Weimar Mirror: Revisiting Alfred Döblin
Thursday, May 24, 2018, 7:00 p.m., Goethe Institut San Francisco, 530 Bush St, Auditorium, San Francisco, CA 94108 - Admission Free

Introduction and moderation by Peter Maravelis (City Lights Booksellers)
Opening Statement by William T Vollmann (National Book Award winner, EUROPE CENTRAL)
Presentations and roundtable participation by Adrian Daub, Thomas O. Haakenson, Deniz Göktürk, and William T Vollmann.  

The Goethe Institut San Francisco in conjunction with City Lights Booksellers and New York Review Books present an evening re-exploring the classic work of German writer Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the eve of the release of a new translation by Michael Hoffmann published by New York Review Books. The evening is unique as it utilizes a joint examination of the novel juxtaposed against Werner Fassbinder's epic 15 hour film treatment of the book. Local scholars in German literature and history will read from the novel, discuss elements of the story, show film clips from Fassbinder's film, and participate in a roundtable discussion. Film and novel are reflected against each other to explore the Weimar period and its significance in modern times. Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz is considered one of the most innovative works of Weimar Germany. It's collage-like form and stream of consciousness narrative drive the reader into the metropolis of Berlin in the 1920's exploring all its complexity. In 1983 Werner Rainer Fassbinder released his film adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz which gained a cult following. Susan Sontag penned an appreciation of the film, and Michael Mann and Francis Ford Coppola have cited it as one of their greatest influences. This evening utilizes both novel and film to bring us closer to the life and work of Alfred Döblin and the Weimar Period. The issues explored will include: 
-How Doblin's work speaks to us today. 
-The rise of fascism in Germany in the 20th century
-Sexual freedom in the Weimar Period
-Crime in Berlin
-Jewish Assimilation and Separatism
-The critical reception of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz adaptation after its release

Session One:

Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf - by Adrian Daub

"'Berlin Alexanderplatz' is a story of crowds and groups — what they sound like, how they behave, and above all what it means to join them or stand apart from them. Crowding on busy streets was an important feature of what Georg Simmel called metropolitan 'mental life'. Döblin's figures, in 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' and elsewhere, find that being part of a crowd can open a new world to them, but can also be deeply disconcerting. At the end of 'the Story of Franz Biberkopf', the novel's ambivalence about crowds attains an explicitly political dimension — the collectivism of the convulsive final years of the Weimar Republic rears its head. When Rainer Werner Fassbinder came to stage the many crowd scenes  in his monumental 1980 adaptation of Döblin's novel, this association was as central to his look back as it had been to Döblin's look forward."

Session Two:

The Punishment Begins: Döblin and Crime in Weimar Germany - by Thomas Haakenson

"The Punishment Begins: Döblin and Crime in Weimar Germany" explores the early twentieth century context of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Notorious as an era of sexual and social liberation, the period of the Weimar Republic -- roughly 1919 to 1933 -- was also ripe with criminal activity. Understanding this radical period in Germany history, as well as its important role in Berlin Alexanderplatz, means coming to grips with the ways in which supposed criminality could also serve socially subversive functions."

Session Three:


The use of montage technique in capturing the disjointed simultaneity of city life, what Döblin himself called Kinostil, brings forth fascinations and pathologies of Weimar Germany at the brink of fascism.
Passages from Döblin's text will be read in conversation with film scenes, reflecting on remediations of this roaring twenties metropolis.


Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) was born in German Stettin (now the Polish city of Szczecin) to Jewish parents. When he was ten his father, a master tailor, eloped with a seamstress, abandoning the family. Subsequently his mother relocated the rest of the family to Berlin. Döblin studied medicine at Friedrich Wilhelm University, specializing in neurology and psychiatry. While working at a psychiatric clinic in Berlin, he became romantically entangled with two women: Friede Kunke, with whom he had a son, Bodo, in 1911, and Erna Reiss, to whom he had become engaged before learning of Kunke's pregnancy. He married Erna the next year, and they remained together for the rest of his life. His novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun was published in 1915 while Döblin was serving as a military doctor; it went on to win the Fontane Prize. In 1920 he published Wallenstein, a novel set during the Thirty Years' War, which was an oblique comment on the First World War. He became president of the Association of German Writers in 1924, and published his best-known novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, in 1929, achieving modest mainstream fame while solidifying his position at the center of an intellectual group that included Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, and Joseph Roth, among others. He fled Germany with his family soon after Hitler's rise, moving first to Zurich, then to Paris, and, after the Nazi invasion of France, to Los Angeles, where he converted to Catholicism and briefly worked as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After the war he returned to Germany and worked as an editor with the aim of rehabilitating literature that had been banned under Hitler, but he found himself at odds with conservative postwar cultural trends. He suffered from Parkinson's disease in later years and died in Emmendingen in 1957. Erna committed suicide two months after his death and was interred along with him.
What has been said of the work of Alfred Döblin:
The story of Franz Biberkopf is the Éducation sentimentale of the petty thief. The most extreme, dizzying, last, and most advanced embodiment of the old bourgeoisbildungsroman.
—Walter Benjamin
I found myself reading Berlin Alexanderplatz in a way that you could hardly call reading—more like devouring, gobbling, gulping down. And these expressions still don't do justice to that way of reading, which dangerously often wasn't reading at all, but more life, suffering, despair, and fear.
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder
A classic German novel of the criminal demimonde of the Weimar era...Hofmann's version is vigorous and fresh, bringing Döblin to a new generation of readers. A welcome refurbishing of a masterpiece of literary modernism, one of the most significant German novels of the 20th century.
—Kirkus starred review
[A] major writer who grappled with the roots of darkness in our time....
—Ernst Pawel, The New York Times
His was an extraordinary mind.
—Philip Ardagh, The Guardian
Without the futurist elements of Döblin’s work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable.... He’ll discomfort you, give you bad dreams. If you’re satisfied with yourself, beware of Döblin.
—Günter Grass
I learned more about the essence of the epic from Döblin than from anyone else. His epic writing and even his theory about the epic strongly influenced my own dramatic art.
—Bertolt Brecht
As we look back over the rich literary output of this great writer, as we look back over the long and fruitful life of this fighter and this friend of man, this perennial spring of spiritual life, we venture to ask: When will the gentlemen of the Nobel Prize jury discover him?
—Ludwig Marcuse, Books Abroad

Adrian Daub is Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he directs the Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. He is the author of Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art (2013), Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth Century Culture (2014) and (with Charles Kronengold) The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism (2015). His essays and cultural criticism have appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit in German, and in n+1, The New Republic and the Los Angeles Review of Books in English."

Deniz Göktürk is Associate Professor and the Department Chair in the Department of German at the University of California, Berkeley. Her publications include a book on literary and cinematic imaginations of America in early twentieth-century German culture: Künstler, Cowboys, Ingenieure: Kultur- und mediengeschichtliche Studien zu deutschen Amerika-Texten 1912-1920 (1998) as well as seminal articles on migration, culture, and cinema. She co-edited an anthology of contemporary Turkish literature, Jedem Wort gehört ein Himmel(1991, with Zafer Senocak) and translated novels by Aras Ören and Bilge Karasu. She is co-editor of The German Cinema Book (published by the British Film Institute in 2002, co-edited with Tim Bergfelder and Erica Carter). Göktürk has been coordinator of the Multicultural Germany Project and has organized workshops and conferences such as "Rethinking Diversity in Europe and the USA" and "Goodbye Germany? Migration, Culture, and the Nation State." Germany in Transit. Nation and Migration, 1955-2005, a co-edited sourcebook growing out of this project, was published in 2007 by University of California Press. An updated German edition Transit Deutschland: Debatten zu Nation und Migration was published by Konstanz University Press in 2011. The co-edited volume Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? (2010, in Turkish 2011), grew out of an interdisciplinary conference at Berkeley, assembling perspectives from urban studies, anthropology, film, literature, and media arts. She is one of the co-founders of TRANSIT, the electronic journal launched by the Berkeley German Department in September 2005.

Thomas Haakenson is Associate Profess of Critical Studies and Visual Studies at California College of the Arts. He is coeditor of the series German Visual Culture and Chapter Advisory Board member to the U.S. Fulbright Alumni Association. He has been published widely, including in New German Critique, Cabinet, Rutgers Art Review, German Studies Review, and the anthologies Legacies of Modernism and Memorialization in Germany Since 1945. He has authored or edited several volumes, including Representations of German Identity, Spectacle, and Jürgen Habermas and the European Economic Crisis: Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered.