbani’s take on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, so memorably adapted by Fassbinder, the serious far outweighs the trashy, and there is no Ryan Gosling in sight.

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Advertised as “a modern and free adaptation”, it sure gets a significant makeover and one that actually makes sense – with the protagonist now an African immigrant, from Bissau to be exact (an engaging Welket Bungué), struggling to find his place after he arrives in Berlin. But for every good scene, often spiked with an ominous voiceover, Qurbani makes stumbles that feel rather outdated, and no amount of stripper-filled shots can possibly change that. Especially with the film’s treatment of women, disposable or trying their best to find some meat in the clichéd cards they are dealt here. One such example is Jella Haase, cast as yet another “tart with a heart” – at this point, they should all form a union already – always playing second fiddle to this male odyssey.

It’s an odyssey that’s very watchable, though, as Berlin Alexanderplatz comes off as a titillating combo of unforgivably long arthouse fare and good old soap opera, and the endless coming attractions just keep on, well, coming. There are almost too many to mention, frankly, as it certainly is a long and winding road for Bungué’s Francis, later renamed as Franz. He so badly wants to be a decent man and yet always ends up drawing the short straw – especially after meeting a local drug dealer, Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch with a perpetually hunched back, seemingly going for something Pacino would have done in the 1970s). He himself is plagued by – how should we put it? – some profound commitment issues as well.

That being said, any underlying context that could make this opus a tad richer, not to mention less superficial, eventually has to make way for more flashy toys that Qurbani can play with. While undoubtedly very skilful, he ultimately swaps the story for show, always settling for the “wow” effect instead of aiming for the heart. This should keep viewers entertained for many more festivals to come, but sometimes it feels like he is ticking off boxes, piling things up instead of going deeper. For a tale about a city that can devour an unsuspecting individual just like those cars that ate Paris, it’s all a bit too clean to fully convince us of its grimness. But a world where “hipsters pay double” for dope surely strikes as appealing.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was produced by Leif Alexis, Jochen Laube and Fabian Maubach for Germany’s Sommerhaus and by Dutch outfit Lemming Film. The world sales are handled by Beta Cinema.

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