Berlin Review: Alone In Berlin

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson star as a working class couple with rebellion on their minds in ‘Alone In Berlin’-  a gently-paced thriller-drama that loses the fury of the novel by Hans Fallada on which it is based.

Based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Hans Fallada, actor-director Vincent Perez casts Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as Otto and Anna Quangel – a working class couple who, after the loss of their son fighting for the Germans in France, plan acts of sedition against the Third Reich.

Joseph Walsh

One of the greatest strengths of Hans Fallada’s novel ‘Alone In Berlin’, which is loosely based on a true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, is how he crafts a picture of war-time Berlin, full of wretched low-lifes ranging from drunks and thieves to whores. It is a brutal, unforgiving read that captures the culture of fear of Nazi Germany.

Director-actor Vincent Perez has adapted the novel, which is now screening in the competition section of the Berlin Film Festival. In Perez’s hands, the brutality of Fallada’s book has been stripped back, softened to a blunt edge. However, at its core remains the heart-breaking tale of Otto and Anna Quangel, grieving parents tired of living under Hitler’s tyranny in the wake of their son’s recent death.

Perez’s film is not the first adaptation of Fallada’s novel. In 1975, Alfred Vohrer made his version with Hildegard Knef and Carl Raddatz, under the title Everyone Dies Alone, and there was also an adaption for German TV. This time around, the majority of the cast remain German but speak English. The only members of the lead cast that are not German are the film’s leads, Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson.

The decision to make the film in the English language certainly doesn’t detract from the drama, and in the safe hands of Thompson and Gleeson the suffering that their characters endure is palpable and, towards the third act, heart-breaking.

After their son is killed fighting in France, Anna and Otto decide to rebel against the National Social Party (the Nazis by another name) by creating small cards with hostile political messages on them which they deposit across Berlin. The messages, which call for the removal of Hitler from power or for the return of the free press, may seem like a small gesture in today’s context, but such an act of rebellion would be enough to cause them to be arrested and executed. However, while the threat is present, the real sense of peril is never fully realised by Perez.

We get many scenes of the couple darting through the streets depositing their cards in government buildings or on stairwells; the tension is there, but minimal, even dull at times. Closing in on them is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), who has been tasked by the SS with bringing down the man responsible. There is a cat-and-mouse chase in which Escherich gradually closes in on the Quangels. We have an awkward, and frankly awful, interrogation scene where they get the wrong man – a gambling addict they try to pin the case on – but the reality is that Perez has missed the power of Fallada’s novel.

The real drama and strength of this adaptation lies more in the nuanced relationship between this haunted couple, performed so expertly by Gleeson and Thompson. Otto is shown to be a simple man, a mechanic by trade, who struggles to comfort his grieving wife as they are gradually rent apart by their individual grief. The drama consists in the repairing of their sorrow, bringing them back together. When screen time is given over to their marriage, Alone In Berlin becomes a much better film. However it is all too often side-lined, even though many of the secondary characters who enrich the novel are stripped back (or away altogether) in this adaptation.

Perez is too fond of soft-focus, and the production has an overly polished quality, yet his attention to detail cannot be denied, such as when Gleeson’s Otto caresses a work-in-progress carving begun by his deceased son before going off to fight in France.

Alone In Berlin is a small, even domestic, drama set against the wider horrors of the Third Reich, showing how the small acts by two good, honest people made, in their own way, a small difference. The adaptation is not entirely successful, sacrificing too much of the anger and potency of the book, and its pacing is problematic. But thanks to Gleeson and Thompson, the film is a gentle, at times haunting, drama worth seeing for their performances alone.

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