The protagonist Franz Biberkopf is a World War I veteran turned pimp and lowlife. At the start of the story, he's released from Tegel prison for the crime of murdering his former girlfriend Ida in a fit of rage. Upon release, Franz plagued by guilt, remorse and trauma from his time in prison, resolves to be an upstanding citizen, but his love for booze, his perennially bad luck, and questionable choice of finding friends leads him on a spiral of repeating his old life. He engages in a series of picaresque adventurers with several Berliner lowlifes, undertakes a series of unfulfilling relationships, before encountering Reinhold, another cold and manipulative pimp who encroaches on Franz, as well as a prostitute named Mieze who Franz truly falls in love with.
The novel was translated into English, in 1931, by Eugene Jolas (a friend and patron of James Joyce). It has subsequently been adapted to film (a 1931 film version by Piel Jutzi which was shot in the pre-war Berlin of the novel, and the actual Alexanderplatz) and most famously the 1981 miniseries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder's TV-series was a 13 episode lengthy adaptation of virtually the entire novel and is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the text. Starring Gunther Lamprecht as Biberkopf, Gottfried John as Reinhold, Hanna Schygulla as Eva and Barbara Sukowa as Mieze. Both versions are available on The Criterion Collection.
- Arc Words: A number of phrases repeat throughout the book. "The mower with the name of the Lord" is a common one referring to the serpent in paradise, a symbol of the bad parts in any moment that feels good.
- An Arm and a Leg: In the midpoint of the novel, Biberkopf gets involved in a failed heist with Pums' gang and Reinhold throws Franz out of a moving car which then leads his arm being run over by another car, leading to Franz becoming one-armed and unemployable for the rest of the book.
- Anti-Hero: Franz Biberkopf is a Type IV, he's a former murderer and pimp attempting to be a Reformed Criminal and "ein anständiger Mensch". But he's still an alcoholic with rage issues, easily manipulated by rival factions and in Fassbinder's view, a future Nazi. However, he is sincere in wanting to go straight, generally friendly to those who like him, and is far less brutal than his fellow lowlifes.
- As the Good Book Says...: Several passages from the Bible are quoted extensively in the text. The Ecclesiastes "To everything there is a season" becomes especially important in the final scenes leading to Mieze's death.
- Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Near the end, Franz hangs out with an anarchist named Willy who is actually a peaceful version but he does articulate a desire to end all states and representatives be they capitalist or communist.
- Chronic Villainy: Franz Biberkopf starts out intending to go straight, and initially works in a series of jobs as vendor, fruitseller and newspaper boy but somehow, by chance or simply because of circumstances, he ends up working as watch for Pums' gang and finally after his arm is lost, he ends up becoming a pimp to Mieze again, because he's too old and injured to be employable. Ironically, it's only after his institutionalization in the Epilogue and his loss of hope that he can make something of his life, that he finally becomes a "respectable citizen".
- City Noir: The novel is a defining portrait of Berlin as the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier. The streets are cluttered with streetcars and trams, bright neon-lights, a colourful cast of oddballs, lowlifes, pimps, criminals, and most of the politics involves Nazis, Communists, Anarchists duking out with each other on the streets with fisticuffs.Narrator: "The German Reich is a Republic, and whoever doesn't believe it gets one in the neck."
- Despair Event Horizon: Franz undergoes this when he learns that Mieze is killed by Reinhold. He goes Laughing Mad, undergoes catatonia, has to be institutionalized and comes out with Dull Eyes of Unhappiness.
- The Determinator: Franz tries to be this. After being released from prison, he makes many attempts to go straight, but keeps finding himself involved with conmen who use him around. He nonetheless proceeds to try again and again before cracking up in the end.
- Disposable Sex Worker: Franz's first girlfriend Ida was a prostitute and even after she dies, while Franz does feel some amount of guilt, most of society seems to shrug his killing of her, as well as him getting an early release for murder. Franz even seduces and sleeps with Ida's sister after his release. Franz's breakdown on Mieze's murder is part of his Character Development even if society gives Reinhold a light sentence and the narrator notes that Mieze will likely receive the same treatment.Narrator: "What crime had she committed? She came from Bernau into the whirl of Berlin, she was not an innocent girl, certainly not, but her love for him was pure and steadfast; he was her man and she took care of him like a child. She was struck down because she happened by chance to encounter this man; such is life, it's really inconceivable. She rode out to Freienwalde to protect her friend, and there she was strangled, strangled, killed, extinguished; such is life...and now she's only a case for criminal inquiry, a technical process, just as when a telephone-wire is laid, that's what she has come to...She'll be displayed under glass now, face smashed, heart smashed, abdomen smashed, her smile smashed, you must console me, come along."
- Domestic Abuse: Franz killed his first girlfriend Ida like this. In the book, he gets into a jealous rage with Mieze and beats her badly and would have killed her had Reinhold not arrived and stopped him in time. Of course, Reinhold later tries to seduce Mieze and then murders her.
- The Don: Pums is a Berliner version of this. He's the leader of the gang of small time crooks, and serves as the main fence, and there is general resentment between the likes of Reinhold and "foot-soldiers" and Pums who keeps a respectable front.
- Downer Ending: Mieze gets killed by Reinhold, Franz goes insane and so burdened with guilt that he refuses to speak against Reinhold who gets a minor sentence. Franz ends up losing his spirit and becomes another drone of the city.
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: One of Biberkopf's jobs is as a newsvendor where he sells newspapers and political pamphlets. He gets into trouble when some of his colleagues who are communists call him out for selling Nazi and Right-Wing rags. His excuse is that he does it for the money.
- Foe Romance Subtext: Between Franz and Reinhold. This of course is made text by Fassbinder.Narrator: Reinhold and Biberkopf stare fixedly at each other. The one-armed man has no pity for the man in the prisoner's box between the two policemen...he has only a curious devotion for him. I once had a faithful comrade, never a better one could there be. I must look at him, keep on looking at him, nothing seems more important than to look at you. The world is made of sugar and dirt. I can look at you quietly, without batting an eye. I know who you are. I now find you here, m'boy, in the prisoner's box, outside I'll meet you a thousand times more, but my heart will not turn to stone on account of that.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The novel's chapters have subtitles, paragraphs have subtitles, many of which in the form of In Which a Trope Is Described. Fassbinder uses some of this as the title of his episodes.
- Just a Gangster: Pums and his gang have this classic dynamic which the narrator makes into an allegory for capital and labor relations.Narrator: Early in October the dispute which Pums had feared started among the members of the gang. About money, Pums as usual, regards the sale of their stuff as the main business of the gang, Reinhold and others, including Franz, its acquisition. It's according to the latter and not according to the sales, that the division of the spoils should be regulated; they constantly attribute too high receipts to Pums and resent his monopoly in the dealings with the fences; the reliable fences want to deal with Pums alone. The gang, although Pums makes many concessions and allows them a free hand whenever possible, insist that something has to be done about it. They are more for union methods. He says they've got them already. But they refuse to believe that.
- Karma Houdini: Pums and his gang don't get ratted out by Franz in the finale, and Reinhold gets a lighter sentence.
- Kavorka Man: Franz Biberkopf is a big bear of a man and Reinhold is supposed to be scrawny, stuttering and limping. Yet both of them attract a lot of women. With Reinhold and Biberkopf initially bonding because the latter had so many girlfriends that he wanted to off-load and share some of them with Franz. This is one of his motivations for murdering Mieze, since she loved Franz and refused his advances.
- Lemony Narrator: The novel's narrator has a distinct voice which editorializes the action with layered symbolic commentary, often juxtaposing it with wild tangents and other happenings in Berlin, and frequently subtitling key paragraphs. He also makes Franz Biberkopf's tragic life a Foregone Conclusion.
- Real Place Background: The novel was praised in its time for its vivid use of actual street-names and places, actual newspapers, as well as cut-outs of real-world events into the text. It's often considered a German equivalent of Ulysses. The 1931 Film version was shot in the real-life Alexanderplatz, however Fassbinder's miniseries could not really achieve thisnote so he more or less set most of the action in interiors rather than exteriors (except for the finale set in the forest).
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Franz fought in World War I and the novel which spends much of its time in his head generally avoids dealing with his time in the trenches, but it's noted that he, and other veterans, are more or less lost and alone in Berlin and involved in criminal activity to make a living.
- The Outside World: Franz on being released from prison is disoriented by the outside world. He feels Survivor's Guilt that he is released while his fellow prisoners are still locked up, and he also misses the routine of life in jail. Indeed, the narrator notes in a real sense when he is released to a world that had vastly changed in the interim period, that "the punishment begins"
- Wretched Hive: Berlin in The Roaring '20s as in this novel is as it was in life. It's full of lowlifes, bad housing, flophouses, prostitutes, criminals and weak institutions.
Tropes for the Fassbinder miniseries only
- Adaptation Distillation: Fassbinder's TV Show combines quite a few supporting characters in the book into single characters to serve as series regulars. In the novel Biberkopf has a series of girlfriends and the character Eva shows up later in the text, but Fassbinder brings her and has her take on some of the roles other characters had. Likewise, in the book, Franz stays in a variety of homes where in the series, he stays in one apartment.
- Adaptation Expansion: The final section of the novel is made into a two hour Epilogue in the TV Show that gradually spins into something much weird, with Futureshadowing and Anachronism Stew added. Likewise minor characters such as the landlady and Willy the Anarchist, who had small roles in the film have expanded appearances, with the landlady given a name (Frau Bast) and made into a series regular.
- Daylight Horror: Reinhold's murder of Mieze takes place in a beautiful day in a forest yet the novel describes Mieze's horror thoroughly. In Fassbinder's series, this entire sequence is done in a single extended take making the audience watch it uncomfortably.
- Leave the Camera Running: Many examples of this kind in Fassbinder's miniseries. The finale where Reinhold murders Mieze is one particularly dark example.
- Pop-Star Composer: Fassbinder's epilogue features a lot of anachronistic songs, including "Candy Says" by The Velvet Underground, "Me and Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin, tracks by Kraftwerk and "Chelsea Hotel" by Leonard Cohen.
- Trippy Finale Syndrome: Fassbinder's miniseries is an early Trope Codifier. Most of the show is in a naturalist fashion but the finale undergoes Genre Shift with with Biberkopf going on a Vision Quest, seeing glimpses of The Holocaust, people being cut up in a slaughterhouse, and other scenes in a weird eighties leather bar. This was done by Fassbinder to highlight the prescient nature of the novel, since the Foregone Conclusion of post-war Germany made it impossible to make it a simple period story as it was originally written.