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How Alfred Döeblin Became The Defiant Nazi Germany's

Picture of Ida Reihani
Updated: 28 December 2016
Alfred Döeblin transforms the much-recognized center of Berlin in his masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Grim yet with a touch of black comedy, the book recounts the tale of Franz Biberkopf, a miserable pimp who has just been released from prison, as he stumbles yet again into the infernal lows of then-Berlin. Told in the working-class argot of pre-war Berlin, the book is a masterful mix of Berlin’s most notable characteristics and Biberkopfs’ battered self. Its particular vernacular has deemed it impossible to translate into other languages without losing the flavor of the original; still if one could take up the challenge of reading the set masterpiece in German, he could be certain of the most gratifying experience.

Döeblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is an ode to Berlin and a literary breakthrough. While many view it on par with James Joyce’s Ulysses, the book is unique in its use of literary montage to propel the story onward. Considered by most to be the centerpiece of Doeblin’s literary profession, the novel was adapted for the silver screen twice and constituted in its second adaptation by Fassbinder in 1980 to be one of the masterpieces of the filmmaker’s career.

Just like his protagonist, Döeblin’s life had proven to be a mix of constant struggle and short phases of relative tranquility. Born to assimilated Jews, Alfred had soon become aware of the general anti-Semitic sentiments early in his life. Abandoned by his father, Alfred moved to Berlin with his mother and siblings to live in a shabby apartment building. He was a good student and showed artistic inclinations even before finishing high school. His literary breakthrough came with the publication of The Three Leaps of Wang Lunwhich was an exotic and detailed account of an 18th-century uprising in China and was received favorably by both the critics and the general public. Though not his first novel, the piece was Döeblin’s first published book and, after Berlin Alexanderplatz, is his most commercially successful work.

It was, however, the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929 that cemented his literary status as one of the greatest modern writers of the Weimar Republic. Apart from its controversial subject matter in dealing with sexuality and moral dilemmas, the book was fresh in its use of unprecedented literary tools and techniques as the central Berlin neighborhoods fall in and out of the narrative. One could almost hear the passing trams and see the flickering neon lights; one could almost live through the mix of ‘Alex’ bars and cheap halls as Biberkopf drinks his way through, loves and has rough and often bizarre sexual encounters, tries to be decent man and lead a decent life and yet gets betrayed and often beaten down. As Doeblin once said, ‘Although he does all right economically, he is at war with an outside force, unpredictable, something that looks like fate.’

In a 1980 essay on the book, Fassbinder urged his audience to read the masterpiece ‘for the sake of the readers and for the sake of life.’ For those who cannot cherish the masterpiece in its original German language, Fassbinder’s great film is still there to be enjoyed.