Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

“I have seen apes only at the fair, they must perform tricks, are chained up, a bitter fate, no human has one so hard.”
~Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Plot summary

The novel concerns the story of Franz Biberkopf, an ex-convict, who balances between his past in the underworld and his wish to become decent in the 1920’s Berlin. Döblin uses montage techniques to enhance the effect of the pulsing metropolis by making use of newspaper articles, songs, speeches, and other books.

On Alfred Döblin

“Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a German novelist, essayist, and doctor, best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles, Döblin is one of the most important figures of German literary modernism. His complete works comprise over a dozen novels ranging in genre from historical novels to science fiction to novels about the modern metropolis; several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays; a true crime story; a travel account; two book-length philosophical treatises; scores of essays on politics, religion, art, and society; and numerous letters — his complete works (…) span more than thirty volumes.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Personified metropolis
  • Individual as a playing tool
  • Difficulty of decency
Review
Traffic light for a bridge in Savonlinna. Photo: fiktiivinenstina
Traffic light for a bridge in Savonlinna. Photo: fiktiivinenstina

“One has to save time. Time is money. Romanticism is gone and will never return, all of us have to take that into account these days.” ~Döblin 2003, p. 69 (Informally translated)

In Alfred Döblin’s gigantic description of a modern metropolis – Berlin in the 1920’s – the city wakes up and becomes one of the protagonists. The humans face challenges posed by one another, but also from the threatening city structure itself. The buildings and other inanimate objects pulsate with rhythm and sound, keeping the city dwellers on the alert of what might come.

“The buildings, the buildings want to crash down again, the roofs want to reach for him, that’s not going to happen, they’re not going to get me, the criminals will not succeed, we need peace and quiet. (…) And I thought, the world is peaceful, there is order in it. In a moment of twilight he feels terrified: there is something not quite right in the world (…).” ~Döblin 2003, p. 95 (Informally translated)

Biberkopf’s world is a vacillating concept between the realms of crime and non-crime. There are elements of normalcy – symptoms of a healthy relationship, moments of clarity that everything will work out fine in the end and other day-to-day activities that are the brick stones of a decent Bürger.

It is the chaos of the time with several rival political elements in the society, the metropolis with its own somber interests to lure the inhabitants into dubious actions, and the objects of the effects – the humans on both sides of the decency spectrum.

Mentalitätsgeschichte

The mentality of Franz Biberkopf is at the turning point of history. The early signs of the coming societal changes are pre-eminent in the city and its people, the groups are fragmented and the individual is lost between all the worrying tendencies and options. It is a critical turning point – the city itself seems to be preparing for future battles against humankind and it has no mercy. The montage technique serves the grotesquely sarcastic and ironic setting of the novel and is evident is some of the characters.

A grown man gets a chance after his prison sentence, so the second chapter in his life opens up. It is the upside-down version of the general coming-of-age concept normally associated with the youth. Biberkopf battles against life, he wants to find a home to call his own, a place to feel accepted and happy. It is a mental image with strong attachment and not much a real home with walls, doors and windows.

What should one pay attention to while reading Berlin Alexanderplatz? Make a mental note on the concept of time, place as well as language, and pay close attention to how the metropolis is described through the various mechanisms of montage and means to make ends meet.

I’ve added the film Symphony of a Great City by Walter Ruttmann (1927) to the list below. It is worth watching and it gives a second perspective to Berlin in the late 1920’s and how life was in the city at the time. The film is a beautiful and lyric account of the daily buzz of the city, filled with montages as well.

The mental image we now have of Berlin is not the same as it used to be during Ruttmann’s film. And this applies to Alexanderplatz in particular, since the square has been through a very thorough transformation in the sense of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915). The huge department store buildings, the famous television tower Fernsehturm and the Worldtime Clock (Weltzeituhr) are not part of Biberkopf’s mental image. They are stories of a different dimension and time layer that was glued over the Berlin of the 1920’s and is gone forever. There is a hint of sad nostalgia in it that a city layer cannot be evoked.

As a side note, the novel has been adapted for film twice. The first adaptation already took place in 1931 by the director Piel Jutzi, and the second one, a miniseries, was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. Döblin himself worked on the first film adaptation that starred among others Heinrich George as Biberkopf. George actually died at the Soviet operated concentration camp in Sachsenhausen in 1946, a camp earlier being used by the Nazi administration.

Berlin Alexanderplatz and Ruttmann’s film and audio play are very dear to me. I spent several months on them as I was drafting my Master’s thesis. Berlin will always have a special place in my heart, it’s a unique city with so many historical layers that I lost count of them.

More information
– Alfred Döblin (2003): Berlin Alexanderplatz. Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf [1929], München
– Hannu Marttila (8 November 2014): Saksalaisklassikko väläyttää selittämätöntä pinnan alla, published in Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish), retrieved on 1 November 2016
– Walter Ruttmann (1927): Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt), free film on the Internet Archive, retrieved on 1 November 2016
– Walter Ruttmann (1930): Weekend, audio play originally performed at the Haus des Rundfunks on 15 May 1930 in Berlin
Wikipedia: List of fiction set in Berlin, retrieved on 1 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Döblin
  • Die Ermordung einer Butterblume und andere Erzählungen (1913)
  • The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun, 1915)
  • Wallenstein (1920)
  • Berge, Meere und Giganten (1924)
  • Die beiden Freundinnen und ihr Giftmord (1924)
  • Pardon wird nicht gegeben (1935)
  • Amazonas. Romantrilogie (1973)

“I read like the flame reads the wood.”
~Alfred Döblin

#germanlitmonth

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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