BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ. (1928) A NOVEL BY ALFRED DŐBLIN.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘There is a mower death yclept.’
This book is considered to be the magnum opus-slash-masterpiece of Alfred Dőblin’s. Dőblin was a German writer and doctor who, having come from Jewish stock and with, understandably, plenty of reasons to be apprehensive, fled Germany in 1933 when the Nazis came to power, only returning in 1945 when the war was over.
His great work BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ was made into a fifteen-hour movie by iconic director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was a huge fan of the book. This epic piece of cinema originally aired as a German miniseries on German television in 1980. I bet it absolutely smashed all the TV ratings for that year.
Clocking in at a spectacular nine-hundred minutes, it watches like a mini-series, divided up into digestible blocks of one hour approximately, with credits coming at the start and finish. So you needn’t fret that you don’t have the time to watch a fifteen-hour movie. If you prefer, of course, you could just read the book…!
I won’t deny that it’s a tough read. I found it rough going at times and I really had to push myself to keep at it. Dőblin’s style of writing in it, with long passages of what feels like stream-of-consciousness and the way you frequently can’t tell who’s saying what as he doesn’t differentiate between the quotations, has been compared to James Joyce’s in ULYSSES. I’m so glad I persevered with it though. Perseverance brings its own rewards.
It’s the story of Franz Biberkopf, a working-class man who, when we meet him first, is just being released from Tegel prison after a four-year stretch for manslaughter. He has battered his live-in girlfriend to death with a kitchen implement (that’s not as humorous as it sounds…!), thinking that she was about to leave him.
Now he’s done his time and you’d think he’d be glad to be free, but poor Franz is disorientated, discombobulated and generally all of a flutter to be at liberty once more to come and go as he pleases.
I say ‘poor Franz’ because he’s such a likeable character from the start. He’s an Everyman, as it were, an ordinary working stiff who’s had a bit of bad luck, you might say. I’d say it was very bad luck for the woman he killed, but how-and-ever…!
His first experiences as a free man are worthy of note. A ginger-haired and ginger-bearded Jewish man who helps him up when he falls down in the street tries to tell him a story, some sort of parable maybe, and Franz later refers to this man and his Jewish companions as friends of his.
In only a very few years time, of course, Hitler will have come to power and Jewish people such as this man will find their rights to walk freely on the public streets severely curtailed. For now, however, the bewildered Franz is probably just grateful for the human contact, for the chance to ‘ground’ himself once more on the Jewish guys’ sitting-room floor.
Shortly after getting out of Tegel, Franz goes to visit a middle-aged but still attractive blonde woman called Minna whom he knows from before. Once he’s established that she’s alone in her apartment, he rapes her and gives her a black eye and some finger-marks around her throat as well, for good measure. This is how Franz likes his sex, by the way, rough and ready.
We see that Franz later compensates her for the rape by bringing her some aprons to replace the one he apparently messed up. We also discover that this woman, Minna, is the- probably older- sister of the poor unfortunate Ida. The women of that family have surely been sorely wronged by Franz Biberkopf.
So much, anyway, for his fervent promises to only ‘go straight’ from now on. Of course, in his mind, that probably just means going straight in a business sense. It clearly doesn’t include sexual battery, which Franz may not even consider to be a crime at all.
Franz seems to find it ridiculously easy to pick up women. He’s not described as being particularly good-looking, but he’s big and burly, confident and obviously an alpha male type, to whom any broken or damaged women will flock like z-list ‘celebrities’ to the opening of an envelope.
Speaking of which, Franz quickly finds himself a live-in girlfriend in Lina, a nervous Polish woman who almost certainly has a troubled past and some kind of inner sadness. She regards herself as being in the Last Chance Saloon when it comes to bagging a man, and is pathetically grateful for Franz’s attentions. The relationship doesn’t last, however.
Before Lina exits stage left forever, though, she introduces Franz to a family friend called Otto Luders. Franz and Luders go into the business of selling shoelaces together door-to-door in the big old blocks of apartments near the titular Alexanderplatz.
It’s not a great job, obviously, that of door-to-door shoelace salesman, but good honest work in Germany at that time was hard to come by. The country was by then in the grip of a massive depression. The words ‘unemployment’ and ‘inflation’ are synonymous with the Germany of the day.
That’s one of the reasons Hitler and the Nazi party were able to grab power in 1933. They saw what was happening in the country and they promised the voters ‘Arbeit Und Brot,’ or work and bread, which was all that men like Franz were asking for.
By this stage, Hitler had already written his notorious book MEIN KAMPF and been released from Landsburg Prison for his part in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Both the SA (Sturm Abteilung) and the SS (Schutz Staffeinel) had been formed by this stage and Joseph Goebbels already had responsibility for Propaganda within the growing Nazi Party. Within five short years, Hitler would be Chancellor of Germany and the rest, as they say, would be history.
Luders and Franz have a major falling-out, anyway, which leaves Franz shaken and down one business partnership. Then, out of the blue, the despondent Franz is offered a job by a man in a pub. Isn’t that the way it so often happens? The man in the pub is satisfied, for his part, that Franz is a ‘true German.’ ‘Germany for the Germans,’ after all, and none of your Commie Reds or Jews or any of that. Hmmm.
So, what exactly is this new job? Franz is now the latest street vendor, if you please, of the VOLKISCHE BEOBACHTER, a real-life anti-Semitic newspaper. It was the official newspaper of the NSDAP or Nazi party from 1920 until 1945. On his first day of work, Franz is presented with the armband he’s meant to wear while he’s working. On the armband is a swastika…
This job doesn’t last long. Franz is once more on the unemployment line with about half the men of Germany for company. He devotes his time to boozing and engaging in complicated affairs with women, who are irresistibly drawn to Franz’s big, strong rough-and-ready maleness. His ex-girlfriend Eva, with whom he still remains ‘friends with benefits’ and for whom he used to pimp, offers Franz sexual, financial and emotional support whenever it’s needed. It’s well for some.
When Franz finally comes out of the drunken stupor into which he falls after the Luders fiasco, he meets an ugly poisonous man in the pub (where else?) called Reinhold. Reinhold is a cowardly shit who persuades Franz to take first one, then another, of his own mistresses off his hands because he’s tired of them and doesn’t want the hassle of breaking up with them himself, if you can believe that.
Franz is happy to oblige and has many a happy hour getting the most out of the two comely enough exes, Franze and Cilly, before Cilly (Cilly by name and silly by nature, huh?) ends up back with the odious Reinhold. Well, she’s a grown woman. She can make her own decisions. And her own mistakes…
Another consequence of Franz’s ill-fated association with Reinhold costs him dearly. Reinhold is a gangster whose boss, Pums, takes a liking to Franz and involves him in a ‘job’ they’re pulling off. Franz isn’t much cop at being the gang’s ‘lookout’ and he loses his right arm when he’s pushed out of a moving car by Reinhold during the burglary they’re carrying out.
Franz, the big cheery ‘hail fellow well met’ character who always tries to bounce back when he’s down, makes jokes about his amputated arm but we get the impression he’s not as okay about the loss of it as he makes out. Well, how could he be?
He probably feels like half a man now, working at shit jobs like being a carousel barker (he’d be the guy who shouts ‘roll up, roll up!’ and gets people into/onto the attraction) that don’t require a man to have two arms. He spends a lot of time moping around his apartment with only his faithful prostitute-lover Eva and her boyfriend/john/ pimp Herbert for company.
And there’s always the booze. Franz and the booze go back a long way. Now he’s talking to it like it’s an old friend which, in a way, it is. Franz, no longer a young man and now he’s physically disabled to boot, is clearly lacking direction.
He meets a sneaky little crook called Willy in the pub (that’s where he meets everyone!) and decides to join with him in his dirty little stolen goods business. Wanna buy a watch? You know the type of thing. Franz obviously feels it’s about all he’s able for at the moment, with just the one arm. Talk about a slippery slope, though.
Whatever happened to the oath he swore when he came out of prison to only ever go straight again? It looks like Franz feels like there’s not much point in keeping his oath anymore. Going straight is for schmucks, right? Guy never got rich going straight.
We know ourselves that there’s more to life than getting rich but maybe Franz is tired of being dirt-poor, one of those Between-The-Wars forgotten men. We don’t know anything much about Franz’s record in World War One but we do get to read about the hilarious moment when he decides to buy an Iron Cross replica to account to people for his missing arm, the cheeky liar…!
Franz is on the verge of another life-changing moment but he doesn’t know it yet. Eva thinks he needs a new woman to raise his spirits, among other things, lol. The resourceful Eva’s already found someone she deems suitable, although why she’s fixing Franz up with someone who might be a threat to herself, Eva, is a mystery to me.
Her gift to Franz is a beautiful, shy much younger woman called Sonia, whom Franz christens ‘Mieze.’ He falls for her immediately because of her looks and her sweet, gentle disposition. She falls for him too, though he’s at least twenty, twenty-five years older than her.
She’s clearly looking for a father figure- she even dresses like a little girl and talks like a little girl and wears little-girly pink ribbons in her hair- and there’s no need to analyse why an older man is attracted to a beautiful younger woman. They go for walks in the woods together and she buys him a canary. It’s love all right.
The money Mieze makes from working as a prostitute certainly comes in handy. She immediately accepts Franz as her new pimp. Why should Franz work when he has Mieze’s earnings? Why indeed? He’s a very liberal man when it comes to sharing his woman around. However, it would appear that even Franz Biberkopf has his limits.
Mieze is being paid for sex by a rich older man and Franz has no problem whatsoever with that because the money she makes goes to him. When Mieze is daft enough to admit her attraction towards the rich older man’s good-looking young nephew, however, Franz proves that he’s still a big man by beating the living daylights out of her with his one remaining hand and choking her half to death. Shades of Ida…
Mieze is spared Ida’s fate by the intervention of the odious Reinhold, who is suspiciously close at hand that very night. After the savage beating, Franz expresses guilt and shame- only verbally, mind you- and a loving Mieze forgives him immediately. She pours oil on the troubled waters and smooths everything over with her customary docility.
I personally think that she has deeply masochistic tendencies. She doesn’t react at all like you’d expect a battered woman to react after an assault. Instead, her beatific, almost martyr-like manner as she holds ‘her Franz’ to her again tells us a lot about Mieze, who’s even allowed Franz to change her name, a deeply personal thing about her, from Sonia to Mieze.
I think her behaviour tells us that she’s severely damaged after her upbringing and her life as a prostitute, which can’t all have been plain sailing and rich benefactors. I also think it tells us that she won’t live to see forty, the way she’s going. Will she die at Franz’s hands, a death I could swear she’d almost relish, or does the fickle finger of Fate have something else in mind for her? Let’s move swiftly on…
Franz who, by the way, bears no ill-will against Reinhold for the whole amputated arm thing, makes the mistake of formally introducing Mieze to his partners-in-crime, including Reinhold, down at the bar where they all hang out.
She has an instantaneous powerful effect on Franz’s old friend Meck, who thinks her beautiful, and also on Reinhold, whom she’s met once before but not formally, that is, when he was pulling her out from under Franz before Franz killed her the way he did Ida.
Meck and Reinhold both think that she’s much too good for Franz, and they’re each jealous that Franz has managed to pull such a pretty young thing who’s clearly devoted to him. The spiteful, if not downright evil, Reinhold is determined that he’ll get his mucky paws on the lovely Mieze’s body, and before too much more time has elapsed.
He sneakily orchestrates some alone time for himself and Mieze, all behind Franz’s back, of course. Why doesn’t he just ask Franz straight out if he can sleep with the girl for a few Deutschmarks? After all, Franz doesn’t mind pimping her out for a few quid.
Reinhold takes her to the Freienwalde, the forest in the gorgeous rural area where she is accustomed to sometimes walk with her beloved Franz. Poor silly Mieze’s fate is immediately sealed. What happens to her at Reinhold’s hands is sad, grubby and shockingly inevitable, given her profession, her damaged psyche and her vulnerability.
When Franz finds out, he goes temporarily insane and is taken to Buch Mental Hospital, where he is force-fed by doctors who are stumped by his insanity and intent on keeping him alive to face the hangman’s noose if it turns out that Franz is responsible for what happened to Mieze, as the police seem to think.
If only Franz had broken from the disgusting evil Reinhold, the snake in the grass who not only cost Franz his arm but who has now taken away from Franz, his so-called friend, the only precious thing Franz had left in his life.
If only Franz had had the strength to sever the unhealthy, unholy alliance between himself and the dangerous criminal Reinhold. Will he ever see that Reinhold has feet of clay and is perhaps the worst thing that’s ever happened to him? Reinhold, Pums, the whole gang, it’s all poisonous and polluted. It was a bad day for Franz Biberkopf when he fell in with them.
Will the odious Reinhold ever pay for his crimes? And can Franz ever rise again after this latest body-blow sees him come face-to-face with Death Himself? Well, that, folks, is the sixty-four-million dollar question. Read Dőblin’s wonderful masterpiece of the Weimar Republic for yourself and find out.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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