'This story isn't about refugees, it's about outsiders': Burhan Qurbani brings fresh take to classic 'Berlin Alexanderplatz'

The filmmaker's third feature film, which will premiere in Berlin this week, is a contemporary adaptation of Alfred Doblin's seminal novel

Movie's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" director Burhan Qurbani poses for a photo during a TV interview with Reuters ahead of the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
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In a tearoom on Rosenthaler Strasse, in Berlin's Mitte district, Burhan Qurbani is gearing up for the premiere of his latest film at the Berlin International Film Festival this week. But although Berlin Alexanderplatz is taking part in the Berlinale's official competition, winning a coveted award isn't at the forefront of the filmmaker's mind.

“At my first Berlinale, I really wanted to win a bear,” he says, referring to the competition’s prize named after the city’s bear-shaped crest. “This year, I’m happy to give my actors, who gave their soul to the camera, the chance to show on the biggest screen in Berlin.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz is the 39-year-old's third feature film, and tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a refugee from sub-Saharan Africa and an illegal migrant in the German capital. It is a contemporary adaption of Alfred Doblin's epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), a modernist classic set in the city during the days of the Weimar Republic, politically turbulent years that led to the rise of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, more commonly known as the Nazi party.

Born in Germany to Afghan parents, Qurbani's films centre on migration and identity. His first feature Shahada (2010), about the lives of three German-born Muslims, was nominated for the Berlinale's Golden Bear in 2010.

“To research my films, I start with my own life,” he says, “My parents fled political persecution after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They came to Germany with two suitcases. They struggled because they didn’t speak the language. My brother and I were brought up as Muslims.”

But taking on a seminal text in German literature required a different kind of bravery, and it took some groundwork to get approval to adapt the novel. "We met with Doblin's youngest son, now in his 90s. It took some talking. He asked us to honour his father's heritage," recalls Qurbani. "For him, the novel was about an isolated person who eventually finds himself back in the community."

But the benchmark for cinematic adaptations of the work was already high. A 15-hour rendering by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980 is today considered a masterpiece of European cinema. “[At the time] the press slammed Fassbinder’s adaptation. We expect the same to happen to us,” says Qurbani.

In Doblin's novel, convicted murderer Biberkopf attempts to become a good man as he navigates the city's seedy underworld. Likewise in Qurbani's film, Franz, played by Portuguese-Guinean actor Welket Bungue, hopes to start afresh after washing up on a beach in southern Europe. But in Berlin, he meets the devious Reinhold, played by Albrecht Schuch, who draws him into the city's illicit drug trade.

“Franz wants to be a good man,” explains Qurbani, “but he has lost his dignity, he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and forges toxic relationships.”

The film particularly aims to shed light on a marginalised community of sub-Saharan migrants in Germany, which Qurbani believes are often ignored. “Doblin’s Franz Biberkopf is a sub-proletarian. He’s part of everyday life and yet he’s invisible,” says the filmmaker, “Likewise, sub-Saharan communities in Germany are often out of our sight while other communities of Turkish, Afghan or Arab origin have a strong voice in public life.”

Often dubbed Germany's "first urban novel", Doblin's work attempts to capture the spirit of Berlin in the interwar years. Like many of his contemporaries including painter George Grosz, the author focused on the city's criminals and maimed soldiers to convey the aftermath of the First World War and fomenting fascism.

For Qurbani, rendering the city 90 years on since Berlin Alexanderplatz was first published came with challenges. Today, Berlin is the capital of Europe's largest economy. "Berlin is neither a beautiful nor a cinematic city. It was heavily destroyed by the war," says Qurbani.

Movie's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" director Burhan Qurbani and actor Welket Bungue pose for a photo during a TV interview with Reuters ahead of the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

The director spent a year thinking about the film's visual language. "We weren't interested in showing real estate, tourism and high-street fashion brands," he says.  He intentionally avoided the visible gentrification of the Mitte, the area encompassing the Alexanderplatz and Rosenthaler Strasse, where most of the novel takes place. Some scenes were shot outside Berlin, including on the construction site of a new high-speed railway in Stuttgart, a city in southern Germany.

"The film is less about Berlin as a physical space, but about the parallel societies living there, such as refugees, small-time criminals," says Qurbani, among others.

The film's focus on the life of a refugee highlights political shifts in contemporary Germany. An estimated 1.3 million refugees have entered the country since 2015. "It was a beautiful moment of willkommenskultur," says Qurbani referring to the German concept of offering welcome and support to migrants.

Cinema is a space for empathy. When you watch a film, you physically live the life of another person for two hours

This was, however, followed by a rise in right-wing resentment towards immigrants. Qurbani and I meet in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack in Hanau, where a lone gunman killed nine people of migrant background. “My father lived for 10 years in Hanau, the attack hurt me deeply,” he says.

Qurbani addressed right-wing extremism in his 2014 second feature, Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark (We Are Young. We Are Strong), which was based on neo-Nazi riots targeting asylum seekers in 1992.

Giving voice to the misunderstood appears key to Qurbani’s filmmaking. “Cinema is a space for empathy. When you watch a film, you physically live the life of another person for two hours. You see another perspective, different communities that have the same problems. My work is part of a democratic dialogue,” he says.

Does he worry that Berlin Alexanderplatz could perpetuate right-wing stereotypes about migration and crime? "We were aware of the dangers. We tried to give the main character agency over his story," says Qurbani.

To which he adds: “This story isn't about crime or refugees. It’s a story about outsiders.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz screens at the Berlin International Film Festival on Wednesday, February 26