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The Berlin Stories

Hopkins Professor Looks at How a Drastically Changing Political Climate Dilutes a Work of Art in New Book

Daniel Krall

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 3/8/2006

“It’s my own personal pleasure and fascination,” says Peter Jelavich, professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. His eyes go soft at the edges with the memory as he settles into a chair in his sunlit office. Hundreds of books festoon his walls, their edges soft and thumb-frayed, but none is as beloved as Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin’s 1929 epic free-association novel of Weimar Berlin told through the meme-cluttered mind of lumpen ex-con Franz Biberkopf, a dim Berliner who insists he is an autonomous individual but who rapidly cycles through flirtations with political extremism, including Nazism, before realizing that the hubbub of the city affects his actions more than the other way around.

“It is the most famous Berlin novel,” says the amiable, tweedy Jelavich, who first encountered the book during a postgraduate summer in the title’s namesake. “It really grabbed me. It’s a difficult novel. It has to be read many times. I kept coming back to it just for fun. But at a certain point I decided, Well, maybe I should do something with it.”

That something is the book Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (University of California Press), Jelavich’s dissection of how the differences between the original book and the increasingly pithed and sanitized radio and cinematic adaptations show a fossil record of the first inklings of Nazi stranglehold.

Jelavich, a recent transplant from the University of Texas at Austin, spent several summer research trips in Germany scouring archives for censorship records, newspapers, radio, and film journals, intending to yield an article about a pet curiosity of his: why the book, radio, and film versions of Alexanderplatz (excluding Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980, 15.5-hour television miniseries version) were so different. “Obviously, novels, radio, and film are going to be very different in the way they can tell a story,” he says. “But some of the most interesting themes in the novel not only disappeared in the [subsequent versions], but were sometimes were turned around.” He soon realized his article would have to become a book.

To understand the domino set of circumstances that led to the neutering of Döblin’s novel, you must understand that, unlike in the U.S., all German radio stations were under government control. “And the reason why that even the leftists were willing to have the government control of radio is they feared that ultimately, if you had a free market of the airwaves, it would end up under monopoly control,” Jelavich says. “Film was privately owned, but you couldn’t screen a film until it passed the censorship board. In 1918 there was a movement to abolish all pre-emptive censorship, including film, but then, as part of this Weimar Republic compromise they decided no, we’d better censor film, too.”

In September 1930, in the wake of the Great Depression, the Nazi Party had done well in the previous election—not a tremendous victory (18 percent), but enough to get Joseph Goebbels and his toadies brainstorming how to stay in the fore of the public imagination. They decided their next target would be the 1930 American film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front that had passed the German censorship board without incident. Goebbels and 300 Nazis bought up tickets on the movie’s second day in theaters and disrupted the screening with a fabricated riot that included, rather childishly, releasing white mice, shouting slogans, and setting off stink bombs.

German censorship law was quite clear on the fact that movies that had passed muster could not be removed from circulation because of negative response. But these false-spontaneous protests prompted the formation of an appellate board that, cowed by the support of rightists in government, banned it. “So this was a real shock to liberals and leftists and middle-of-the-road people at the time, because in a sense it was illegal,” Jelavich says. “It really was at the highest level that pressure was put on the censorship board to reverse their stance. That’s the first point at which you see you don’t have a functioning democracy.” And it’s in this seismic era that the story in Alexanderplatz leaves the relatively protected realm of the novel to become radio and film adaptations, incurring bruises along the way.

Author Döblin was excited about the possibilities inherent in radio and adapted his novel himself, doing his best given the limits of technology and scrutiny, but the dilution of his original vision is evident. Jelavich admits some of what is lost in translation lies within the difficulties of intermediality. “If your medium is a printed text, you can write lines where it’s not clear who is speaking,” he says. “The novel is the perfect medium to describe the fact that consciousness is not something stable in the mind, that there’s things going around us every day as we walk down the street or turn on the radio.”

The novel, with its stream-of-consciousness bleeding between thought, ideology, and media clutter, is the perfect medium in which to explore how little of our mental real estate is un-homesteaded by advertisers and politicians. “But when you transfer that to radio and sound film, someone has to do the speaking,” Jelavich says. “So it’s much harder to blur the line.”

But also, more consciously autoclaved away from the meat of the narrative were some of the thematic elements that gave the novel its gristly, decadent, semisatirical character. Because of a ban on politicking and advertising within broadcast material, the Alexanderplatz radio play had to eliminate much of the brand-specific jingles and slogans that form part of the novel’s evocation of the flavor of Berlin street life. Any mention of sex, especially homosexuality of either gender, had to go—a demand more suspicious when it’s noted that, at the time, male homosexuality was criminalized but lesbianism was not. In this instance, the censors’ demands were in excess of the actual law.

Despite Döblin’s best efforts, the sanitized radio version of Berlin Alexanderplatz was postponed, then canceled at the 11th hour by flinching radio executives. It never received airplay in its own time. (The assembled cast, undeterred, decided to make a “dress rehearsal” recording—a rarity of the time—thus rendering the radio play one of the few existing archival recordings of early German radio.) It looked as though the official censorship board had rendered itself superfluous in a climate of fear. “Self-censorship is the most effective type of censorship,” Jelavich says. “If you get so scared that you start asking, ‘Well, what will happen if I do this?’, then you don’t even need the outside censor anymore.”

If Alexanderplatz suffered in translation to radio and being sieved through nascent fascism, the film version fares even worse. The then-recent invention of sound film compelled directors to abandon the silent era’s montage experiments and strive for a stiff, blocky “realism,” which meant one face to every voice, and never the two to separate. So now that there’s no politics, no decadence, no stream of consciousness, no advertising, and no overt or subvert social criticism, what’s left?

“What we have left is a crime novel,” Jelavich laughs, acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. “There’s a whole genre of gangster films and crime films, which have their own conventions. And what a lot of critics point out is that this film has taken Döblin’s very rich novel and squeezed it into the convention of a crime story. By 1931, that was the safest and easiest thing to do.”

And it didn’t fool anybody. Recasting Berlin Alexanderplatz as a crime story is like redoing James Joyce’s Ulysses as a Dublin travelogue. In Jelavich’s book’s most florid citation, one film critic of the time writes that “the plot is lifted out of Döblin’s novel like bones from a fish.” This skeletal version would prove to be the story’s final pre-war incarnation before the German parliament began to unravel irrevocably by spring of 1931. In seven short years white mice and stink bombs would be replaced with Kristallnacht.

But why should we care whether a cinematic adaptation survived or didn’t survive a fascist regime? After all, the United States in the 21st century is still a democracy, right? Regardless of whether extremists across the world can whip themselves into a lethal frenzy over editorial cartoons, or whether a Sept. 11-scarred populace cowers at the next Orange Alert, it’s not like it’s Nazi Germany, right?

“I don’t think one can draw any easy comparisons between Germany in the 1920s and America today,” Jelavich says. “They have a very different constitutional context, a very different political culture. But fear is very powerful, and very dangerous, and, I think, very destructive of democracy, because it makes people not think straight. And the Nazis knew this. So the cautionary tale is, when you’re under political pressure to shut up, it’s precisely at that point that you should speak up.”

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