British actors Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson star as unexpected Nazi resistors Anna and Otto Quangel in Vincent Perez’s Alone in Berlin, adapted from the 1947 novel Each Dies Only for Himself by Hans Fallada, which wasn’t translated into English until 2009.
Alone in Berlin tells the story of Anna and Otto’s quiet act of rebellion at a time when any sign of disloyalty to the Nazis was punished without mercy. Upon hearing that their son has been killed in action, Anna and Otto, their marriage apparently one of coexistence rather than affection, grieve separately. Though not Party members themselves, both are scrutinised for any hint of non-conformism. Their Jewish neighbour, Mrs Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette), is hidden by the generous Judge Fromm (Joachim Bißmeier), while looters inform on her whereabouts.
Such is the atmosphere in which one day Otto decides to speak out against Hitler. He writes on postcards such provocations as, “Hitler murdered my son, he will murder yours too”, disguising his handwriting and using gloves to avoid fingerprints. Otto and Anna then set out to distribute the cards around the city, leaving them discretely in office and residential buildings. Almost immediately the Gestapo are alerted to the activity, as most of the postcards are handed in to the authorities – no one wants to be caught with such statements in their possession.
Inspector Escherich, played with conviction by Daniel Brühl, sets out to find the person responsible, someone he suspects will be uneducated, but not unskilled and recently bereaved. Thompson and Gleeson give committed and restrained performances, relying on gesture rather than verbal cues to indicate the tension in their marriage. As their dangerous rebellion becomes a fixture in their life, Anna and Otto bond once more, where before their marriage had descended into routine and this gradual shift is played with sensitivity by the film’s leads. Brühl too, suggests Escherich’s internal conflict, perhaps attempting to rise above the sometimes clunky dialogue his character is lumbered with. Though Anna and Otto’s story is undoubtedly a fascinating example of the necessity of resistance and Perez is clearly a skilful director of actors, there’s something anticlimactic about Alone in Berlin.
Shifting between Anna and Otto’s increasing paranoia and Escherich’s pursuit, it’s the supposedly urgent investigation that somehow fails to keep up its momentum. Escherich is characterised as a committed believer in solid and thorough police work (rather than brute force), but this is undermined by the clumsy handling of time throughout Alone in Berlin. By its end, it’s understood that the Quangels distributed 285 cards around Berlin but the film lacks a sense of the duration of this resistance, nor the method to Escherich’s pursuit of them. He declares himself a “professional” but most of what he’s seen doing is staring at the wall-mounted map in his office and looking over and over at Otto’s cards. This imbalance, though not hindering the impact of the Quangels’ tragic fate, does distance the viewer from the notion of Escherlich as a sympathetic character, making his final gesture a somewhat superficial misstep.
Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman