Before tonight’s film showing started, there was a quick Q&A with the director and main actors. When asked about the appropriateness of using Black actors in this remake of Alfred Döblin‘s 100-year old classic, Welket Bungué who plays Francis said (something like) the film is about Berlin. This is what Berlin looks like now.
Francis is from Guinea and survived a sea crossing in which he lost his wife? partner? Ida. But don‘t call him a refugee. He is a new arrival. He is Germany. We follow Francis from him landing on some South European beach through his work as a labourer, cook and drug dealer, before he effectively takes over the show. Well almost.
Francis‘s fate is always tied up with that of the Mephistopheles figure Reinhold. At the start of the film, Reinhold is creepy, slightly deformed and speaks in a whiney voice. In a previous era, he‘d have been played by Peter Lorre. We first meet him in the refugee house where Francis lives. Telling the inhabitants that they have no work permit, no residency papers and little control over their lives, he offers them money and self-control running drugs for him.
At first Francis is sceptical, but when he is made to take the blame for a near-fatal accident at the construction site where he‘s working, he is gradually forced into Reinhold‘s orbit. As well as dealing in the Hasenheide park, this also means fancy clubs, friendly prostitutes (the role of most women in the film is to join the queue to sleep with Francis) and tense encounters with a gangster called Pums, played with malicious authority by veteran actor Joachim Krol.
Francis gains stature, but never escape casual racism, most obviously from Pums, who regularly calls him a gorilla. Later on, Reinhold gives him a gorilla costume to wear at a party. On the back of Francis‘s labour, Reinhold also grows in self-confidence, acquiring the hair highlights favoured by professional footballers in the 1980s. At one stage, Reinhold and two prostitutes re-christen Francis as “Frank”, finally a real German.
While all this is going on, “Frank” acquires a girlfriend, Mieze, who is what they used to call a high-class prostitute. Reinhold is obviously jealous, maybe because he needs to control Francis, maybe because he fancies Francis himself. All this is intensified when Mieze finds she’s pregnant and Frank bans her from going to the parties that he regularly attends. We are on our way towards a tragic ending.
This is a very ambitious film, which doesn‘t get everything right, but when it slightly misses it does it with panache. It always looks and sounds great. And it holds a very contemporary relevance. At one stage, Frank returns to the refugee home to try and recruit some new drug runners. Initially faltering, he gains in confidence as he tells the lowest of the low how they can improve themselves by exploiting the misery of others. This is, he says, the “German dream”.
If the film has a problem (apart from its underuse of its female characters) its that at over 3 hours, it is a bit too long. Now this may be the result of watching in increasingly cold open-air cinema, I got the feeling that after Pums had been despatched, it started to lose its way a little. For most of the time, the Berlin that we see looks like its been shot for a Baz Luhrmann video, but the elegance with which it has been shot enables us to go with that.
This film is not Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic miniseries but it does not try to be that. It is to his credit that director Burhan Qurbani has chosen to tread his own path and make his own mistakes.