Friday, 07 July 2017

Alone in Berlin

Small-scale heroism in a wartime tale of one German couple’s way of speaking out against the Nazi regime

Written by Jason Solomons

Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel only took 62 years to become an overnight success. Its first English-language translation in 2009 sent the book into the best-seller lists in the UK and America and provided the spark for this well-upholstered film version to finally get the go-ahead, in English.

It’s directed by Vincent Perez, French cinema’s heartthrob from the 1990s, when he cut a dash in hits such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Oscar-winning Indochine and lavish costumer La Reine Margot. Having tried for many years to make the film in German, his direction here is restrained and classic but he holds a firm grip on the story, atmosphere and performances. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

Forced to use their best ‘tcherman ex-cents’, emma thompson and Brendan Gleeson are cast as ordinary couple otto and Anna Quangel who, heartbroken over the death of their only son during the invasion of France in 1940, begin to realise the tragedy Hitler is leading the country toward.

Resorting to the only form of protest that comes to mind, Otto begins penning anonymous anti-Hitler messages on postcards and leaving them around Berlin, in stairwells, lift shafts and windowsills.

Such is the paranoia and suspicion in the city, that most of the 250 cards are immediately handed in to the authorities, and the dogged inspector Escherich (played by the fine German actor Daniel Brühl, also speaking English but his accent is at least genuine) is ordered to catch this mystery message-writer.

Gleeson continues with his furtive missions, almost getting caught a few times in scenes of palpable tension. The fragile treachery of Hitler’s Berlin is also tangible, with neighbours informing on each other, as Jewish residents disappear.

The film becomes a detective story, but given the rarity of war movies about German resistance or any opposition to the Nazis, it’s also about protest and standing up for moral beliefs. All of which lends the film a particular piquancy in this age of furore as, like all good dramas, it makes you wonder: what would you do?

Published so soon after the War, Fallada’s book was controversial but surprisingly respected. It was based on the true story of a couple called the Hampels, and their fate at the hands of the Gestapo was well documented, to the point where the postcards in the movie are facsimiles of the originals.

Thompson isn’t bad, although she doesn’t have too much to do except look haggard with worry, and wait for the Gestapo to knock on her door. Gleeson, though, is admirable, his face a permanent contortion of dismay and disdain as he continues work in his woodwork factory, even as its production turns to making soldiers’ coffins.

Their clandestine acts of insurrection seem to re-ignite the Quangels’ passions and respect for each other, while we see in them and their resistance, however minor and ineffective, a kind of heroism. It has taken many years for their story to be told, but there’s dignity in knowing that history can still take note of the little things that count.

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