It was a co-production between the German Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Bavaria Film GmbH and the Italian network RAI. Production of the film at the Bavaria Film Studios took nearly a year. Fassbinder imagined making a "parallel" film which he would make specifically for theatrical distribution after the completion of this series. His fantasy cast included Gérard Depardieu as Franz Biberkopf and Isabelle Adjani as Mieze.
Berlin, 1928. Franz Biberkopf is released after serving four years in Tegel prison for killing his girlfriend Ida. After settling into his old apartment he visits Minna, Ida’s sister. Minna succumbs to his forceful advances. In a flashback we see Franz kill Ida with a cream whip after correctly suspecting she was about to leave him. Franz later runs into his old friend Meck and has a drink with him in Max’s bar, a local place. There he meets Lina Przybilla, a young Polish woman, who moves in with him. He receives notification from the Berlin Police that he is barred from living in certain Berlin districts and surrounding municipalities, under the threat of a fine or imprisonment, Biberkopf places himself under the supervision of a charity called Prisoners' Aid, to which he must report once a month, and remain in employment. By doing this, he is able to remain in Berlin.
Franz is self-employed hawking necktie holders on the street, but has trouble making enough money and does not consider himself an orator. After turning down the opportunity to sell sex education manuals, he is talked into selling the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter and wearing a swastika armband. In the subway, Franz is confronted by an old Jewish acquaintance selling hot sausages, but denies being Antisemitic himself, and Dreske with two other men also known to him. Dreske admires Lenin and the Soviet Union, but Franz responds by decrying revolution and 'their' Weimar Republic. At Max’s bar, Dreske and his friends sing "The Internationale” to provoke Franz, to which he responds by singing the 19th-century patriotic songs "The Watch on the Rhine and "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden". At the top of his voice, Franz accuses them of being loudmouths and crooks, before almost collapsing. The other men return to their table. Outside, Franz meets Lina. He rambles about what has just happened; the men he has just met cannot understand life and do not know what it is like to be in prison.
Lina is now troubled by the dubious nature of the job Franz is fulfilling. She introduces him to a family friend, Otto Lüders, who turns out to be an ex-con he knows from prison, but Franz thinks Otto is a good man. With him, Franz begins selling shoelaces door-to-door. In the first apartment, Franz spends time with a widow whose deceased husband he closely resembles. Later, to Otto, he reports having sex with the widow. The next day, Otto goes to the widow’s home and expects the same, but she feels threatened and rejects him. Otto demands money and steals from her. When Franz goes back to the widow, happily expecting another tryst, she slams the door on him. Franz vanishes. Lina distraught, searches for him with Meck. They wake Otto in the early morning, but Meck recognises that his account is full of lies and hits him. Franz is found in a flophouse by Otto, who is immediately threatened with a chair. Otto offers him a share of the money Franz realises has been extorted from the widow, but wanting to go straight, he pours the contents of a chamber pot over Otto. Meck gets Franz’s location out of Otto, but Franz had left soon after the earlier incident. Meck persuades Lina that Franz wishes to be left alone, and suggests she live with him.
Franz goes on an alcohol binge as a former medical orderly, Baumann, looks over him in rooms in a building opposite the one occupied by the prisoners' charity on which he depends for his liberty in Berlin. Franz wanders the streets in a delirious state; outside a church he takes a coal delivery man for a pastor. When he comes round after another binge, Baumann tells him he has been lying in a stupor for three days. Franz now feels that neither God, Satan, angels or other people can help him. After various thefts in the building become known, Baumann tells Franz he will not be with him for much longer, though the occupants of the neighbouring rooms are soon arrested. He strikes up a conversation with the vendor who offered him the sex education manuals, and discovers Meck is now selling clothes on the street and apparently doing well. Meck admits to Franz that he had been living with Lina until she left him.
Franz, after several fleeting encountered, has finally become reacquainted with Eva. Eva, for whom he used to pimp, feels a deep affection for him, and has paid the rent for his old rooms in his absence. At Max’s, Meck introduces Franz to Pums, the ringleader of an illegal enterprise. He also meets Reinhold, one of Pums’s men. Reinhold is tired of his woman, Fränze, and wants Franz to take her off his hands. Franz has her come over and makes love with her. She returns to him after she can’t find Reinhold. Reinhold then employs the same plan with his current woman, Cilly, whom Franz accommodates after provoking a row with Fränze. Reinhold, after contact with the Salvation Army, has had enough of "broads" and is desperate to end his involvement with his current woman, Trude, but Cilly is angry when this is explained to her by Franz, and she briefly considers Franz worse in his treatment of women than Reinhold, possibly unaware of Ida's murder, but she persuades Franz to tell Trude about Reinhold's nature. They are reconciled.
Franz explains to Reinhold that he wants Cilly to remain with him. Franz gets sucked into Pums’s gang when he is drafted for a job as a last-minute replacement for Bruno, who gets beaten in the street. Franz ends up as a lookout as Pums, Reinhold, and Meck pull a robbery. In the getaway truck, Reinhold becomes suspicious of Franz because of a car that seems to be following them. Reinhold throws Franz out of the back of the truck.
Franz has survived the car accident, but his right arm has been amputated. He recuperates for a time with Eva and Eva’s lover Herbert. Herbert agitates against Pums’s syndicate, so the boss decides to take up a collection to help with Franz’s medical costs. Franz goes to a red light district and encounters a pimp who offers him a woman he calls the whore of Babylon.
Franz gets involved in an illegal enterprise with Willy, whom he met at a cabaret.Eva and Herbert drop by to see Franz and bring a young woman they offer as a new lover. Franz and the tender-hearted woman, whom he names Mieze, fall for each other. However, their spell of love is broken when Franz finds a love letter from another man.
Eva explain to Franz that Mieze just wants to work to support him as Franz cannot do so due to his missing arm. He reconciles with Mieze. Franz goes to Reinhold’s and tells him how he has become a pimp. Reinhold is disgusted by Franz’s stump of an arm. Franz is inspired by a Communist rally and spouts his newly learned rhetoric to Eva and Herbert, which upsets Eva.
As Mieze cannot have children, Eva tells her she will have a child with Franz that Mieze can then raise. Mieze is delighted. Eva also tells Mieze she’s concerned that Franz is concerting with Willy and Communists. Mieze gets him to agree to stay out of politics. After Mieze describes the agreement made with Eva for Franz’s baby, Franz is horrified as he thinks Mieze wants to be rid of him. Mieze pleads that she loves him. The two get drunk and are happy until Mieze’s rich client arrives. Franz only finds out then that she is going away with him for three days and weeps in despair.
Franz goes to Reinhold and tells him he wants to get involved with Pums again. Reinhold still has his suspicions but Franz is allowed to assist the gang with a job. Mieze is upset that Franz is earning money because she thinks Franz wants to be independent of her, but Franz reassures her. Franz brags to Reinhold about Mieze’s devotion and decides to show him what a fine woman she is. In the apartment, Franz has Reinhold hide in the bed when Mieze arrives. She reveals she is in love with another man. Franz is angered and beats her cruelly, but Reinhold saves her and Franz throws Reinhold out. Mieze goes out to Franz and the two reconcile, though she has been bloodied by him. Franz and Mieze take a trip outside Berlin, where he explains to her he simply wanted Reinhold to see a true woman.
Franz introduces Mieze to Meck. Reinhold blackmails Meck to set up a meeting for him with Mieze. Meck takes Mieze on a drive to Freienwalde and delivers her to Reinhold. Reinhold takes her for a walk in the woods, where she resists his advances. Mieze wants to know more about Franz, and Reinhold reveals it is because of him that Franz lost his arm. Mieze is horrified at this revelation. Reinhold strangles her and leaves her in the woods.
Franz tells Eva that Mieze has left him. Eva reassures him, though she is a bit concerned herself. A robbery pulled off by Pums’s gang goes wrong and Meck burns himself with a welding torch. Franz takes Meck to his apartment to bandage his wound. Meck tells Franz that Reinhold is a bad guy, but Franz claims he has a good heart. Meck takes the police out into the woods and helps them find Mieze’s strangled body, telling them he helped to bury her. Eva brings Franz a newspaper that relates Mieze’s murder. Franz lapses into demented laughter, claiming he is pleased that at least Mieze did not leave him as he had thought.
In a fantasy sequence, Franz walks along a street of the dead with two angels. He finds Mieze, but she disappears from his arms. Reinhold is in prison for the crimes committed by a man whose identity he has acquired. He is anguished that his cellmate and lover is being released. Franz is taken to an asylum. Much of the rest of the episode takes place in his imagination. Franz’s being run over by the car is re-enacted with different characters taking on the roles of victim and driver. In a striking sequence, Franz and Mieze are treated like animals being slaughtered in an abattoir. On a nativity set Franz is raised on a cross as the other characters watch. An atom bomb goes off in the background and the angels clear the dead. The surreal imagery ceases suddenly and Franz is at Reinhold’s trial testifying to his good character. Reinhold is given ten years for manslaughter. Eva tells Franz she has lost the baby. The film concludes with Franz as an assistant gatekeeper at a factory. He is alert to his job but not to what is going on in the world as war is on the horizon.
The film has made an impact on many distinguished filmmakers and critics. Susan Sontag wrote an appreciation in a September 1983 issue of Vanity Fair. Michael Mann and Francis Ford Coppola have cited the series as an influence. In the 1990s, film director Todd Haynes appropriated imagery from the film's notorious phantasmagorical epilogue for a sequence in his Velvet Goldmine. The film has also been mentioned in cult television series such as The Critic and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In 2005, the German Cultural Institute, having completed the reconstruction and restoration of Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, decided to restore Berlin Alexanderplatz, saying that the original 16mm film negative was in "catastrophic physical condition" and that it "must be restored."
Beginning in 2006, the series underwent restoration and remastering to 35mm. Berlin Alexanderplatz: Remastered received its world premiere on February 9, 2007 at the Berlin International Film Festival for which episodes 1 and 2 were shown. The restoration was completed in early 2007, exactly 25 years after Fassbinder's death. The entire series ran on February 11 in five installments.
The re-release was accompanied by a book that includes the original screenplay for Berlin Alexanderplatz, original drawings, selections from Döblin's novel, as well as selected reviews of the film.
A DVD set containing additional material was released in Germany on February 10, and was released in America through The Criterion Collection in November 2007.
Time magazine's Richard Corliss named it one of the Top 10 DVDs of 2007, ranking it at #9.