'Alone in Berlin': Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson on German WWII Heroes, Drones and Hope Amid War
The all-star cast and director of the Berlinale competition entry discuss why the real-life story of an ordinary German couple who fought back against the Nazis needs to be told — now more than ever.
It's taken nearly 70 years for Alone in Berlin to get to the screen. The story of a real-life working-class German couple who begin an extraordinary campaign of resistance against the Nazis, the tale was first written about in 1947 by German Hans Fallada. His novel, one of the first anti-Nazi books to be published in the country after World War II, was a hit in Germany but fell into obscurity. It was rediscovered in 2009 and, translated into English, became a global best-seller.
The 2016 film adaptation of Alone in Berlin by Swiss actor turned director Vincent Perez, 51, stars Irishman Brendan Gleeson, 60, and London native Emma Thompson, 56, as Otto and Anna Quangel. After their son is killed in the war and with Adolf Hitler at the height of his power, the Quangels begin to write postcards denouncing the Nazis and distribute them across Berlin. German star Daniel Bruhl, 37, plays the police detective tasked with finding the culprits behind this act of treason.
On Monday, just hours ahead of the film’s world premiere in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, the director and cast sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the long journey from book to film and the importance of fighting tyranny, whatever the cost.
What drew you all to this story?
Vincent Perez: Reading the book. When I read the book, I was totally immersed in that time, and having a German mother, I was quite fascinated by it. I really felt something new about that time. It was like a voice whispering, "It was like that." It became very important for me to make this film. It became a very long journey for me; it took me nine years.
Emma Thompson: I knew the book, and I have been fascinated with the Second World War since I did Remains of the Day [in 1993]. I have always been interested in what it was like for Germans living here while that terrible thing was rising up within their power structures. I’ve always thought that the Nazis invaded Germany as well as everywhere else, and that is not well understood. Having been born, let’s face it, only 15 years after the end of the war in a rather austere post-war London, the effect of the Second World War is very much felt on our generation because of our parents. It’s inside all of us — not Daniel, because he’s much younger — but me and Brendan certainly. It’s fascinating and horrifying and it’s terribly, terribly important that we know that in this country there were people who were appalled and who tried to resist. This was not a story I was told while growing up. I was, in a sense, brainwashed. Because we all watched the films where only the British people [were the heroes], and in France too, all those films about the French resistance. And Vincent had his commitment to the story, his family background, his deep connection to it. It never occurred to me to say anything but "We have to do it."
Brendan Gleeson: I got the script first, before I read the book. And it had such a bare-faced attack on truth, [especially] in terms of the relationship between the two married people, which I found massively interesting and challenging. I remember being in Berlin when the wall was here. We hitched through East Berlin and stopped in a cafe and had the feeling, a very real feeling, that you better keep your head down. The notion of the lack of trust and the breakdown of the marriage [in the script]...it provided this superb dramatic challenge of having so much silence. I knew it was spectacular. So I was champing at the bit.
Daniel Bruhl: I am fascinated by Fallada’s writing in general. It’s a very precise, very tough language, with stories often focusing on working-class people. And this book in particular is a history lesson for myself. I live in this neighborhood, in Prenzlauer Berg. These are my streets, where I live every day. I was attracted by the character I play because this is a man who was broken by the regime. It happened to so many people. Emma’s right, I’m a bit younger, but as a German, you eventually are confronted by this question: What did my family do? How did they behave? For every German, this is a subject that, eventually, becomes important. It’s rare to see Germans depicted this way in the cinema, particularly in an English-language film.
Perez: Yeah, there have been some German films depicting the German perspective, but not many on an international level That’s one of the reasons we did it in English. This isn’t a story we want or need to tell the German people. They know the history. But to make an international film that will play everywhere is a gesture to show — to everyone — that this story happened in Germany, but it could happen in France, it could happen anywhere. The other big challenge was to make a movie about the Second World War that doesn’t look like all the other ones. That was one of the main visual challenges. It was a real gift to find the house where we shot, to be able to have that whole house, a real house from the time, and be able to put everyone in it. But the heart of the film is something else. The heart of the film is the couple, how they reconnect after the loss of a child by finding a cause.
Thompson: Each scene with them together is like a little play about marriage. They are people who rediscover love again because they are doing something together, something worthwhile. That’s very real and very modern. That’s because we are so often dealing with "relationships" in films that are just pablum. But this relationship is about something. It’s about people finding meaning, and within this meaning grows this beautiful plant of love.
Daniel, your character is not a Nazi but is doing the job of the Gestapo, just following orders. That’s an argument, or excuse, often heard from Germans at the time.
Bruhl: When I did my social year, which you do here instead of going into the army, I cared for 12 different people from that generation, and that was my only chance to speak to actual people who had lived this. And 11 of them said exactly that: We didn’t know, we didn’t know. So in the preparation for the film, we talked about a book that is very interesting, Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner. The author was a young lawyer who fled and went to England, and his book shows that you could know. At least in the cities, you knew what was going on.
Thompson: This story is about what it means to be human under the most difficult possible circumstances. What Fallada and Haffner also write about so beautifully is the bewilderment and the heartbreak of the people who worked within the police and law. These tools that had been invented and relied upon for many centuries to protect us and balance our behavior were quietly dismantled, taken away and replaced by the most brutal and literally cretinous human stupidity.
Gleeson: I think very few people can allow themselves to see what is actually happening. I mean, how many people go to an abattoir? Most people eat a steak. People only see what they want to see, really. When you are pushed to do the right thing, it’s difficult.
Thompson: There is a great essay called “The Bureaucracy of Homicide” in the book Protest and Survive that is about the bureaucracy of the CIA and FBI and the ways you can convince someone to press a button that will send a drone to kill people miles and miles away with whom you have no quarrel. So we are all doing it now. Let’s not pretend this is something that happened in the past. This is present, at the moment. We are sending drones to kill people who are not hurting us. We are all part of this. We are all saying, “I can’t afford to look at that, it’s too disturbing." In the end, Otto and Anna write hundreds of cards, almost all of which are immediately turned in to the Gestapo. Their effort seems almost pointless.
Gleeson: That’s always the challenge, that it’s a useless gesture. That’s the inner fear, that all of this is worthless. It’s like hitting the wall in the marathon, when you think there’s no point. But getting through that, that’s when the breakthrough happens. And remember, this is early in the French campaign. It’s 1940. They think no one understands the pain, because it hasn’t touched everyone yet, in the way it will. On one postcard, they wrote, “They killed our son, they’ll kill yours.” It’s not just a gesture, it’s trying to open people’s eyes, to stop cooperating with the war machine.
Perez: Otto and Anna, what I like about them, they are not superheroes with machine guns. They are doing something on their level, but they are doing it. And they will give their lives for that.
Thompson: It’s something any of us who have engaged in activism of any kind or objected to any of the wars are confronted with. You oppose the Iraq War, and then you are told you must be Saddam Hussein’s friend. That happened to me, in my own country. Intelligent journalists, who, because you objected to a war in which they were going to bomb a huge bloody great city and kill civilians, that somehow that makes you Saddam Hussein’s best friend. That happened in 1990. Hello? Wake up! We are doing it again. We will keep doing it unless we keep learning.
Perez: What happens with the Quangels is they managed to fall in love again. They managed to connect. And that’s enough.
What was the greatest challenge in making this film?
Thompson: The greatest challenge was stopping talking long enough to film the bloody thing. We would sit there for hours talking and talking. It went on for days. And finally Vincent says, "Hey, we have to film this."
This isn’t just a novel. It’s based on a real couple. What personally do you take from their story?
Gleeson: Just encouragement. That little voice, or that sometimes massive voice, that’s inside you that says, “That’s wrong, actually.” Their story encourages you to listen to that voice, to realize it’s right.
Thompson: During the shoot, Vincent kept on saying to me, "Tu es deja une combattante! — You are already a combatant." Which is true. I’m always banging on about something. It’s Anna who is finding her way, finding what’s inside her. For me, the inspiration is this woman who had no education to speak of and no joy in her life, really, discovering the bit of her that was able to rebel. The bit of her that was able to say, “No, I’m not going to behave like that. I’m going to do what feels right." That’s hugely inspirational. It reminds us of what we need to do. We mustn’t forget that, however well-heeled we become, however well-versed we become, however well-educated we are...it’s not as if people who have had all the education and opportunities that we’ve all had don’t sometimes turn into monsters. They do. We always have to be alert. That was so inspiring, that this woman woke up and was brave.
Bruhl: Their story also is a warning to be alert for any sort of manipulation and changes in society, which we are seeing right now. I have to say I really like our chancellor, but the refugee crisis has changed Germany already. Slowly, there is a poison that goes around; people who thought they were liberal are not so liberal anymore. You can really witness how the whole country, the whole continent, is changing. That’s dangerous. You have to be aware. And be willing and have the guts to say something about it.