An intriguing story and strong performances by the three principals are distinguishing features of this World War II drama. Based on the international best seller by Hans Fallada (Every Man Dies Alone), Alone In Berlin shines a light on two ordinary Germans with extraordinary impact.
The location is Berlin and the year 1940. Working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) – whose real names were Otto and Anna Hampel – receive news that their only son has been killed on the battlefield. Already disillusioned with the Führer and the Fatherland, the loss of their child proves the tipping point and Otto begins a campaign of civil disobedience, writing messages on postcards that urge fellow Germans to resist the Nazi regime. Anna soon partners with Otto and together they covertly distribute hundreds of cards, leaving them in public places – such as stairwells and mailboxes across the city – so they would be read. They managed to write and deposit 285 postcards over the course of 18 months. At the head of the Gestapo force trying to track down the dissenters is Escherich (Daniel Brühl) who faces enormous pressure from his masters to find, stop and bring the “traitors” to justice. Acting alone, in their unique attempt to turn the tide on German support for the Third Reich, this unassuming couple’s sacrifice became an important element of the German Resistance.
Alone In Berlin was one of the first anti-Nazi novels. It was based upon actual Gestapo files given to Fallada by a novelist friend just after the war. A seminal work of German literature and a required text in secondary schools in that country, the book has previously been adapted for the small screen several times.
Gleeson says it is the common nature of the two key players that is paramount. “They’re totally ordinary,” he says about the husband and wife. The film then, is “about personal redemption and the idea that by withdrawing your support, by withdrawing your permission, you liberate yourself, even if it makes absolutely no difference to anything else. It’s part of the human quest.” For her part, Thompson says we’ve all read books written during that period by highly educated people. “What’s interesting about them (Otto and Anna) is they’re not the intelligentsia.” She says what was important to the director was “to express the revulsion of the ordinary, working person to what was going on, to the rise of anti-Semitism … the wearing of the yellow stars. People were revolted by it and often didn’t know how to deal with it. And these two, who were not part of any kind of group, for them, suddenly, to engage in a propaganda battle that is treasonous, was remarkable.” She says it is a reminder that “resistance is vital, and doesn’t require any special education to know when things are seriously wrong and out of balance.”
It takes a while to work out just what is going down and what is at stake here. Once the key plotline has been established, a taciturn Otto and a standoffish Anna thaw. It is with this ocean-size metamorphosis that we witness Gleeson and Thompson’s true acting chops. And into that mix you can throw in Brühl. As a policeman, his character is used to doing it by the book, but not via the jackboot route taken by the Nazi SS. His internal angst is shaped by the events that occur.
Ultimately what makes this movie so compelling is to witness how far a simple act of defiance actually went in the face of official ruthlessness. Further, as a factual story that I knew nothing about, it carried extra gravitas. Swiss-born co-writer and director Vincent Perez’s film has a low-key, dour tone. Rated M, Alone in Berlin scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: Vincent Perez
Cast: Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl
Release Date: 2 March 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television