Berlin Alexanderplatz

by Alfred Döblin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), Alfred Döblin recreates an exact picture of his era and touches on eternal questions of existence. The story of the cement worker and later furniture mover Franz Biberkopf, who has served four years in Tegel Penitentiary for murdering his girlfriend Ida, is interspersed with pictures of Berlin in the 1920s, real advertisements, and newspaper articles of the time. The author absorbs himself into the atmosphere of the city, which has already begun to be overshadowed by nascent Nazism.

Döblin’s Berlin constantly mutates. The city becomes the dominant character of the novel, while its protagonist tries to resist this new urban power. It is important for Döblin to show that an ordinary person gets lost in the oppressive city. The protagonist ends up being placed in a mental institution because he fails to keep up with the tempo of the city life and overcome his misfortunes.

Franz’s release from jail is not the long-awaited freedom he had anticipated; rather, it is a punishment, because he is out of touch with the normal life and his city has changed to the point of being unrecognizable.

Although Franz is a simple man who is healthy, strong, and fast in thinking, he feels like a helpless child in this city where he is forced to come back to the drawing board.

As he leaves the jail, he decides to live honestly, but his illusions disappear at once. He no longer feels at home in the city. Too soon, he clashes with his fate. He suffers three terrible blows, and his plans for living a good life are broken. He is deceived and betrayed by Lüders, yet he manages to recover. He hardly copes with the second blow (his prison experience and physical strength are taken advantage of by Reinhold, a veteran and old offender). Franz loses one of his arms as Reinhold pushes him under a moving truck. But the final blow (Reinhold kills Mitzi, Franz’s lover) leads to Franz’s moral end.

Thus, the protagonist who has been struggling to the utmost for his moral survival finally breaks down. He gives up and finds no solution to the situation. At the insane asylum, he stops eating in the hope that he will die. But at the last moment, it becomes obvious to him that he is responsible for his own life.

Life has acquired a new meaning for him. In the end, we see him on Alexanderplatz. He has really changed and has suffered greatly. But now he understands where he needs to be. He is truly free now, although he cannot regain what he has lost. And he is no longer alone. This is the end of his story, as narrated by Döblin:

We leave him as an assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He is no longer standing all alone on Alexanderplatz. There are some to the right and left of him, and in front of him are some, and others are behind him. Much misfortune comes of walking alone. If there are several of you, that is already better. You have to get used to listening to other people, because what others say concerns me. Then I see who I am and what I can take on. My battle is being fought on all sides of me, I have to pay attention, before I notice anything it’s my own turn.

In the above example of a quasi-philosophical monologue in which first- and third-person narratives blend (Döblin’s characteristic technique), Franz says that he is now able to tell the truth from the lie. He understands that the individual is important and that one cannot blame everything on fate.

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