Mean Streets: The Life and Afterlife of Berlin Alexanderplatz


Arts & Culture

George Grosz, Panorama (detail), 1919.


The German artist George Grosz emerged from the decadence of Weimar culture as an unlikely moralist. His grotesque paintings of Berlin street life—seething, ugly, claustrophobic, often thick with malice—skewered the city’s lurid postwar demimonde. Though today Grosz is best remembered as a gifted caricaturist, his contemporary Hannah Arendt considered him a documentarian: “[his] cartoons seemed to us not satire so much as realistic reportage,” she wrote. Within the crucible of the metropolis, Arendt suggests, one must be prepared to enlarge one’s conception of the real.

One of Grosz’s works, Panorama (Down with Leibneicht), adorns the cover of a new edition of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 Expressionist masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, published by New York Review Books and translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann. Dense, death-haunted, bleakly erotic, Panorama pairs perfectly with Döblin’s immense and splendidly gritty novel, on whose shoulders rests, as Hofmann has it in his afterword, “the literary name and fame of the city of Berlin, if not the idea of modern city literature altogether.” The book follows the petty criminal Franz Biberkopf—“transport worker, housebreaker, pimp, manslaughterer”—as he attempts to go straight after a stint in Tegel, a Berlin prison, for beating his girlfriend to death. His fate, as relayed through dozens of slangily titled episodes (“Reunion on the Alex, Bitching Cold”), unspools with the sensational power of tabloid melodrama. While Biberkopf regains his bearings in the city, he vows to lead the life of a respectable man, selling newspapers and tie holders in the proletarian Alexanderplatz district. But after a friend’s betrayal upsets this delicate stasis, he returns to a life of crime, falling in with a band of con men, and eventually losing an arm after a failed heist. Following a period of convalescence, he meets and falls in love with Mitzi, a prostitute, who is then murdered by the devious, predatory Reinhold, a criminal associate. Biberkopf, distraught, opens fire in a crowded bar, and wounds a policeman. While in custody, he starves himself and enters a self-induced catatonic state. After a climactic confrontation with the figure of death, he returns to his senses and finds a stable but much diminished life as a menial laborer. Ground beneath the boot of rude, rapacious Berlin, Biberkopf, in lieu of love or purpose, is left “sniffing the air, sniffing the streets, to see if … they will still accept him.” The final chapter concludes with bitterly humbled wisdom: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

The scandalous, almost futurist velocity of Berlin Alexanderplatz undoubtedly contributes to its appeal. But while the book is funny, shockingly violent, absurd, strangely tender and memorably peopled, its lasting resonance lies not in its hulking antihero or picaresque narrative beats but rather in its collage-like depiction of the city. Threaded through Biberkopf’s epic tale are fabulous digressions—on meteorology, scripture, collective politics, popular song, death tolls, advertising slogans, animal husbandry, the baking of bread—that function as a kind of urban chorus. The inanimate city is electrified into a field of contesting energies. Somewhere between Walter Ruttmann’s dissonant montages and John Dos Passos’s “Camera Eye,” Döblin confers a form of consciousness on the metropolis itself.

Döblin was born in Stettin, Pomerania, in 1878. His introduction to Berlin was compelled by a personal catastrophe. His beloved father, a tailor, ran off with a younger woman, leaving his mother saddled with five young children. The family resettled in a seedy apartment on Berlin’s working-class Blumenstrasse, in the hopes of earning a better living in the city, but instead they lived in crushing poverty. Döblin, later, became a doctor, and he chose to practice medicine in a Berlin slum district for two decades. Throughout his professional life, he wrote steadily, first achieving notice with 1915’s The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, a novel which significantly influenced Bertolt Brecht. But while an outpouring of work followed—novels, plays, political tracts, poems, reportage—it produced little in the way of money. Döblin felt the bitterness of the prolifically unsuccessful. In 1928, due to flagging sales, his monthly stipends were cut off entirely by his publisher. The following year, his fortunes changed. Berlin Alexanderplatz was an unqualified critical and commercial triumph.

Alfred Döblin, ca. 1946

But how did a middle-aged medical doctor (and sometime psychiatrist) manage to write the ne plus ultra of city literature? Its creation was, for a time, something of a mystery. Döblin kept no journals, and any correspondence that may have referenced its composition was lost to time. This changed with the chance discovery of the Zürcher Fund, or “Zurich Trove,” a suitcase filled with the urban ephemera Döblin had marshaled for the writing of his great work: newspaper clippings, photographs, postcards, weather reports, personal letters, advertisements. “For a time,” Hofmann writes, “Döblin must have been a sort of literary cistern, inflow, outflow, and mysteries of drift and whirlpool and obscure current in between.” Like James Joyce, whose writing he admired, Döblin was fascinated by the individual soul that simmered within the fugue-like density of the metropolitan experience, a silhouette best glimpsed, if only obliquely, against the backdrop of the city itself.

This thoroughly modern approach to urban texture—articulated by way of soundscapes, transient images, jazzily syncopated rhythms—made Berlin Alexanderplatz eminently translatable to other media. The first attempt, in 1930, a short play for Berlin Radio Hour, never actually aired; the oversight board deemed a piece based on the work of a left-wing Jewish writer too risky to broadcast. This misfire was followed by a 1931 cinematic adaptation by Piel Jutzi, with a script cowritten by Döblin. While the film provides a glimpse into the rich Berlin milieu of the era (and features a powerful performance by the great Heinrich George as Franz Biberkopf), its ninety-minute run time sheers the novel of its strangeness and complexity.


Still from Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.


It would take a fifteen-hour television miniseries, directed by the acclaimed German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980, to capture the bombast and intimacy of Döblin’s squalid hymn. Having first devoured Berlin Alexanderplatz as a sexually confused teenager, Fassbinder located a sadomasochistic undercurrent to Biberkopf’s world, where brutality was merely another aspect of seduction. The film’s claustrophobic apartments and bars, suffused with a grainy, particle-rich light, depict Berlin as a kind of pen wherein the city’s inhabitants await a dimly apprehended slaughter. It is a delirious and sometimes uneven creation (the hallucinatory coda, in particular, may throw off Döblin traditionalists); still, Fassbinder’s palimpsest of violence and earthy joy—reminiscent of the Expressionist paintings of Max Beckmann and Otto Dix—introduced a new generation to Franz Biberkopf’s immortal saga.

Given this long and fruitful afterlife, one may question what a new edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz brings to the table; after all, Eugene Jolas’s 1931 translation remains a perfectly serviceable option for English readers. The answer, of course, begins and ends with Michael Hofmann. As an accomplished critic and poet, and noted translator of Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth, Hofmann has achieved an uncommon literary celebrity. A new translation bearing his name has become something of an event. While Jolas’s sturdily competent version is perhaps unfairly maligned today—Hofmann, it should be said, is gracious when taking the measure of his predecessor—this is a text that practically begs for Hofmann’s characteristic boldness. (When Ian Buruma, the editor of The New York Review of Books, referred to the streetwise and playfully inventive argot of Döblin’s book as “untranslatable” in a 2008 essay, perhaps it was meant to pique the interest of the formidable translator.) Luckily for readers, new and returning, Hofmann’s rhythmically pliable language renders a Berlin no less operatic for all its sordidness.

Döblin spent World War II bronzing miserably in Californian exile. In the creaking edifice of late Weimar cosmopolitanism, he had seen the nationalist writing on the wall. His 1929 novel, then, had a certain grim prescience: one can easily imagine the essentially apolitical Biberkopf taking up the mantle of Nazism in the years to come, even if only to prove his Germanness. For the contemporary reader, alert to the churning of Trump-stoked resentment and the rising of the far right worldwide, Berlin Alexanderplatz may prove a kind of cracked mirror. Döblin acts as both poet and prophet, though one wishes him only the well-deserved stature of the former.

For an eventually discarded preface to the book, Döblin wrote,“There are two paths in this world, one visible and one invisible.”  Though an ambiguous phrase, it feels of a piece with Döblin’s grand metropolitan vision. What else is the city but a collection of what can and can’t be seen, the quotidian and the fantastic, the work and the dream? Franz Biberkopf wanders between these two registers, at home in neither. To whom, then, does he finally belong? To Döblin or Fassbinder? To radio, film, or television? To Jolas or Hofmann? To literature or history? To all, one feels; and, like the greatest works of art, perhaps especially to the future.


Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Times.