“What is Alexanderplatz in Berlin?” asked Walter Benjamin in his review of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. As Döblin’s original readers would have known quite well, Alexanderplatz is a square in central Berlin that serves as a transportation hub and as the anchor of a commercial district. But for Benjamin, the key fact about Alexanderplatz in 1929, when Döblin’s book was published, was that it was a vast construction site, “where for the last two years the most violent transformations have been taking place, where excavators and jackhammers have been continuously at work, where the ground trembles under the impact of their blows.”
Alexanderplatz, then, was the scene of a modern metropolis coming dangerously and discordantly into being—just as Berlin does in Döblin’s novel. In his afterword, Michael Hofmann, who gives us an impressively wild and fearless new translation of the book, credits it with founding “the idea of modern city literature altogether.” This might be an exaggeration of its uniqueness: Any English-speaking reader will immediately think of James Joyce and John Dos Passos as parallels, if not necessarily precursors. Like them, Döblin makes use of stream of consciousness, collage and montage, the collision of discourses and registers. One might also think of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” with its hypnotic vision of London as an “Unreal City” and the crowds of the living dead flowing over London Bridge. But when the city in question is Weimar-era Berlin, the urban chaos and dread take on new dimensions. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, we are plunged into a cauldron of alienation, violence, and social breakdown that would, just a few years after Döblin wrote his novel, deliver all of Germany into the hands of the Nazis.
At the center of Döblin’s misanthropic pageant is Franz Biberkopf, a pimp and thief who, as the novel opens, has just been released from prison, after serving four years for beating his girlfriend to death in a rage. Franz is clearly no hero, but it would also be wrong to call him an antihero; he is almost too passive to be a protagonist at all. For the most part, things just happen to him, usually sordid and miserable things. Over the course of the novel, Franz will be run over and lose an arm; another of his girlfriends, Mitzi, will be murdered and buried in a suitcase. It is this last crime, for which Franz is indirectly responsible, that sends him back to prison and then to a mental hospital, where the novel reaches its nightmarish climax.
Put this way, the story of Franz Biberkopf sounds like a cross between a hard-boiled crime novel and a piece of agitprop about the fate of Berlin’s underclass. But Berlin Alexanderplatz transcends its genre elements, largely because of Döblin’s deep lack of hope about what can be expected of human beings. (Döblin was also a practicing physician, which may have informed his clinical view of the average Berliner.) A thriller must be suspenseful, but there is never much doubt as to how Franz’s story will end. Each step in his descent—his desultory attempts to earn a living, his half-hearted decision to join up with a gang, his injuries and losses and final breakdown—feels fated, as if it would be foolish to hope for anything better. The book even features chapter summaries that are deliberately deflating: “A speedy recovery, the man is back where he was, he has learnt nothing and understood nothing,” goes the introduction to chapter five.
Likewise, agitprop must rest on some implied vision of a better future. But while he was a committed leftist, Döblin offers very little sense of social possibility; the novel was attacked by communist critics for that reason. Franz is not totally apolitical: Early in the story, we find him singing right-wing anthems, which almost leads to a fistfight with some young communists in a pub. For a while he sells pornographic magazines, which leads to a flicker of unexpected sympathy for Weimar Germany’s nascent gay-rights movement. But each of these momentary arousals soon gives way to his usual selfish passivity: “But no, he’s not interested, he doesn’t want anything to do with them.”
The response Döblin could have made to such criticism is that Franz was never meant to be a proletarian at all. Though reference is made to his having once actually worked as a furniture mover, he is now firmly fixed in the lumpenproletariat. “Forget about working,” Franz lectures Emmi, a girl he picks up in a bar on “the Alex.” “Working gives you calluses, but not money. At most a hole in your head. Working never made anyone rich, I tell you. Only cheating.” In this sense, Döblin suggests, Franz is a good student of the lessons of recent German history. Everyone in Franz’s generation who followed the rules was killed or maimed in the war—the streets are full of crippled, begging veterans—or else bankrupted by the inflation of the early 1920s.
In refusing even the solidarity offered by Weimar’s extremist political movements, Franz has a kind of integrity: However miserable he may be, he is at least himself. Indeed, in the novel’s climax, it is Franz’s ability to confront his fate head-on, to accept the pain and guilt of his existence, that earns him a kind of salvation. In a magnificent, hallucinatory scene in the prison hospital, Franz comes face to face with Death. “Come, Franz, come closer to me so that you see me, see how you’re lying in an abyss, I will show you a ladder, and you will find a new way of seeing,” Death promises. Franz emerges from this torment as a different version of himself: “a new man who has the same papers as him.”
If Berlin Alexanderplatz were nothing but Franz’s story, however, it would not be such a powerful book. Franz gains his significance because he is meant to be a representative of Berlin, with all its selfishness, garishness, and heedlessness. No sooner has he returned to Berlin than he encounters the construction work on the Alexanderplatz: “On the corner he got held up, people were stood in front of a fence, there was a big hole there…. Look at that, they’re building an underground, there must be work to be had in Berlin after all.”
It is the language of modern urban life that is being blown up and rebuilt in these pages. The bravura beginning of the book’s second chapter is a montage of city life: weather reports, tram schedules, lists of addresses. Like an eavesdropping flaneur—or again like Eliot, who did the police in different voices—Döblin tunes in to the conversations and monologues of average Berliners, all of which are banal and unsavory: a drunk in a bar, an old man picking up a young girl. As the novel proceeds, it only gets more cacophonous, as Döblin continues to commingle newspaper headlines, biblical quotations, patriotic songs, puns, and lines from advertising campaigns. Apocalyptic refrains from the Book of Revelation resound throughout the text, as Berlin is implicitly compared to the Whore of Babylon.
Throughout, the prose is saturated with lowlife slang—Hofmann’s Anglicized equivalent of the legendary Berlin dialect, which Benjamin described as “a dialect that moves at a relaxed pace…in love with the way things are said.” Here, for instance, is how it sounds when Franz looks at himself in the mirror:
Up we get. Franz Biberkopf straightened himself out in front of the mirror. Who wasn’t pleased at all to see his pale, flabby, pimpled cheeks was Frankie BBK. My God, what a face, red lines across his brow, where on earth d’he get these red lines from, his cap, he supposed, and his schnozz, Christ, man, a thick red schnozz like that, doesn’t have to be from schnapps, I suppose, it’s cold out; but the glooping peepers, like a cow’s, where do I get those calves’ eyes from, and staring as if they were nailed fast. As if someone’d dunked me in syrup.
For Döblin, as for many of the leading German writers of his time, the most sinister thing about modernity was the colonization of the individual mind by parasitic discourses. Karl Kraus, the Viennese writer and editor of the satirical Die Fackel, blamed the First World War on the influence of journalism, which cloaked reality in predigested phrases. Martin Heidegger, around the same time, was writing about the menace of das Man, “the They,” who spoke an inauthentic dialect of idle chatter. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin made this loquacity the very center of the novel, and in so doing exposed its own terrifying shallowness. “I have been taken in by words before now, and have had to pay bitterly for it, that won’t happen to Biberkopf again,” Franz reflects in the novel’s final pages. “The words come rolling towards you, you need to watch yourself, see that they don’t run you over.” And that may be the best definition of Berlin Alexanderplatz: Döblin’s transcription of what it sounds like to be run over by words.