Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the Representation of Metropolitan Experience

Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in Germany in 1929, is a key example of the Modernist endeavor to encapsulate a new metropolitan experience. Following the mass industrialisation of the previous century, new urban centres had materialised holding thousands of people. Germany in particular became ‘modernised’ at a fast rate, developing from an agrarian principality into the industrial, democratic centre of Europe within a short period. New technologies were changing the environment; street lamps altered the spatial arrangement of night time in the city, electric trams enveloped the pedestrian and the street. This city space forced new forms of crowded yet anonymous interaction, as the Futurists noted in 1910:

the sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten, four three; they are motionless and they change places, they come and go bound into the street.

The Futurist exhibition held at Berlin’s Der Sturm gallery in 1912 made a big impact in Germany. The Italians’ work celebrated the technology, dynamism and collectivism of the city in contrast to the anxiety-leaden individualism of the Expressionist movement that had been prevalent in Germany up to that point. Döblin had reviewed the exhibition for the gallery’s journal, and expressed his excitement at its glorification of the city. He was in favour of the modernising process, recognising its possibilities for collective social organisation. While, only a year after the exhibition, Döblin had renounced Futurism as ‘narrow and dogmatic’, its formal influence remained evident in his work for the rest of his life. After the First World War he began using a variety of new techniques in order to capture the excitement of movement within the metropolis, with Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf his most successful work. The novel is set between the years 1927 and 1929 and tells the story of a 30-year-old labourer. After four years in Tegel prison for the manslaughter of his wife, Franz, returns to the city with the intention to live a ‘respectful life’ amidst the hustle and bustle of Berlin.

Book 1
In Berlin Alexanderplatz Döblin incorporates a complex combination of elements which provoke an altered engagement from the reader in response to the changing subjective experience amid the heightened activity of metropolitan life. Throughout the novel he gives equal importance to the characters and their environment, as reflected in the title which incorporates both ‘the story of Franz’ and his co-star and antagonist, Alexanderplatz. Through this split characterisation, Döblin removes a singular central character.

The novel concentrates on Franz’s traversal of the city, however, Döblin’s figure is without the flâneur‘s observational distance, he is not set apart from the crowd but is instead subsumed within the vibrations of the city:

He starts little by little to go about the streets, he walks around Berlin.
Berlin: 52° 31’ North Latitude, 13° 25’ East Longitude, 20 main line stations, 121 suburban lines, 27 belt lines, 14 city lines, 7 shunting stations, street-car, elevated railroad, autobus service.

Döblin juxtaposes detailed description of Berlin’s physical infrastructure with Franz’s movements, immersing the man with his environment through the use of objective language. This style is representative of a general shift in art and literature in late twenties Germany with the development of Neue Sachlichkeit and a turn toward representing the ‘thing-in-itself’. Artists and writers aimed to depict everyday life in a way that moved away from what they saw as a ‘bourgeois’ abstraction of form and instead offered a universalised ‘matter-of-fact’ approach. In Berlin Alexanderplatz Döblin uses the increased circulation of journals and newspapers to aid this approach in both style and content. This mediums’ accessibility and ephemeral nature suited the constant momentum of the city, prompting Futurist Marinetti to suggest that the city is like a newspaper, housing simultaneous occurrences under a unifying whole. Döblin, as a prominent critic and journalist, was aware of the importance of this new form of communication which he felt, forced changes to be made within literature:

newspapers have grown powerful, [and] are the most important and widespread form of the written word, the daily bread of all men

Döblin embraces the objective language of print journalism, inserting entire news stories and weather reports:

the weather report for the Atlantic ocean is as follows: cyclonic depressions, one after another, are coming from North America in an easterly direction, while the two high-pressure areas in Central America and between Greenland and Ireland, are stationary.

Gabriele Sander, in her essay Döblin’s Berlin, describes how the author collected numerous clippings from the Grüne Post and Mottenpost which during the writing process he incorporated into his text with glue. Döblin’s physical combination of printed material is mirrored in the montage techniques common in Germany at this time which saw artists move away from an attempt to ‘represent’ the objects of the external world, instead choosing to create through the direct assemblage of objective material. Their bypassing of the ‘realist’ artwork was a direct recognition of the style’s inability to reflect the ‘complexity and richness of human lives’. Like Döblin, Hannah Höch worked in this way, depicting the Weimar city machine entirely from newspaper and magazine cuttings. Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife of 1919 incorporates prints and photographs of recognisable objects as well as prominent contemporary figures. Similarly, in the novel, Döblin makes specific reference to historical figures and events through the news reports included in the narrative:

Danger of a crisis in the Reichstag, talk of March elections, probably April elections, which direction, Joseph Wirth?

This creates an immediacy for the reader, approaching a present tense appropriate to the city in contrast to the authoritative ‘looking back’ narrative common to the novel form. It also creates a snapshot of Berlin at a specific moment in time. Furthermore, the assemblage places simultaneous yet separate events within the same frame, joining seemingly disparate topics together for the viewer.

Montage, as employed in the work of Otto Dix, also aids the depiction of physical disjuncture within Berlin society. Prager Strasse (1920) shows two disfigured men on a busy street, manifestations of the ‘useless cripples’ Franz discusses at various points in the novel. Often victims of the First World War, these peripheral figures had a strong presence in the city and feature throughout German art and literature of the period. August Sanders’ Citizens of the Twentieth Century incorporates a section devoted to ‘The Last People’, while poetry from figures like Gottfried Benn demonstrates a dark and gruesome fascination with bodily mutilation. In Döblin’s novel the degradation of the body is depicted through the loss of Franz’s arm in Book 5, in a physical representation of the city’s domination through which ‘inch by inch he is hacked into pieces’. The montage elements in Prager Strasse, as with Höch and Döblin, suggest a disjointed whirl of activity beyond the frame, comparable to the intercut descriptions of anonymous characters and events in the book. In the image, as the city inhabitants pass the men on the street, they become subsumed within an environment that highlights their plight through its references to contraception and war in the newspapers and prosthetic limbs in the shop windows.

The effect Döblin uses to capture events outside of an individual character is also indicative of techniques common in film at this time. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City was released in September 1927, just as Döblin began writing the novel. The film uses a documentary style, transferring Neue Sachlichkeit objectivity to German cinema. It documents a full day in Berlin, from the start of the workday through to the citizens’ leisure pursuits at night, and uses various montage techniques that seem to embody the book in visual form. Both the novel and the film represent the human subject and the metropolitan world of technology and industry as part of a co-dependent, complicated relationship. In Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City scenes cut from wide-pan shots of city squares to detailed imagery of machine parts, architecture and newspapers. The changes of viewpoint are similar to the changes in narrative voice within the book, chopping from an individualised first person detail to an objective, distanced view of Berlin. In one scene the camera cuts sharply from the busy conglomeration of an anonymous crowd to a close up shot of a conversation between a man and a woman amidst the street’s activity. Similarly, Book 4 in the novel begins with an ‘aerial shot’ of Alexanderplatz:

Liquor shops, restaurants, fruit and vegetable stores, groceries and delicatessen, moving business, painting and decorating, manufacture of ladies’ wear, flour and mill materials, automobile garage, extinguisher company

Döblin then shifts abruptly to a direct dialogue between the narrator and Franz in the next section:

Franz Biberkopf, watch out, how’s all this boozing going to end!

As David Dollenmayer suggests, the current of images and ‘shifting interpenetration of outer and inner action’, demonstrate that the film’s montage technique clearly influenced Döblin’s book. In addition to the shifting proximity of the audience, the intercutting of different scenes effectively represents the simultaneity of city activity. The city’s momentum becomes the main narrative thread, replacing an individual account with the depiction of a more collective experience that still recognises the importance of each person within ‘the multitudinousness of the city’. The assortment of scenes acknowledges the impossibility of capturing the metropolis as a whole, instead representing a fast moving, fluid entity.

As early as 1903, Georg Simmel noted that the city environment had led to changes in social interaction. The hyperactivity of the urban setting had removed the capacity for reflection in the individual and resulted in the ‘atrophy of individual culture.’ The objective realism and disjointed coupling within these montage compositions seems to capture the fracture and speed of action in the city, in direct contrast to the linear narrative and ‘realism’ which seemed to represent the static and subdued agrarian past. Simmel’s ‘atrophy’ can be seen in the depiction of Franz’s internal dialogue in the book which is consistently interrupted by the sounds of the city:

‘Open that door.’ Rumbledy, bumbledy, bumbledy bee. Rumbledy. A piece of twine on my tongue; got to spit it out.

The onomatopoeic phrases sliced into the text, like the intercut details in the film, act as reminders of the city’s unremitting bustle and noise. This continuous assault on the senses turns Franz into Baudelaire’s ‘nerve ridden’ modern man, constantly under attack from the relentless motion of the city. In addition, Döblin creates a more complex representation of time in individual consciousness. The ‘boom, boom’ sounds are repeatedly pasted throughout the novel, as are stories and memories. Seemingly referencing Henri Bergson’s writings on memory, the book portrays the impossibility of Franz divorcing his recollections of past events from present experience. An example of this can be seen in the flashbacks to his time in prison which are dropped into the present whenever he feels threatened by the urban environment:

Franz stood there, trembling and nursing his bruised arm. Prisoners are not to conceal diseases, nor shall they malinger; both offenses are punishable. Deathly silence in the house;

These recurring memories are reminiscent of Freudian trauma, a notion familiar to Döblin through his previous work in psychiatry. Franz’s distressing episodes, as a consequence of their constant repression, intermittently eat into his current consciousness. Walter Benjamin, in his essay Some Motifs in Baudelaire, suggests that it is precisely modern literature and artwork that  directly confronts traumatic experience by expressing this interconnected and complex relationship between human consciousness and the shock of urban life. However in Berlin Alexanderplatz this recurrence of past experience is coupled with literary intimations of Henri Bergson’s ‘durée’ through descriptions of internal thoughts that extend the temporal moment beyond that feasible to the speed of Berlin’s activity. Book 9, which describes Franz’s treatment in the Buch Asylum, is clearly influenced by Döblin’s experiences within psychiatry but more generally, this background enables him to more accurately express the complexity of the inner mental state. This is evident in the episodes of Franz’s heightened anxiety, where Döblin’s use of language becomes more disjointed and incoherent:

2 times 2 is 4, no use talking.
Here you see a man, excuse me, you’re a busy man. I’ve got such awful stomach trouble. I’ll know how to get hold of myself. A glass of water, Frau Schmidt

A similar technique is employed within Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City, where, mid-way through, the splicing of frames speeds up in accordance with the increase in worker activity before this becomes overwhelming and the film retreats to an abstracted spiral illustration. Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City and the book create a different conceptualisation of time, shifting perspectives and offering a fragmentation of internal thoughts, which parallel Simmel’s recognition of the city’s ‘paranoid, disoriented individual’. The removal of linear narrative mirrors the removal of individuality within the city and the anxiety felt from the hyperactivity of the early twentieth century environment, which saw the ‘collapse of the self-assured subjectivity of the nineteenth century.

Book 2
The use of overlapping stories, sounds, and images within Berlin Alexanderplatz could risk overwhelming the reader. Therefore amidst these fragmented techniques one finds narrative signposts in the form of biblical and classical references. Throughout the novel Döblin makes frequent reference to man’s fall from Paradise, the tribulation of Job, the sacrifice of Isaac and the whore of Babylon:

Once upon a time there lived in Paradise two human beings Adam and Eve.
See how the whore rejoices! The whore of Babylon.

In other sections he incorporates Greek mythology:

Is he hounded by things in his past, Ida and so on, by conscientious scruples, nightmares, restless sleep, tortures, Furies from the day of our great-grandmothers? Nothing doing. Just consider the change in his situation. A criminal, an erstwhile God-accursed man (where did you get that, my child?), Orestes, killed at the altar Clytemnestra, hardly pronounceable that name, eh?

Döblin’s use of these allegorical stories acts as reinforcement for the overall structure of the book. In Technique & Structure in Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Kathleen Komar suggests that Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence can be seen as a metaphor for Franz’s personal temptations but also the lure of the metropolis, a modern day Babylon. In addition the myth of Orestes and the Furies signifies judgement, retribution and anger, while the sacrifice of Isaac can be seen as mirroring the murder of Franz’s girlfriend Mieze. The canonical stories, through their familiarity, offer a pathway into the modern style and subject matter of the book, acting as a parallel synopsis of the novel’s content for the ‘alienated modern man’ as reader. This method is also apparent in other contemporaneous works such as T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which heavily references Greek and Christian mythology, Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) which incorporates symbolic references to the tower of Babel and the recurring city of Babylon, and Bertolt Brecht’s The Rise & Fall of Mahagonny (1928) which can be read as a modern retelling of the Cities of Pain. In painting, the Neue Sachlichkeit artist Max Beckmann continually references religious and classical allegory. His paintings such as Descent from the Cross and Christ and The Woman Taken in Adultery combine biblical stories of death and transfiguration with the contemporary subjects of war and poverty. Peter Selz suggests that The Dream of 1921, which again depicts the peripheral characters of the beggar, prostitute and prisoner, references the Nail of the Cross panel from the 15th century Karlsruhe Passion, noting that it had been displayed in Berlin around the time Beckmann’s painting was made. Central to the image is the cross upon which a prisoner is attached by disfigured hands, while this same figure holds a fish, the Christian symbol for Christ. Beckmann’s paintings not only reference classical literature but also traditions in painting style. His regular use of a triptych format references the common arrangement of altar panels. In addition, the elongation of the figure, bold colour, and brutal detail show influences from the German gothic painter Matthias Grünewald. This homage to German heritage through stylistic form is also reflected in the folk songs within Berlin Alexanderplatz that embody the growing nationalism of 1920s Berlin. These references in modern Berlin dialect appear in direct contrast to the Biblical tales.

The artist and author turn to myth as a symbol of the ‘primitive fantasies of human beings’. The classical references in the work of Döblin and Beckmann seem to offer enduring and powerful explanations beyond the capacity of the reason of the modern world. These representations of the human condition present something constant, a suspension of time in contrast to the temporality and change of the modern city. This concurs neatly with Baudelaire’s description of modernity’s dual character:

the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable

The allegorical stories inherent in the Bible or Greek literature seem to encapsulate ‘elementary situations of human existence’ which have a persistent relevance that transcend time, much like a Nietzschean eternal return that sees humanity’s cycle play out ad finitum.

Book 3
Both the classical references, use of montage, and objective language provoke a direct engagement with the reader consistent with the development of alienation effect (Verfremdungseffect). While primarily associated with Brecht’s theatre productions, Berlin Alexanderplatz can be seen as embodying the same techniques for a type of ‘epic’ literature. Döblin and Brecht were friends, with the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Brecht’s notes on epic theatre released within a year of each other. Both authors created work that deliberately set out to be difficult, jolting their audience out of a comfortable, lazy viewing position.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz, this is created through a complex web of techniques. The novel is split into nine ‘books’, all of which open with a synopsis of the chapter to come. These introductory paragraphs break down the auratic element of the narrative, embodying an abrupt interruption from the authorial voice:

Franz Biberkopf is badly burnt. He now stands safe and sound contentedly on Berlin ground, and if he says he wants to be good, we can believe him, he will be good. You’re going to see how he stayed decent for many a week, but it’s only a respite, so to speak.

Döblin’s forewords continually explain the arc of the novel, destroying the progressive linear development. This breaking of the ’fourth wall’ common to theatre and cinema also occurs within the chapters, where Döblin addresses the reader directly; ‘some of my readers are worried about Cilly.’ Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny works similarly. Each scene is opened with an elevated screen upon which texts are projected. (Interestingly these projections also incorporate photomontage and objective statistical information like the novel). In the same way as the introductory paragraphs in Berlin Alexanderplatz, these directly address the viewer, setting out what is to come:

One day there came to Mahagonny among others a man called Jimmy Gallagher. We are going to tell you his story’

The preambles in the book break the work’s totality into clearly demarcated chapters. Once again this looks to the classical past in its resemblance of the episodic structure of the Greek epic which used orators to continually narrate the progression of the play and guide the audience to its intended conclusion. Döblin felt that this was vital for a successful work of literature suggesting that:

If you can’t cut a novel into ten pieces like an earthworm and each piece move independently, then it’s no good.

Despite their emphasis as distinct parts, the individual chapters in the novel still work together as a compositional whole, like the montage constructions of Höch and Dix. However, rather than concentrate on the end point or concluding finale, these works draw attention to the course of the story. Döblin’s somewhat confusing conclusion of Berlin Alexanderplatz is deliberately enigmatic, as to encourage a more close examination of the journey through the novel and its provocation of awakening in the reader. The separation of the elements in the novel references the limit of the representational form of the novel itself. The reader is forced to create their own interpretation and formulate their own bridges between fragments. Döblin and Brecht create an arena within which the reader can independently evaluate the work.

This ‘alienation effect’ can also be seen in August Sander’s collection of photographs Faces of Our Time (1929) which featured an introduction by Döblin. As documentary images they embody the absolute objectivity of the Neue Sachlichkeit genre, presenting a ‘true’ depiction of the inhabitants of Germany in the twenties and thirties. However pictures like Pastry Chef (1928) seem to exaggerate the role by which the individual is identified. His pose, directed straight at the camera, cooking prop in hand, is reminiscent of an actor playing a role, something Brecht touches on in his notes for acting:

the prerequisite for the [alienation] effect is that the actor must accentuate what he has to show with a clear demonstrative gesture.

These are instructive images in the same way as Döblin’s introductory texts direct the viewer, removing illusion and labelling the content of the work. Reminiscent of Simmel’s suggestion that the new inter-subjective relations of the city environment had created interpersonal relationships more heavily based in vision than sound, Sander uses a heightened observational ability, relying on a viewer that is tuned into visual inconsistencies between the artwork and their expectations of real experience. The images exaggerate their content in a way that calls attention to the limits of the photograph as a ‘truthful’ representational medium. These methods aim to transform familiar and accessible everyday scenes into something striking and unnerving. In doing so they highlight the limits of the conceptualisation of experience and invite a more critical awareness of given realities. Sander’s photographs and Döblin’s novel draw attention to that which is not expressed through the formal language. The ‘continuous dissonance’ in the montage and alienation techniques shocks the viewer out of a reified dream state. Instead the uncomfortable elements of the work ‘arouses the spectator’s capacity for action’ and ‘forces him to take decisions’ about the artwork, but also about the accepted realities of metropolitan experience.

Germany was a dramatically different place to that of before 1914, ravaged by war and with a radically different political structure. Psychologist, Ernst Simmel indicated in 1918 that this would have a profound effect on the modern citizen, adrift in his surroundings:

it is not only the bloody war which leaves such devastating traces in those who took part in it. Rather, it is also that difficult conflict in which the individual finds himself in his fight against a world transformed by war

Berlin Alexanderplatz’s captures this cultural shift and through its brutal, disjointed portrait of the Berlin of 1929 attempts to address the shock experience of life in the modern metropolis.


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