Softly spoken and frequently auspicious (given our present global circumstances), Alone In Berlin is a quiet cat-and-mouse thriller that paints a moving portrait of the small acts of heroism that shake the foundations of fascism.
Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) live simple, blue-collar lives in Berlin, 1940. Somewhat reluctantly, they contribute like good citizens to the ruling Nazi Party, until their soldiering son is killed in battle. Galvanised by their loss, they begin circulating anti-Nazi propaganda, raising the attention of a local police inspector, Escherich (Daniel Brühl).
As far as character actors go, Gleeson and Thompson may well be the cream of the crop. Both display a stoicism, nuance and subtlety rarely seen in such emotionally charged fare. Much of the credit, naturally, must go to director Vincent Pérez for his meditative approach to what could otherwise be a sonorous anti-fascist affair.
The film has received significant critique for its conservative approach to its source material – Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone – but Pérez’s caution and sensitivity so perfectly match the actions and character of the Quangels that it’s hard to believe a more dramatic take on the tale could possibly be more effective. Alexandre Desplat’s score rarely draws attention, while the camera work is effective and intimate, through not outstanding, except in the film’s tragic opening. Each technical aspect serves as a reminder of the film’s humble figures, their small but very real act of heroism seemingly dwarfed in a sea of swastika flags.
Criticisms of the film’s tragic subplots seem to overlook their contribution, as they serve not to reinforce the evils of the Nazis, but the sustaining of the ruling party’s agenda by selfish, opportunistic individuals. Pérez’s style could (perhaps generously) be termed ‘humanist’, focused on the minutiae of human interaction rather than grand gesture. Escherich, as an example, has a fairly predictable plot path to follow, but Brühl’s performance lends the character a pathos that sustains investment in him as the narrative unfolds.
Certainly, Alone In Berlin is no feel-good romp, nor a chest-thumping war film, but a peaceful protest against the rise of terror. In that sense, its release is well-timed. The actions of the fictional Quangels – and by extension the real-life Hampels on whom they are based – serve to inspire those overwhelmed by the chaos around them. Their actions, however small, aided in the defeat of their unconscionable foe. But of course, even small acts of resistance have dire consequences under tyrannical rule.
Contrary to popular opinion, Alone In Berlin does not succumb to the dourness of so-called ‘arthouse’ cinema, but presents a gentle voice of protest in an age of hatred – a cry of rebellion as discreet as a postcard left on a staircase.
Alone In Berlin opens in cinemas on Thursday March 2.