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Berlin Alexanderplatz (German: [bɛɐˈliːn ˌalɛˈksandɐplats]) is a 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin. It is considered one of the most important and innovative works of the Weimar Republic. In a 2002 poll of 100 noted writers the book was named among the top 100 books of all time.
The story concerns a murderer, Franz Biberkopf, fresh from prison. When his friend murders the prostitute on whom Biberkopf has been relying as an anchor, he realizes that he will be unable to extricate himself from the underworld into which he has sunk. He must deal with misery, lack of opportunities, crime and the imminent ascendency of Nazism. During his struggle to survive against all odds, life rewards him with an unsuspected surprise but his happiness will not last as the story continues.
Focus and narrative technique
The novel is set in the working-class neighborhoods near the Alexanderplatz in 1920s Berlin. Although its narrative style is sometimes compared to that of James Joyce's, critics such as Walter Benjamin have drawn a distinction between Ulysses’ interior monologue and Berlin Alexanderplatz's use of montage. Oliver Kamm, writing in the London Times, says Döblin's methods are more akin to Kafka in his use of "erlebte Rede (roughly, experienced speech — a blending of first-person and third-person narrative)". The novel is told from multiple points of view, and uses sound effects, newspaper articles, songs, speeches, and other books to propel the plot forward.
The novel was translated into English in 1931 by Eugene Jolas, a friend of James Joyce. It was not well received; in particular it was criticized for the way in which it rendered everyday working-class speech. A 2018 English translation by Michael Hofmann, published by New York Review Books, was given a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, which called it "vigorous and fresh" and a "welcome refurbishing of a masterpiece of literary modernism". According to Oliver Kamm, "Dialogue is the most difficult thing to get right in translation" which Hofmann has rendered "in cockney dialect. It reads fluently, even at the risk of being possibly obscure to a non-British audience".
The novel has been adapted twice for film, the first time in 1931 in a movie directed by Piel Jutzi. Döblin worked on the adaptation, along with Karl Heinz Martin and Hans Wilhelm. Berlin Alexanderplatz starred Heinrich George, Maria Bard, Margarete Schlegel, Bernhard Minetti, Gerhard Bienert, Albert Florath and Paul Westermeier.
The second adaptation, Berlin Alexanderplatz was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Produced for and shown on German television in 1980, it has also been shown theatrically. It runs for 15½ hours. Upon its release in New York City, ticket holders were required to come to the theatre for three consecutive nights to see the entire film. Berlin Alexanderplatz is considered by many to be Fassbinder's magnum opus.
Both films were released in November 2007 by the Criterion Collection in the US in a multi-disc DVD set. A Region 2 edition of the Fassbinder version was released in the UK by Second Sight in October that year.