ALONE IN BERLIN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Vincent Perez

Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, Daniel Bruhl, Uwe Preuss, Mikael Persbrandt, Louis Hofmann, Katrin Pollitt.

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This WWII drama is set in Berlin in the early 1940s and is based on the novel Every Man Dies Alone, which was written by Hans Fallada in 1947 but not translated into English for another six decades. The book told the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a German couple who embarked on an unusual campaign of resistance to the Nazis after Hans, their young soldier son, was killed on the battlefields of France. This unassuming couple distributed anti-Nazi propaganda in the form of postcards with handwritten messages all over Berlin. The novel was actually based on Gestapo files that Fallada had been granted access to. It was one of the first post-war novels to depict the inequities and harshness of life under the brutal Nazi regime. Fallada wrote it while confined to a mental health care facility shortly before his death in 1947.

In this film adaptation, the Hampels have been renamed as Otto and Anne Quangel (and played by Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson), a modest working class couple who have become disillusioned with Hitler and the growing power of the Reich. Otto is a machinist who works in a furniture factory, and steadfastly refuses to join the Nazi Party, proclaiming that he has already given his only son to the Nazi cause. Despite the fact that they will be executed if caught, Anna helps Otto with the writing and distribution. Over the course of an eighteen-month period, the couple write and deposited some 285 postcards all over Berlin, leaving them in stairwells and doorways, hoping to warn other parents of the likely fate of their children under the Nazi war machine. Police inspector Escherich (played here by Daniel Bruhl, from Rush, etc) was charged with tracking down the perpetrators. And although he was eventually successful in his mission, it seems that he also developed a grudging sympathy and respect for them and their courage.

Alone In Berlin has been directed in measured fashion by Swiss-born actor turned director Vincent Perez (from The Crow: City Of Angels, etc) but he manages to convey a slowly growing sense of unease and tension. This is his third film behind the camera, but he also develops a subtle sense of the mounting horrors of wartime Berlin, gripped by suspicion and paranoia. A subplot follows the plight of the Quangel’s elderly Jewish neighbour, to help reinforce some of the themes. But there is alack of genuine urgency to the investigation that holds Alone In Berlin back from becoming a great film.

The film is enhanced by the superb production design from Jean-Vincent Puzos (Amour, etc) and the authentic period detail. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (A Royal Night Out, etc) bathes the production in a nostalgic wistfulness with his use of a grey colour palette. The sombre piano-laden score from Alexandre Desplat complements the rather grim mood.

I initially had some doubts about the casting of Gleeson, a beefy Irishman, as the very German Otto, but he brings his strong presence to the screen, and his hangdog expression and perpetual air of mournfulness and stoicism perfectly suits the character. Thompson as usual is excellent and brings a nicely brittle quality and Teutonic reserve to her role as the loyal and supportive Anna. Gleeson and Thompson develop a warm and believable rapport, and they often share a number of nervous silences that speak a lot about their characters and the tension in their marriage. Bruhl is also good as the dogged, by-the-book policeman who finds himself morally conflicted by the investigation.

Adapted from Fallada’s novel by Perez and co-writer Achim von Borries, Alone In Berlin joins a number of other films like Sophie Scholl and 13 Minutes which depicted the efforts of brave Germans who quietly opposed the rise of Hitler and the murderous Nazi regime.

★★★

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