Berlin Alexanderplatz Critical Context - Essay

Alfred Döblin

Critical Context

Berlin Alexanderplatz is Döblin’s greatest novel and the one with which his name is immediately and, outside Germany, almost exclusively associated. He had won national renown before its publication: He was, with Herwarth Walden, a founder of the expressionist periodical Der Sturm in 1910; he furthered German avant-garde literature with works such as Die drei Sprunge des Wang-lun (1915; the three leaps of Wang-lun), Wallenstein (1920), Berge, Meere und Giganten (1924; mountains, seas, and giants), and his epic poem Manas: Epische Dichtung (1927); he had won the Kleist Prize in 1922 and was elected to the Writers’ Society of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1928. It was with Berlin Alexanderplatz, however, that he established himself as a major figure of world literature. This novel, written during 1928 and 1929, overshadows all that Döblin wrote both before and after it.

This novel is the culmination of Döblin’s literary expressionism. It is marked by bold and broad exposition; kaleidoscopic shifts of narrative; catalogs of facts and data; collages of topographical, meteorological, medical, psychological, and mathematical details; montages of scenes and episodes; flashbacks and flashforwards; anticlassicism; antiheroism; and antibourgeoisism. Where it appropriates traditional forms, such as triadic structure or Menippean satire (the combination of prose and verse), it does so in a context of impudence. It is comparable to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Yet while Döblin expressed admiration for Joyce’s novel, he denied its having served him as a model and insisted that both he and Joyce derived their methods from the expressionists, Dadaists, and similar schools.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was adapted by the author, in collaboration with Max Bing and Hugo Döblin, as a radio play in 1930, as revised by Wolfgang Weyrauch, in 1959. Döblin and Hans Wilhelm wrote the screenplay for its first adaptation to film in 1931. The novel was adapted to television in 1983 by Rainer Maria Fassbinder and was subsequently released as a theatrical film.