Places: Berlin Alexanderplatz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Berlin Alexanderplatz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf, 1929 (English translation, 1931)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1927-1928

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Alexanderplatz

*Alexanderplatz. Berlin AlexanderplatzLarge, central square in the east central part of Germany’s capital city, Berlin. During the late 1920’s in which this novel is set, this square was a center of commerce, traffic, and working-class neighborhoods from which streetcar lines connect the entire city. Alexanderplatz is also the center of the novel, which revisits it countless times. The area is constantly under construction; a subway station is being built, and existing shops and houses are torn down to make room for new ones.

Döblin successfully captures the full atmosphere of the square, with its fast life, advertising slogans, popular songs playing in its cafés, and the cries of street vendors and newspaper agents, as well as random conversations among the passersby. This modernist collection of episodic slices of life fully evokes the bustle of human activities in Alexanderplatz, where life is hectic, transitory, and often devious. Burglary plagues Berlin, where no place is safe from plunder. The unwilling presence of the ex-convict Franz Biberkopf at one of these locations changes his life for the worse. Places outside Berlin have a remote quality; they tend to be locations of retreat or violence.

Alexanderplatz’s public houses of food and drinking serve as homes away from home for many characters. Many social activities occur in these places, all of which Döblin describes with a keen eye for atmosphere. These places typically have backrooms in which shady deals are negotiated. At Henschke’s, Biberkopf is thrown out for selling right-wing newspapers, and a police raid at Alexander Quelle has him arrested. Döblin also provides a graphic description of a central slaughterhouse and often refers to its slaughters when his characters encounter misfortune.

Dwellings of most characters are relatively drab, uninviting places, especially those of men living alone. The presence of their girlfriends brings them more liveliness. Important conflicts take place in some of these rooms, which see much mayhem and human despair. In general, Döblin’s characters prefer the streets or bars to their homes.

*Tegel prison

*Tegel prison. Penal institution in northwest part of Berlin, behind whose redbrick walls and black iron front gate, Döblin’s protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, has spent four years for killing his girlfriend Ida. The prison’s strict order distinguishes this place from the chaos of modern city life. Biberkopf has a hard time leaving the prison on the streetcar. His imagination cannot let go of the place. Later, he twice returns to look at the prison from the outside. Tegel is less severe than the rural penitentiary at Sonnenburg, the eventual home to Biberkopf’s false friend Reinhold. Its name, which means “castle of the sun,” is bitterly ironic.

Rabbi’s apartment

Rabbi’s apartment. Home of a Jewish man who takes in the freshly released Biberkopf. Located in the former Jewish quarter of Berlin, adjacent to Alexanderplatz, the apartment has a comfortably arranged living room with a large sofa, chairs, and a plush carpet. The rabbi’s home is open to his friends. As Biberkopf sinks into Berlin’s underworld, his visits to the apartment eventually cease.

*Freienwalde

*Freienwalde (fri-ahn-VAHL-dah). Idyllic resort town outside Berlin whose nearby forest is the site of Reinhold’s grisly murder of Mieze, Biberkopf’s girlfriend. Reinhold buries and reburies her in the summer woods, until her corpse is found and laid to rest in a Berlin cemetery.

*Buch Insane Asylum

*Buch Insane Asylum. Located in a bleak, rural landscape outside Berlin, this place signifies the historical geographic and social ostracism of the mentally ill, kept at the margins of cities. Biberkopf nearly starves himself to death here before he overcomes his shock at Mieze’s murder. Suffering a symbolic death, he reenters the city a new man.

BibliographyBerman, Russell A. The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Concludes that Weimar literature often ties political progressivism to a mystical faith in humanity, a linkage the author considers central to Döblin’s masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz.Boa, Elizabeth, and J. H. Reid. Critical Strategies: German Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972. In this survey of twentieth century German literature, Döblin’s book is discussed as regards its plastic rendering of space and its thematic insistence on the inseparability of the individual and an individual’s milieu.Dollenmayer, David B. The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin: “Wadzek’s Battle with the Steam Turbine,” “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” “Men Without Mercy,” and “November 1918.” Berke-ley: University of California Press, 1988. Indicates how Berlin Alexanderplatz was quite a departure for Döblin who until then had focused on intellectual protagonists and usually set his books in earlier times or in foreign lands.Durrani, Osman. Fictions of Germany. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994. A quarter of this 200-page book is devoted to Berlin Alexanderplatz, concentrating especially on Döblin’s masterful use of Berlin slang and on his montage techniques.Kort, Wolfgang. Alfred Döblin. New York: Twayne, 1974. Includes a valuable chapter on the author’s thoughts on the twentieth century epic, noting that Döblin considered Berlin Alexanderplatz an epic, not a novel. Kort argues that the book calls into play the creative power of the reader, who must help construct the text.
Categories: Places