Alfred Doblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was made into a movie in 1931. In 1980, the novel became the basis for a 15-hour series on German television. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the 1980 version found its way into American art houses (remember those?) where it earned strong reviews and a committed audience.
Now comes an updated version from director Burhan Qurbani, a German filmmaker of Afghan descent.
Clearly, anyone daring enough to update and adapt a highly regarded novel about the last days of the Weimar Republic can't be faulted for lack of ambition.
But how to do it?
To create contemporary urgency, Qurbani sets the story in the present, focusing on African immigrants in Berlin while boldly trumpeting some of the novel's major themes -- sin and redemption, among them.
At three hours in length, Qurbani's movie presents audiences with a considerable challenge. Not everyone will be willing to buy into Qurbani's efforts to capture something essential about life in Germany today, and those who do will find a movie that's not entirely successful.
Qurbani tells the story of Francis (Welket Bungue), an immigrant who arrives in Germany after a harrowing boat trip on which his girlfriend drowns.
Dislocated from his native Guinea Bissau, Francis hooks up with Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a perverse gangster with a twisted arm and an ominous way of leaning into those with whom he engages, as if he were holding a drink that he might at any moment spill.
One of literature and cinema's great creeps, Reinhold operates a drug ring that employs immigrants. He works for an uber-gangster named Pums (Joachim Krol).
Gradually, Francis sinks into Reinhold's world. A womanizer who says he's sickened by his conquests as soon as he beds them, Reinhold fobs off his "leftovers" on Francis.
Qurbani adds an overlay of narration that's delivered by Mieze (Jella Hasse), a prostitute with whom Francis eventually becomes involved. Both Francis and Mieze imagine a future in which they can purify themselves of the corruption in which they're mired.
Qurbani infuses many of his images with a febrile undertow and he's not shy about having Mieze ruminate about the movie's themes. Her narration spells them out in what amounts to the dramatic equivalent of boldface.
Another woman (Annabelle Mandeng) tries to establish a relationship with Francis but that doesn't work out. Mandeng's Eva runs a nightclub, scene of more debauchery and abandon.
No one will accuse Qurbani's movie of being uneventful. Before the story ends, Francis is pushed out of a speeding car by Reinhold. He loses an arm. But Reinhold is nothing if not persistent: He won't let go of Francis. He wants Francis to recognize that, at heart, he and Reinhold are the same.
As with many immigrant stories, acceptance becomes a major issue. Reinhold calls Francis "Franz," suggesting that he has gained a measure of admittance into the larger society. Francis deludes himself, at one point proclaiming that he is Germany, a man with a German girlfriend and a German car.
Throughout the movie's five chapters, Francis keeps vowing to be good but he continually falls prey to his weaknesses as well as to circumstances.
If Qurbani was trying for a mix of seriousness and lurid melodrama, the blend feels off, a plunge from one overheated scene to the next as relationships mutate on the city's margins.
Yet, the film isn't entirely dismissible. Qurbani gives the material strong undercurrents of desire and cruelty. He obtains striking performances from Bungue and Schuch and you can practically feel him trying to grab hold of something major.
It’s almost as if the movie has adopted Francis’ mantra; it keeps promising to be good before collapsing into formless decadence, losing itself and possibly an audience along with it.