The original film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz is included in the Criterion Collection edition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV adaptation of the same novel. Running a scant 83 minutes (when compared to Fassbinder’s 15 hour adaption) this version is notable in that it was written by the author of the book, Alfred Döblin….
This is the story of Franz Biberkopf who is just out from jail after a four year stint for killing his girlfriend in a rage. Vowing to get his life together and go straight we watch as Franz almost instantly falls in with some bad guys and makes the acquaintance of Cilly, who will become his girlfriend. At first Cilly is supposed to get Franz to come around and become one of the gang; she grows protective of him, and remains so even after they part ways. Events turn dark and Beiberkopf tries to make the best of it.
I’m hard pressed to say how this short version, running some one tenth of the TV mini series, compares to either the longer version or to the novel itself. Its been decades since I saw any part of the Fassbinder version, and I’ve not read the novel, however I would assume that since Doblin was involved there is at least some kernel of the spirit of the book inside it.
I like the film. It’s a good little melodrama that seems less heavy than the longer adaption (or at least what I remember of it.) It's not all sturm and drang. You like Biberkopf and Cilly and all of the other characters and you care what happens to them. If there is anything wrong with the film it’s a bit too breezy, moving a bit too fast through events so that they don’t quite have the required weight that would have made this a great film.
What I love about the film, and the reason that I’m recommending it, is that it was largely filmed on the streets and in the country around Berlin. The film is full of street life and night life and people in the country. This has one of the best senses-of-place I’ve seen in film. I’ve seen dozens of documentaries and films set in the same period, and I never got a sense of what it was like to actually be living in Germany during that time. Despite being fiction, this is a film that is very much alive and well. It’s a living and breathing document of the Germany of 1930 (hell they even mention storm troopers in passing).
Definitely worth a look if you can find a copy.