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A German couple dedicate themselves to tiny acts of civil disobedience in Nazi Germany in Alone in Berlin, an adaptation of the 1947 Hans Fallada novel inspired by a true story and published in the U.S. in 2009 as Every Man Dies Alone. After several Mitteleuropean productions, including a 1975 West German version starring Hildegard Knef, Swiss-born actor-turned-helmer Vincent Perez (Queen Margot) is the unlikely director of this German-accented Anglophone version starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson.
They play the Quangels, a working-class German couple who formed a private resistance movement of two after they lost their son in the war. Handsomely packaged, the film unfortunately is also too well-behaved and lacking in psychological depth to really set itself apart from countless other WWII dramas theatrically, even if pockets of older audiences might be responsive. Locally, Alone in Berlin should do decent business, aided by the presence of local star Daniel Bruhl (Rush), who plays the improbably mustachioed inspector charged with finding these middle-aged Sophie Scholls.
At first sight, Otto and Anna Quangel don’t seem like the types who would like to draw attention to themselves in early 1940s Berlin. Otto is a foreman at a factory where wood is transformed into practical and in-demand objects such as coffins, while Anna gets dragged along to house calls made by the National Socialist Women’s League, whose members knock on the doors of women not (yet) dedicated to the war effort. Otto isn’t a party member, which was frowned upon at that time, but as he explains to his colleagues, he’s given his only son, Hans (Louis Hofmann), to the country and what more could a man be asked to do? (The actual couple on which the Quangels were based, Otto and Elise Hampel, became radicalized after Elise’s brother died.)
The film’s screenplay, credited to Perez and Achim Von Borries (and with uncredited input from James Schamus, also one of the producers), moves (too) swiftly from Hans’ death — seen in an appropriately panicky prologue — to the Quangels’ resistance, which consists of writing anti-Nazi statements on the back of postcards and then leaving them in public places around the city. The film’s main failing is that it never manages to convincingly explain why the Quangels would do such a thing. Clearly, they want to rebel against the system that killed their only child, but why strew postcards around the city, a high-risk tactic that’s not guaranteed to make any difference?
Indeed, practically all the postcards end up on the desk of Inspector Escherich (Bruhl), who, after a perfunctory complaint about lacking resources, sets out on an increasingly involved manhunt to find this enemy who fights with the pen rather than the sword. The Quangels risk being discovered each time they venture into the city but the film doesn’t dramatize this convincingly; there’s the suggestion that Otto needs to see the cards being picked up and read, for example, but Perez doesn’t much explore this compulsion or the dangers associated with it. Even more damaging is the fact that the director doesn’t spend much time exploring what kind of satisfaction their tiny acts of rebellion give the protagonists, or to what extent those acts impact their initially wobbly marriage; neither of these characters is a big talker.
Gleeson and Thompson make for a believable working-class pair, with Gleeson sporting an impressive German accent throughout. As in Calvary, he is equally convincing commanding the room or disappearing among the masses, and he’s especially good in scenes in which he has to do very little, even if there finally isn’t enough here to give viewers a full handle on Otto’s emotions and motivations.
Thompson drifts in and out of her German accent — Kate Winslet in The Reader she’s not — and her character is even less developed, barely more than a stick-figure grieving mother. Her association with the Women’s League, for example, suggests that she wanted to blend in and/or believed in Nazi ideology for at least some time, though Perez doesn’t do much with that except in a single scene that finds Anna lecturing the snooty wife of a high-ranking Nazi official (Katharina Schuettler). How both characters, not even fully literate, evolved into resistants is finally more hinted at than clearly laid out.
Bruhl is similarly boxed in by an underdeveloped character: Escherich’s increasingly rash actions lack sufficient motivation. There’s pressure from his higher-up (Mikael Persbrandt, playing a Nazi with a Swedish-American accent) to get results, but the shocking decisions he repeatedly makes aren’t fleshed out with enough psychological nuance.
Belgian maestro of light Christophe Beaucarne is one of Europe’s top cinematographers, but his visual style here lends the film a classical air that doesn’t quite fit a story of the satisfaction derived from private acts of anarchy.
Similarly, the costumes and production design are beautifully conceived but don’t give any visual clues as to why this incongruously perfect-looking world is something that needs to be rebelled against.
Alexandre Desplat’s score goes from mournful to percussion-filled, trying to ratchet up the tension in the film’s second half. It doesn’t quite work.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: X Filme Creative Pool, Master Movies, Filmwave
Cast: Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Bruhl, Mikael Persbrandt, Monique Chaumette, Joachim Bissmeier, Katrin Pollitt, Lars Rudolph, Uwe Preuss, Daniel Strasser, Rainer Egger
Director: Vincent Perez
Screenplay: Achim von Borries, Vincent Perez, adapted from the novel by Hans Fallada
Cinematographer: Christophe Beaucarne
Editor: Francois Gedigier
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Production designer: Jean-Vincent Puzos
Art director: Andreas Olshausen
Set decorator: Ingeborg Heinemann
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Sound: Roland Winke
Sales: Cornerstone Films
Not rated, 102 minutes
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