Berlin Alexanderplatz

[This page by Michael Navratil]

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)

Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin, is an iconic work of the Weimar Republic and widely considered the most prominent modernist novel in German literature, comparable to James Joyce’s Ulysses in the English tradition.

The novel’s main plot centres on small-time criminal Franz Biberkopf, who at the beginning of the novel is released from Tegel prison in Berlin, where he served four years after having murdered his girlfriend in an act of rage. Although determined to live a reformed life from now on, Franz is soon drawn into criminal activities again. Bieberkopf’s descent into the Berlin underworld is triggered by his interactions with Reinhold, a gangster boss and nymphomaniac. At first, Reinhold passes on to Franz the girls he himself has grown tired of. But soon, Reinhold tries to make use of Franz in his criminal endeavours as well. When Franz refuses to help Reinhold’s gang during a robbery, Reinhold throws him out of a moving car. Franz survives but loses his right arm. Surprisingly, Franz refrains from any attempts at revenge and confines himself to silent resignation. He begins a love affair with the young prostitute Mieze, who supports him financially. Reinhold, however, fears that Franz might eventually strike back and decides to destroy his former friend once and for all. He lures Mieze into a forest where he kills and buries her. Though Franz is distraught about Mieze’s death, the police begin searching for him as Mieze’s potential murderer. During a raid at a bar, Franz fires a pistol at a policeman and is taken into custody. Franz begins to starve himself and is moved into an asylum. In his delirium, he meets death itself and realises that his attempts at living a decent life have been futile. Franz ‘dies’ internally − but externally he recovers his health and sets about starting a new life. It remains doubtful, however, whether this final positive turn of events is to be embraced as almost every trait that once constituted Franz’s subjectivity has been eradicated. The novel ends with a number of foreshadowings of a potential war.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is presented from multiple points of view, features an enormous catalogue of named and unnamed characters, and offers myriad insights into the life of 1920s Berlin. One of the most striking formal features of the novel is its use of ‘Montagetechnik’ (‘montage technique’). Döblin draws on a whole range of different sources and often quotes them directly without any kind of introduction or clear mediation with the rest of the text: newspapers, lyrics, street posters, the Bible, and weather reports among others. These sources give the novel a documentary quality which is juxtaposed against its complex narrative techniques and modernist aesthetic.

Döblin breaks with most conventions of the realist novel, abandoning closed structure of plot, chronological storytelling and the idea of an autonomous hero. In fact, the novel’s title, the plurality of perspectives and the constant deviations from the protagonist’s fate seem to suggest that the hero of the novel is not so much Franz Biberkopf as the city of Berlin itself.

There have been two acclaimed movie adaptations of Döblin’s novel, one in 1931, directed by Phil Jutzi and starring Heinrich George as Franz Biberkopf, and a 14-part television film in 1980, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Further Reading in English

Dagmar Barnouw, Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988)

Stephanie Bird, ‘Nachum der Weise: On Storytelling, Eyes and Misunderstanding in Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in Alfred Döblin: Paradigms of Modernism, ed. by Steffan Davies and Ernest Schonfield (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 245-60

Tobias Boes, Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Bildungsroman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press/Signale, 2012), Chapter 5: ‘Urban Vernaculars: Joyce, Döblin, and the “Individuating Rhythm” of Modernity’, pp. 128-54

David B. Dollenmayer, The Berlin novels of Alfred Döblin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

Osman Durrani, Fictions of Germany: Images of the German nation in the modern novel (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), Chapter 1 on Berlin Alexanderplatz

Sabine Hake, ‘Urban paranoia in Alfred Döblin's “Berlin Alexanderplatz”’, German Quarterly 67:3 (1994), 347-68

Peter Jelavich, Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)

Roger Kingerlee, Psychological models of masculinity in Döblin, Musil, and Jahnn (Lewiston: Mellen, 2001), Chapters 2 & 3

David Midgley, ‘The Dynamics of Consciousness: Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in The German Novel in the Twentieth Century: Beyond Realism, ed. by David Midgley (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 95-109

Nicole Shea, The politics of prostitution in “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (Oxford et al.: Peter Lang, 2007)

Herbert Scherer, ‘The Individual and the Collective in Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in Culture and Society in the Weimar Republic, ed. by Keith Bullivant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), pp. 56-70

Martin Swales, ‘The Metropolis and its Modes: Alfred Döblin’, in Martin Swales, Studies of German Prose Fiction in the Age of European Realism (Lewiston and Lampeter: Mellen, 1995), pp. 179-93

Theodore Ziolkowski, Dimensions of the Modern Novel: German Texts and European Contexts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), Chapter 4 on Berlin Alexanderplatz

Further Reading in German

Sabina Becker, Urbanität und Moderne. Studien zur Großstadtwahrnehmung in der deutschen Literatur, 1900 - 1930 (St. Ingbert: Röhrig, 1993)

Harald Jähner, Erzählter, montierter, soufflierter Text: zur Konstruktion des Romans "Berlin Alexanderplatz" von Alfred Döblin (Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1984)

Otto Keller, Döblins Montageroman als Epos der Moderne (München: 1980), Chapter 3

Armin Leidinger, Hure Babylon. Großstadtsymphonie oder Angriff auf die Landschaft? (Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 2010)

Gabriele Sander, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Erläuterungen und Dokumente (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1998)

Web Link

A review of the 2018 English translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hofmann in The Economist magazine