Obedience and groupthink were cogs of a never-ending machine which kept Nazism running in the sinister era of Hitler. Husbands would churn trough factory work in the name of their Fuhrer, housewives would do all they were allowed to in order to support the regime, and their sons would fight and coldly die, scared and alone. This prototype is what frames the protagonists in Vincent Perez’s Alone in Berlin, a true life story adapted from a 1947 Hans Fallada novel which follows a German couple whose discontent with the regime and the sacrifices of war transformed into a small but determined operation aimed at sewing seeds of dissent, subverting the very idea of Hitler. If anything, it’s fun watching Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as they work towards their small but hopeful part in dividing wartime Berlin, slowly but surely throwing sand in the gears of the Nazi war machine.
Perez opens the film by jumping right into the catalyst and reason for the story: the death of a young man isolated in the midst of war, his brothers-in-arms carelessly trudging on as he lay dying with nothing but the sky in sight. It’s a bleak and harsh reality in which the director indulges, a beautifully shot opening sequence that contrasts death with nature right before the film is glued to the streets of Berlin.
Anna (Thompson) and Otto (Gleeson) are at home overcome with muted grief when they learn from the neighbourhood postmistress that their only son, said young man, has died fighting for Hitler. They stand and force faint smiles and no hint of rage when they greet others with “heil Hitler” but inside they each yearn to lash out and expose the Reich as a system built on lies. It’s a duplicity exemplified by very careful, considered performances from the two veteran actors; they who completely strip their given characteristics and make for a believable, – though dour and hard to read – German couple.
Detailed and poignant physical performances are required from the on-screen couple as they avoid showing explicit signs of grief, of which they experience in their own ways. Otto’s heartbroken stupor is the first to implode, leading him onto a dangerous track of subversion as he comes up with the idea of taking postcards and writing short, to-the-point attacks on Nazi propaganda. “The Führer will murder your son too” and other similar phrases are scribbled onto the back of these cards with intentionally messy handwriting, which is different each time. Otto goes through lengths to completely mask his identity and drop these cards in casual places such as office buildings both around and far from the area in which he and Anna live.
Soon enough the cards spark a small but passionate investigation led by Gestapo higher-up Escherich (Daniel Brühl) whose presence on screen lifts the otherwise drab and middling atmosphere that defines the film. That lifting doesn’t go far though, as even the appropriately cast actor is overshadowed by an air that’s much too flat and stilted to move these characters forward. Instead we’re given a well-shaped, well-framed story that takes one or two interesting steps and then falls flat.
For a story that has been adapted many times before, this English language version ultimately feels superfluous even though it rests on the immense talent of its three leads, drawing it’s only point of difference from performances which are strong even though they feel constricted. Perez foolishly puts most of his stock in an atmosphere of oppression and implied pain, a straight-forward package of nihilism that could have been so much more interesting had it the script only matched the reputation of those who brought it to life.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Alone in Berlin is out in Australian cinemas from Thursday. 2nd March