Berlin Alexanderplatz is considered by some to be the most significant urban novel in German literature. Franz Biberkopf, the protagonist of this novel by Alfred Döblin (1878–1957), is an ex-convict who gains his freedom after serving a four-year sentence in a prison in Berlin Tegel. He seeks to become a decent citizen but is drawn into the underworld soon after his release. Attempting to make a living by selling bow ties, the unwary Franz falls under the influence of the criminal Reinhold and ends up losing an arm. Reinhold murders Franz’s girlfriend Mieze, the only stabilizing force in Franz’s life, the woman who had given him hope in his struggle for human decency. Franz is wrongly accused of her murder and put into a mental clinic. A surprising as well as ambiguous ending allows Biberkopf finally to find his way in the metropolitan environment. The novel’s action is confined to a small area in Alexanderplatz, the dynamic urban center of Berlin, where police, prostitutes, small tradesmen, and crooks determine the metropolitan picture.
It is not merely the fable that makes Berlin Alexanderplatz so outstanding but its avant-garde narrative style, which achieves a new intensity of expression. Döblin attempted to grasp the modern metropolis’s totality by employing a montage technique that was already common in film. Walter Benjamin, in his Selected Writings, remarked the year after the novel’s appearance: “The stylistic principle governing this book is that of montage. . . . The montage explodes the framework of the novel, bursts its limits both stylistically and structurally, and clears the way for new, epic possibilities. Formally, above all. The material of the montage is anything but arbitrary. Authentic montage is based on the document.” In a variety of narrative registers, Döblin incorporates printed matter (ads and market reports), public dialogue (political speech, weather reports) and bits of common and familiar songs. Language is not merely a referential medium in Berlin Alexanderplatz; it is deliberately employed as the reality that Döblin hopes to depict. The novel achieves a density and complexity that require a high degree of concentration from the reader.
The immediate response to Döblin’s novel was diverse: Communist authors of “Group 25,” of which Döblin himself was a member, criticized the depicted primitiveness of the proletariat. They claimed that Franz Biberkopf was a tragic, petty bourgeois, a difficult figure and as such not at all representative of the German proletariat. In addition, many critics accused Döblin of plagiarism. There are indeed clear similarities between Döblin’s novel on the one hand and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) on the other. Yet while Berlin Alexanderplatz was certainly inspired in its montage and associative techniques, Döblin rightly rejected the accusations, pointing out his experimentations with expressionist and dadaist techniques that had to be considered a stylistic breakthrough. In 1932 he concluded his indebtedness to Joyce, stating that the book Ulysses “meant for him a helpful breeze in his sails.” Döblin’s creative appropriation of the styles of foreign writers as well as his highly original adaptation of psychoanalysis and cinematic techniques must be considered major contributions to the avant-garde movement.
The novel became an overwhelming literary and monetary success. For the first time it allowed Döblin a life without financial worries, and he gained a reputation in Germany and around the world. In November 1929 the well-respected critic Herbert Ihering wrote: “Döblin is probably the only German candidate for the Nobel Prize. . . . It would repair the damaged reputation of the prize and regain it some acceptance.”
In 1930 Döblin, with broadcast director Max Brings, worked on a version of Berlin Alexanderplatz for the radio. The radio show was first broadcast on September 30, 1930, starring Heinrich George as Biberkopf. The novel’s popularity was further ensured by Phil Jutzi’s 1931 cinematic adaptation, again starring Heinrich George. Döblin and Hans Wilhelm had collaboratively written the screenplay. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 version for TV added to the novel’s ongoing resonance. By no means should these adaptations be downplayed or understood as the merely monetary exploitation of Döblin’s novel. They were, rather, a central sociopolitical interest of his: In a lecture of September 30, 1929, entitled “Literature and Radio,” Döblin explicitly called it the task of the radio to reduce the gap between literature and the people and to disseminate literary language by exploiting radio’s specific acoustic possibilities.
Barta, Peter I. Bely, Joyce, and Döblin: Peripatetics in the City Novel. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Bekes, Peter. Alfred Döblin Berlin Alexanderplatz: Interpretation. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1995.
Jelavich, Peter. Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Sander, Gabriele. Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Stuttgart: P. Reclam, 1998.
Schoonover, Henrietta S. The Humorous and Grotesque Elements in Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Berne and Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1977.