Film Review: Alone in Berlin

Under-realized film about a 1940s working-class Berlin couple whose son is killed in the war and how they attempt to provoke the Nazi powers-that-be without getting caught.
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On a purely cloak-and-dagger level, Alone in Berlin is an intriguing story about a downtrodden blue-collar Berlin couple, Anna and Otto Quangel (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson), who lose their son in the war and channel their grief into mini-acts of rebellion against the Nazi regime. Otto scrawls anti-Fuhrer invectives—e.g., “Hitler’s war is the worker’s death”—on little cards and surreptitiously scatters them throughout the city. In fact, the Quangels are able to distribute close to 250 such cards before getting caught, despite the ubiquitous presence of Nazi henchmen and police who are onto their trail almost immediately. The paranoiac wheels are well greased and turn quickly.

The problem is that upon further reflection (analysis can be a pesky intrusion), our heroes’ motivations and actions make little if any sense. The veracity issue becomes that much more convoluted, as the story is allegedly based on a real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hempel, who were galvanized into postcard action when Elise’s brother was murdered at the front. But even if the events as described are uncannily accurate, there are nonetheless gaping holes throughout the film.

Their war experience undoubtedly has staying power that has spanned 70 years. In 1947, it inspired Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, resulting in several German and Czech TV and film versions, though neither the book nor the movies ever really achieved international acclaim. It wasn’t until 2009, when a new English-language translation of the book was released, that the Hempel/Quangel narrative gained political/cultural traction and a global following beyond the literati that had always admired the work as an expression of anti-fascism among ordinary German folk in the 1940s.

Until fairly recently, conventional wisdom viewed Germans as a monolithic Nazi collaborating bloc. Today, it’s not as easy to level collective blame. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, the extraordinary novel made into a shockingly dishonest film, and Anthony Doerr’s overrated and equally disingenuous best-selling All the Light We Cannot See are classic examples of the new genre and sensibility, the degree to which they succeed or don’t notwithstanding.

Alone in Berlin is the latest contribution and not surprisingly now we have the star-studded movie incarnation. Like The Reader, it features big-name English-speaking actors who converse with German accents, thus—according to some reviewers—underscoring a transnational truth and by extension just how unexceptional the Germans really were. The subtext seems to be that they were just like everyone else and given the right circumstances anyone—anywhere—could have been swept up in a maelstrom of Nazism without understanding any of it. It’s arguably a way of mitigating German culpability or at least making it more understandable.

To what degree actors speaking English with German accents evokes this notion—one that’s wide open to debate—is a stretch at best. It’s far more likely that English-speaking stars (sounding slightly German for the sake of authenticity) makes for a more bankable movie. If only the accents were consistent. Thompson slips in and out of hers and other actors may (or may not) sound German and/or speak with an undefined Central European inflection. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to correct.

But that’s the least of it. Directed by the actor Vincent Perez—who is also credited as a writer along with Achim Von BorriesAlone in Berlin suffers from far greater potholes, starting with a fundamental question which is never satisfactorily answered: Who were the Quangles before they lost their son? Were they essentially apolitical figures who became resistance fighters (of sorts) thanks to personal loss, or were they always silent Nazi-haters who kept up the pretense of Nazi allegiance as a survival tactic, and only risked exposure when they had nothing else to lose?

Early on, when Anna receives the terrible letter informing her and Otto of their son’s death, it seems the latter. In rage and anguish, she destroys the letter, proclaiming the Führer a liar, hinting at a view she’s held for a long time and this horror only confirming it. The speed with which Otto starts writing his little missives suggests it as well, but we never know for certain. Their actions feel telescoped and unaccounted for, especially as Anna continues to serve the National Socialist Women’s League, going from house to house attempting to solicit support for the war effort. Equally nettlesome, at no point does the viewer glean what the Quangels are attempting to do, however misguided and ambivalent their ambitions may be.

Similarly, police inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), who is charged with tracking down the Quangels, undergoes a transformation that doesn’t add up either. Initially he is every bit a sadistic Nazi embodiment until he is brutalized by an SS officer, at which point his views towards the whole regime and even the Quangels begin to shift. Once again, it’s unclear as to why. Are his political views evolving or affirming what he always suspected? Or is his turnaround nothing more than the reaction of a vindictive child-man responding to a personal assault? We don’t know.

Still, there’s something so right about Otto working in a coffin factory. That may have been the case literally, but far more important, Otto’s day job is metaphorically suggestive. It succeeds as fiction. And Gleeson fulfils the role as an encumbered hulk of a man whose stoic silence is at once profoundly dignified and endlessly sad, especially as he spends his free time carving a bust of his son’s head that finally sits as a centerpiece on the dinner table. The close-ups of his hands fashioning the bust make for powerful imagery.

Otto and Anna’s individual and joint responses to the bust are also vivid and memorable. The evolution of their relationship is well-executed too. They are not the most verbally communicative couple, but as their cat-and-mouse game with the authorities progresses (and it has that quality) and the stakes rise, the silent bond between the two grows palpably. Thompson, who is usually excellent, falls a tad short here. Admittedly, as written she doesn’t have much to work with.

Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne captures an oppressive and oppressed Berlin while Alexandre Desplat’s somber (and mercifully unobtrusive) score sets the right mood as the story moves to its hideous and inevitable conclusion.

But in the end, Alone in Berlin disappoints. There are just too many unanswered questions. It’s awash in unrealized potential.

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