I am a huge fan of war movies and the ensuing drama that is a result of the emotional intensity that is war. A war movie about a couple who show resistance to Hitler’s regime by writing anonymous postcards and dropping them at random locations in the hope of altering people’s viewpoint of the beloved Fuhrer is a little different though. It’s a tale told masterfully enough in Alone in Berlin though that it remains equally engaging despite its less action-packed story.
Alone in Berlin follows factory worker Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) who, following the death of their son in the war fighting for Germany, are left with conflicting views of Hitler and decide to stage a silent resistance to the Nazi regime through the aforementioned letter writing. Though the characters are based on truth (the real life couple being Otto and Elise Hampel) the source material for the film is the fictionalized novel of the same name by Hans Fallada, so expect some dramatization and deviation from the original story.
Daniel Bruhl plays the role of a Nazi investigator who is tasked with tracing the source of the letters, whom he dubs the Hobgoblin. This leads to a surprisingly gripping cat and mouse game to see who makes the first mistake. In between, the film also adds a few minor story-lines of others showing how lives were affected by Nazi-led Germany. These small additions are powerful, though don’t add much value to the story on further review.
As a period piece, the film gets a lot right in the old Berlin setting and in recreating the every-day life of Germans living in the war. The war itself is kept significantly in the background and apart from a brief moment at the start of the film, is not featured in the film at all as we are transported to the lives of everyday Germans instead.
Alone in Berlin is firmly focused on the performances of its leads who all bring emotionally strong performances to their roles. Gleeson and Thompson’s performances rely on a physical emotion where their facial features and body language drive a lot of their performances. The dialogue between the two does little more than to drive the narrative of the story, but they both make up for it by showcasing their emotions in the many silent moments made available to them. This contrasts distinctly from Bruhl’s Escherich who has arguably the weightier material to dissect and yet plays it out effortlessly.
Whereas Alone in Berlin can appear to be a slow dirge at times, it does feature some superb direction from Vincent Perez who does an incredible job in transforming seemingly calm moments of the story into tense passages making the film more entertaining than you would expect. This is also driven by a superb score by Alexandre Desplat who layers the film’s emotional material with a wonderfully complimentary score that builds on the clever pacing and camera work.
The film is not a thriller by any means, but these touches prevent it from playing out as a standard drama and adds a lot more intensity in understanding the risks the couple actually put themselves through in doing this seemingly innocent protest. The story takes place over a period of three years, but feels much shorter and more intense than this thanks to its strong pacing without losing the obviousness of the time progression and its effects on the characters.
The direction has its flaws though. Its opening, which sets up the background of the events, lacks a significant amount of emotion and robs the movie of some power as it takes a lot longer to get engaged into the characters than it really should. Additionally, the film’s closing moments, while remaining poignant and powerfully concluding the story, felt rushed and a little unsatisfying. This could be a huge deal breaker for you or a seemingly small problem in an otherwise solid film. For me it was the latter, but I can see people becoming disconnected from the film as a result. Some of the film’s minor supporting cast also bring performances that feel forced. Thankfully it’s not much of a distraction when the rest of the cast is so on point.
Overall though Alone in Berlin is more than what you expect. Its strong performances and crafty direction inject life into a story that is far from ordinary, but difficult to portray on screen. It’s certainly worth your time and the investments you make in it are worthwhile.
Alone in Berlin is out now on DVD