Review of a movie about resistance in Nazi Germany.
Nazi Germany continues to be a rich topic for filmmakers. There are many complex aspects to that regime and its history. This means it can be approached in many ways from comedy to serious drama. Alone in Berlin (2016) is an example of the latter. It fits within a subset of movies that address opposition to the Nazis. In this case, the source material is a 1947 book that covers the non-fiction activities of Otto and Elise Hampel. They were a working-class couple, here named Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson). Some changes have been made in the fictionalising of the story. In the movie, the couple becomes engaged in their independent resistance work in reaction to news of the death of their son. He is killed at the very start of the film while serving as a soldier. The husband works as a foreman in a small industrial workshop. He takes it upon himself to initiate opposition via the writing of postcards with defiant slogans upon them, leaving them on the steps of public offices and other places. Soon the police are on their case. That’s the plot.
The acting, cinematography, music and mise-en-scene uniformly work in the movie in a downbeat way. That is not a criticism. It wisely avoids putting a glossy patina on what was a horrible regime. It doesn’t get the usual Hollywood treatment and that’s a good thing. Gleeson in particular exudes a sorrowful demeanour that barely allows him a smile. There is a fire underneath but outwardly his character is just another worker drone in service of the system. Likewise Thompson is a million miles from any sort of charisma in her portrayal of an ordinary woman trying to deal with the death of a son at the hands of a state she can’t believe in any more. The camera work is conventional and doesn’t draw attention to itself. Likewise, the neighbourhood where the characters live is a drab brown. These parts of the film all tend to work in its favour.
Despite the positive parts of the film, there are things that could be said to work against it. One is the role and acting of Daniel Bruhl. He plays the Gestapo investigator Eschereich who is assigned the task of tracking down the mysterious card writer. Eschereich is an old-school, scientific detective who is interested in methodically figuring out who the culprit is. That might sound weird to mention, but in the Third Reich the internal politics were such that his superiors are more interested in framing the first person who comes along to suit a political need, rather than find the actual ‘wrong-doer’. Bruhl is a capable actor who is easy to like and the contrast between his character’s motivations and his bosses, puts the viewer in an uneasy position of almost wanting him to succeed in his mission. That’s no fault of Bruhl, he’s doing his job, but his dynamism is worryingly seductive if you aren’t careful. You might be kind and say this merely makes the film more subtle than your average portrayal of Hitler’s Germany. The extent to which you see it that way will depend on your own impression of course.
Drama should have a sense of tension to it. That can take place within a character, between a character and others, or conflict between the character and his/her environment. A story such as Alone in Berlin would seem to be ready-made for building tension. In fact, though, there are very few such moments. Otto leaves the card on some steps and walks away. Somebody finds it and reads it. This is shown in such a perfunctory way that it elicits no jolt of concern for Otto. There is one point where Otto is almost discovered by a bystander who intercepts one of his cards. But there are no real heart-stopping moments where you take the side of the character on an emotional level and feel personal empathy with his escape. Director Perez would do well to study Hitchcock’s oeuvre to see how you could build the dramatic tension lacking in this film.
So we are provided an interesting antagonist in the shape of Eschereich and little emotionally derived empathy for the people you should support. Since we are never introduced to the son, we don’t feel emotionally invested in the character or his fate and by extension his parents. So all you are left with is the need to remind yourself periodically on an intellectual, rational level that the Nazis were bad and yes, the dowdy couple are very much worthy of the viewers’ support. That’s ok but probably doesn’t lend enough depth. Which is a shame. Alone in Berlin may not be essential viewing, therefore, but any film that positively acknowledges opposition to Hitler has to be valued.