Alone in Berlin

Studio: IFC Films

Jun 16, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Death stalks Alone in Berlin, which should come as no surprise given it’s an anti-Nazi story unfolding in wartime Berlin. The opening scene sees a young German solider shot to death in an anonymous forest. What he was doing there, or where there even is holds little relevance. The only thing that matters is he’s dead, and it’s enough to tip his distraught parents into an act of personal rebellion.

Alone in Berlin first appeared immediately after the end of WWII. It was the last work from German author Hans Fallada before he died, and one of the first post-war anti-Nazi tracts to come from the pen of a German. The book is a masterful summation of despair and defiance under the Nazi regime. It’s as much about the crushing weight of oppression and the way this manifests itself on those crushed as it is an act of heroic revenge.

Sadly, Vincent Pérez’s film captures little of the novel. Adaptations are meant to go their own way, but this one doesn’t really try. Instead, it parses down a complex, atmospheric story, stripping away details that bring the book, and the situation faced by Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) to life. A bland crime drama emerges, trading in period trappings and an unengaging manhunt.

The cast are not to blame for this tepid misfire. Gleeson is stoically determined as Otto, striking back in the face of his son’s death, turning to a campaign that sees him placing subversive postcards around the city. His wife, the equally impressive Thompson soon joins him, the two of them setting out on a path that will leave them alone and almost certainly dead.

But then death is all around anyway. If it’s not their son dying, it’s every nail hammered into every coffin Otto churns out in his job as foreman at a Berlin factory. It’s in the fear enveloping their Jewish neighbor, and the desolation overcoming a retired judge who devoted his life to justice only to see it bulldozed over. It’s in every character, or at least should be if Pérez, who also co-wrote the screenplay hadn’t have decided to skip forward so relentlessly.

There are postcard dropping montages, flamboyant displays of fury at the failure of Daniel Brühl’s detective (a figure with a fascinating and squandered arc that ends on an abruptly unearnt note) to catch the culprit he calls the Hobgoblin, and brief cameos from a range of characters from the book who should have either been cut or developed further, rather than left in half-formed twilight.

As a ploddingly efficient procedural it works fine; as a period drama, it looks the part. As an indictment of the Nazi regime and the celebration of small defiance it wants to be, Alone in Berlin is a complete washout. Aiming high is fine, but Pérez’s film seems to think it can reach great heights simply because the source material does. It doesn’t work that way, nor does this work.

Author rating: 4/10

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