Seventy and more years after the World War 2, what is still left to be said that hasn’t been the topic of endless re-runs on cable television channels? Almost nothing, because we already know a lot about Hitler’s insanity transponed into Nazi ideology, Crystal Night, concentration camps, executions of everything deemed non-Aryan and unhealthy, books on fire, war campaigns, armed gangs of ideology-crazed children and resistance movements. Well, resistance movements abroad, not that much in Germany. Truth is, they were not mass movements and some of them were not that active nor engaged in any sort of combat, but there were plenty of different movements (party, religious, pacifist), intellectual circles, saboteurs and “lone wolves” who were opposing the oppression. After the White Rose leader biopic Sophie Scholl: The Last Days (2005), and also “the pacifist bomber” Georg Elser biopic 13 Minutes (2015), now we have French actor-turned-filmmaker Vincent Perez’s vision of some other discreet heroes named Alone in Berlin.
It is an adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (published under the Alone in Berlin title in the UK) that is already a fictionalized biography of Otto and Elise Hampel, the working class couple that after the death of their only son started writing cards against national-socialism and German war machine, placing them on the variety of Berlin locations in the early 40’s. The Hampels were captured and sentenced to death for treason. Fallada’s novel was published in Germany after the war and has seen several film adaptations in both East and West Germany during the Cold War, sending the open anti-Nazi message. However, even though Fallada’s was pre-war work was translated and published both in the USA and the UK, this particular novel was published only recently, earning the best-seller status.
Vincent Perez, whom we remember as an actor from Oscar-winning French epic Indochine (1992) and also American B-movies like The Crow: City of Angels (1996), is not primarily a film director, but he had the ambitious idea nevertheless. He succeeds to start strong, with the Hampel’s stand-ins Otto and Anna Quangel (played by Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) grieving their son’s death on the French front and witnessing the everyday atrocities of the Nazi regime. There might be no concentration camps, but there are swastika flags everywhere, looting, snitching, the Gestapo terror, the neighbourhood watches, Hitler Jugend and even more ridiculous organizations like Nazi Women League patrolling around, adding to the sense of totalitarian paranoia. There are also the last crumbs of humanity, not only in the Quangels, but also in some of their neighbours who are doing their best to save an elderly Jewish woman in their building.
Perez still keeps his plot moving on two tracks after her death, that brings the police inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) to the building. As Otto’s cards rise attention of the police and SS, Escherich becomes the investigator desperate to find the perpetrator, naming him The Hobgoblin. On the course of his investigation, he eventually gets into the conflict with the nervous SS officers who don’t understand the nature of the police work and just want to find their guy, any guy, to put an end to the whole thing.
The ending is kinda anti-climactic and predictable, despite even the plot-twist. Perez cannot find the right balance between the inner drama of the couple that are becoming strangers in their own town and enemies of their own country and the crime mystery around the investigation. The drama part is stronger, anchored by the performances of ever-compelling Emma Thompson and stoic, toned-down Brendan Gleeson. For the crime part, Daniel Brühl uses his a bit geekish Niki Lauda persona seen in Rush, and it works up to a point, and the inspector’s own professional, (a)political angle is a fresh twist in “The Good Nazi” cliché, but that is still not enough to cover the predictability of the whole plot.
In the end, Alone in Berlin is a fairly decent piece of cinema with some strong points. The actors are doing a good job, it is shot nicely and the locations of the Saxon town of Görlitz can pass as the wartime Berlin. Alexandre Desplat’s strings score is appropriate for the topic. Alone in Berlin is far from great, but this English-language UK-French-German co-production works in the context of yet untold stories of the resistance and anti-war movements in the very centre of the Nazi evil.