With Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson heading up the cast, I had high hopes for Alone in Berlin. It’s based on the highly praised 1947 novel by Hans Fallada, which has only recently been translated into English, apparently based on the story of a real life couple.
Otto and Anna Qaungel are an ordinary working class couple living in Berlin during World War II. He is a factory supervisor and she is a housewife whose days are devoted to the National Socialist Women’s League. When their son, their only child, is killed in action on the front, they have a change of heart and begin an odd little campaign against the Fuehrer and the Nazi Party. He buys postcards and writes anti-Nazi slogans one them and leaves them in out of the way places for others to find. As one by one the cards are turned into the police, Detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) becomes determined to track down the perpetrator. But once the party gets involved he finds himself in a moral dilemma as they are only interested in making ‘someone responsible’ regardless of whether they are actually guilty.
There is no dearth of movies about ordinary heroes who struggled against the Third Reich. Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Casablanca, Life is Beautiful all leap to mind and Alone in Berlin could have fit neatly into this genre. But it doesn’t. Rarely have I left a film with such high production values and excellent cast and felt so perturbed at the wasted effort and opportunity.
The heart of problem is the script cowritten by Achim von Borries and director Vincent Perez. There isn’t a single character in the entire movie that feels authentic. Otto and Anna are quixotically deeply intelligent and passionate and also rather simple-minded and careless. Their primary objection to Hitler and the war is that their son was killed. As long as other people’s children were sacrificed they were willing to support it.
Detective Escherich’s moral dilemma is not so deeply felt that he would do anything to prevent injustice. There is also a subplot in the first third involving an old Jewish woman, Frau Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette), hiding in the attic of the Qaungel’s apartment block, who is alternately preyed upon and protected by the other residents. Then there are the Nazis. At all ranks, they are portrayed as such one-dimensional, blood-thirsty sadists, a date with American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman would be preferable.
In the hands of a surrealist director like Emir Kusturica this material could have played on a half-dozen levels and raised all sorts of moral and ethical issues – and kept you on the edge of your seat. But Vincent Perez tells the story as a plodding narrative. There are no surprises, no twists or turns. And the inevitable ending is a relief.