Review: Alone in Berlin

An adaptation with potential, but one which fails to deliver on its narrative tension and emotion

Image: X-Filme Creative Pool


Director: Vincent Pérez
Starring: Emma Thompson, David Brühl
Length: 1hr 45m
Rating: 12A

Though a German film, Vincent Pérez’s Alone in Berlin has all the trappings of a modern British period drama. Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson bring the star quality, the film is set in an aesthetically interesting setting and it’s based on a true story of a German couple’s resistance against the Nazi Regime in 1940-1942. The problem with this film, as with a number of British period dramas, is that that’s all there is to it. Alone in Berlin masks its lack of emotional or stylistic depth with a thin and bland representation of Nazi Berlin, doing a disservice both to the story being told and the real-life historical figures it portrays.

Although the film is based on the novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, that work itself was based on a real working class couple: Otto and Elise Hampel, who, after Elise’s brother was killed in action, started a small campaign of resistance against the Nazis via placing postcards with seditious anti-Nazi slogans written on them throughout Berlin. The film follows the book in recreating the characters as Otto and Anna Quangel, played by Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson respectively, and in the film, as in the book, it is their son who is killed. Daniel Brühl (of Rush and Goodbye Lenin fame) plays Escherich, the police detective tasked with hunting the rebellious husband and wife down.

Image: X-Filme Creative Pool

It’s an interesting story, but the film fails to deliver either on its narrative tension or emotion. With its flat lighting and disinterested cinematography, scenes slog one after the other, which leads to frustration when you constantly feel that the film should be more interesting. One issue was character motivation. It is never made clear why Otto and Anna suddenly decide to protest against the Nazis. While it does makes sense for them to blame Hitler for starting the war that killed their son, they also start writing things like, “If the Nazis win ‘might makes right’ will dominate the world” and “Free the press” which have nothing to do with their grief for their son and more to do with a deliberate political protest against Nazi injustice. The film fails to explore this thought process between Otto and Anna, instead seeming to think that audiences would just accept, “Oh their son died, I guess they now hate the regime that they originally had passion for” as noted through Anna’s membership within the Nazi Women’s League. Alone in Berlin feels like wish- fulfilment, imagining that Germans would know that the Nazis were evil because modern audiences know that the Nazis were evil. What could have been an interesting exploration of the internal politics of an unassuming, non-political working class couple is never achieved. And there’s no point trying to figure out what was occurring emotionally on the Daniel Brühl side of the film as his actions border on the nonsensical.

The acting (and drama) is mostly mawkish and flat. While Brendan Gleeson gives a quiet, dignified quality to his character, the director didn’t seem to know what to do with Emma Thompson. Sometimes she’s weepy and hysterical and other times she’s wily and confident. While we receive some emotional reasoning for why Otto begins writing the letters, no motivation beyond “Because my husband is doing it” is given to Anna. The film wastes both the intriguing potential of Anna’s personality and Emma Thompson’s star quality acting ability.

Image: X-Filme Creative Pool

Despite the film focussing on the couple, Daniel Brühl gave the best performance in the film. While some of his actions are confusing, his portrayal of a frustrated and increasingly frightened for his life Escherich holds the otherwise uninteresting film together. Threatened by violent SS officers for failing to find Otto and Anna, we are given a glimpse into Escherich’s desperation as he goes to greater and deadlier lengths towards finding the mysterious letter-leaver. The film would have been far more interesting had it focussed entirely on his investigation, beginning with the discovery of the first letters, then noting patterns etc. Instead we’ve already been introduced to Otto and Anna and their lacklustre motivations and Escherich isn’t given enough characterisation to be interesting.

Much like the recent The Secret Scripture, where the critically-acclaimed director Jim Sheridan failed to deliver on a period drama with enormous emotional and thematic potential, critically-acclaimed director Vincent Pérez also failed thematically and emotively, but even failed at creating a visually interesting period piece. Due to its flat presentation, the aesthetically-interesting world of Nazi Berlin failed to materialise, with costumes, banners and Nazi memorabilia failing to promote any kind of emotional response. This visually uninteresting film mixed with a tension-less narrative structure fails to bring about the potentially powerful story-telling Alone in Berlin could have achieved.