Director Burhan Qubani on His Modern-Day Retelling of 'Berlin Alexanderplatz'

Sommerhaus
'Berlin Alexanderplatz'

The German helmer of Afghan origin takes on the 1920s literary classic from the perspective of a 21st-century African refugee.

Director Burhan Qubani has always lived between two worlds. The son of Afghan refugees, Qubani was born in 1980 in the small town of Erkelenz in western Germany and grew up Muslim in a deeply Catholic society. His films as a director have examined the perspective of "a stranger in a strange land."

His 2010 debut Shahada examines the fates of three German-born Muslims in Berlin caught between faith and modern, western life. 2014's We Are Young, We Are Strong follows disgruntled youth in Rostock, in East Germany, in 1992. Still reeling from the upheaval of German reunification, these kids, born in another country, lash out at immigrants being housed in their city, setting fire to an apartment building where some 120 Vietnamese live as a mob cheers them on. 

Qubani's third feature is also a story of a man caught between worlds. But the gap, along with Qubani's ambition, has gotten larger. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, the 39-year-old director transplants an African refugee into the heart of Alfred Döblin's 1929 modernist novel, one of Germany's great literary classics (and the source material for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's seminal 1980s TV series of the same name). In place of Franz Bieberkopf, the dim-witted petty criminal of Döblin's book, he has Francis, a refugee who has escaped death to come to Europe. Like Döblin's antihero, however, Francis, soon finds himself drawn into the Berlin criminal underworld and, despite his best efforts, is unable to rise up and become "a good man."

Berlin Alexanderplatz was rapturously received by critics at its world premiere at the 70th Berlinale and, if anything, current discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement have made the film, which screens at the Virtual Cannes Market, even more relevant. Qubani spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough about why he decided to take on the iconic novel, how he defines himself as a German-Muslim-Catholic, and what Berlin Alexanderplatz has to say about Germany today.

Do you remember your first reaction when you first read Alfred Döblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz?

I graduated in high school with a major in literature. Berlin Alexanderplatz was the test subject on the exam. So for a year and a half I read the book over and over again. I have to admit that at that time, I really didn't get it. I really had a love/hate relationship with the book. And I completely screwed up my final exams, which meant that my grades weren't good enough to get into medical school, which was my plan. So I ended up becoming a filmmaker.

When did you return to the book?

Around 14 years ago, I moved to Berlin and I picked up the novel again. And, as I was a script writer then, I started to develop a completely different relationship toward the book. Suddenly I could really appreciate what this book had to offer. Not just formally, because you have this stream-of-consciousness and montage technique that Döblin is using, but also the the cultural and social aspects of the story: how he shifts between the criminal underworld and the underclass and the upper reaches of society. 

A few years after that I was living near Hasenheide Park, which, like many other parks in Berlin, is a place where there's a lot of drug dealing going on. If you spend some time there, you realize that there's a parallel society there, right next to our society. But it's very out in the open. You have these middle-class parents and their kids walking around, there's a little zoo there, and then you have these drug dealers, who are like 100 percent black. Mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. I had this feeling that [to] these German kids, the only reference to the black community they had was as drug dealers, as criminals. So I wanted to make a film about this community. But I thought if I just told that story, it wouldn't reach an audience, at least not the German audience I wanted to reach. They wouldn't pay attention.

But then it clicked in my head: this community is like the proletarian small-time criminals of 1920s Berlin in Döblin's novel. They are part of society but are invisible for society. They try to reach the middle class but they never really have a chance. So I got the idea to tell this modern-day story through the story of Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Did you do much research into the real world of refugees and drug dealers in Germany?

Yes, of course. [Co-writer] Martin Behnke and I pride ourselves on our research. We're fanatics. We talked with people from the refugee community, but also with the police. In the first two drafts of the script, the film was much more focused on the refugee aspect, watching him arriving, going through the whole bureaucratic process of becoming German, et cetera. We realized we have a lot of scenes and a lot of important things to say about it. But we were completely losing the story of the novel. And there are films about the situation of refugees which give much better witness to the situation. We thought we wouldn't be doing the reality justice if we cut into it and then out of it without really giving context. So we decided to focus it much more on the story of the novel.

Your biggest innovation is to change the main character from the novel, the small-time criminal Franz Bieberkopf, into the African refugee Francis (played by Portuguese-Guinean actor Welket Bungué). What was the most challenging aspect of bringing this 1920s story into the modern day?

Well, this book is part of the of the canon of German literature — and world literature — so that's intimidating. And it's an epic book, so I had to take out a scalpel, cut off the fat, and, you know, rebuild it in my own vision, to not be smothered out of respect for the original material. Then there's the huge and frightening shadow that is the [Berlin Alexanderplatz] TV series by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

But at a certain point, I said fuck that. I know the critics will be harsh, I know they'll compare the film with Fassbinder. So let's say fuck it and do what what is closest to our vision. So we took the images and the plotlines of the novel and just cut away everything that was not cinematic, that wouldn't work in a movie. So we brought in [Francis' friend and nemesis] Reinhold earlier in the story. In the book he's a stutterer, but that's really hard to do in film because it takes up a lot of time and isn't cinematic, so we changed his stuttering into a sort of crippled physical movement. And instead of the godlike narrative perspective of the novel, we decided to tell it from the viewpoint of [Francis' lover] Mieze.

At several points you use Döblin's original text, spoken by the modern-day characters. 

I wanted to use Döblin's beautiful, amazing language but only when I thought it would really make a point. Only where we needed it, where it would help us push the story forward or to deepen our understanding of the characters.

A major addition to the plot, which is not in the novel, is Francis' refugee story. Your film We Are Young, We Are Strong also deals with the issue of refugees and their harsh treatment in Germany. It's obviously a topic you think a lot about. 

I think that this theme of a stranger in a strange world is something that intrigues me as a filmmaker as a storyteller. It's my narrative. Which has of course to do with my background. I was born as a child of a political refugee from Afghanistan here in Germany and I think my films are like trying to translate my personal narrative in different ways, in different stories.  

But the story of Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the novel and your film, is also deeply infused with Catholic imagery.

I grew up in a Catholic village. I learned the Lord's Prayer before I learned the Fatiha, which is the Arabic, Muslim equivalent. I think this Catholic, Christian background is something that is deeply imprinted in me. In a way it is like Döblin, who was born a Jew but became a Catholic around the time when he wrote the novel. That influenced his vocabulary, his canon of pictures. Even in my first film, Shahada [2010], I quote the apocalypse from the Gospel of John. And the voiceover in this film is quoting Christian scripture. The Catholic imagery in the film is taken from the novel, but it's something that's always had a fascination for me as somebody born between two cultures, being a Muslim but growing up in a small Catholic community and trying to adapt and absorb both cultures in equal measures. The film's plot follows this very Catholic idea of, two live is to suffer and to learn. You could say it's a Passion story. You have this guy, Francis, and when he arrives he has a lot of guilt, which is a very Catholic thing, and he has to be punished three times until he can forgive himself and, in a way, be born again as a new creature. It's a very Catholic pose, this idea that punishments from God are also gifts. But that's the Catholic inside me talking.

How do you define yourself as a director, either stylistically, or nationally?

I don't. I mean, my language is German. The way I think is German. But I really believe in the European idea. But now, even after 40 years here, I still feel I'm not completely absorbed in this society. I hope to become part of, you know, bigger community, the European community.

Also as a filmmaker, I could never put myself into categories like the Berlin School or Mumblecore or whatever, not because I find that limiting, but I just don't see I'm making films that are going in one specific direction. It took me a long time to realize that it's a benefit to be in between worlds and not be on one side or the other. When you're young you just want to fit in. It's torture not to. But when you have this huge privilege of being able to making a living as a storyteller, you realize that having a point of view very few other people have gives you an advantage and can help you relate to others. 

In my film, We Are Young, We Are Strong, for example, my characters, in East Germany, they see themselves wake up [after the fall of the Berlin Wall] in a Germany that isn't theirs anymore. They are strangers in their own country. I think that was a very universal feeling for people not only in East Germany, but in Eastern Europe. I think that as a filmmaker you have to start with your personal story and feelings. But you have to change it into something universal that touches a common, collective subconsciousness. Otherwise people will never really connect to your film.

What would you like the audience to take away from your film?

I made a decision when I started that I wanted to make movies that are relevant, that are current. I'm using public funding and using public money, [which] means I have, I think, a certain responsibility to talk about relevant issues. I mean, you need sci-fi films and romantic comedies and that stuff. It's important, too. But that's not what I do best and it's not what interests me.

You, as a journalist, have to be objective, and documentaries have to be objective, but in my cinema I can be subjective and I can use the space to create empathy. I can put my audience in the skin of somebody else — in this case, in the skin of somebody who has black skin. My only hope is that this feeling of disgust that I had that, you know, when I mentioned how people were stigmatizing those boys in the park, that maybe, after they see my movie, that next time when they go to the park, they've shaken off the stigma. That maybe they meet those black people in a different way.

As a Muslim in Germany I belong to the bigger community of Arabs, of Turkish and Kurdish people, and we have a very strong voice in Germany and Europe. But the African community here suffers much greater, systematic discrimination. We rarely hear their voices. If I can give a voice to just one of them for two, three hours, I'll be happy.