ALONE IN BERLIN. Germany/UK, 2016. Starring Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Bruehl. Directed by Vincent Perez. 97 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
Alone in Berlin pays tribute to a middle-aged couple and their private (and small) resistance to the Nazi government and to Hitler during the early years of the war. The screenplay is an adaptation of a popular novel about the couple.
The film is quite an international mixture, perhaps disconcerting for German audiences to see strongly German characters as well as police and Nazi officials all speaking in English – but that is the way of the commercial world, so many international directors making their films in English. Perhaps surprisingly, this film was directed by French actor, Vincent Perez, best known for his romantic and, sometimes, swashbuckling roles like Queen Margot and Fanfan La Tulipe.
The film opens with a very young German soldier running through the forest for his life, pursued by the Resistance, shot by them, lying dead in the field gazing towards the sky only for his soldiers to attack and run-off the Resistance.
In Berlin, there is a certain amount of public elation with the prospect of the defeat of France and the hope of the defeating England by the end of the year and Germany becoming the greatest and richest country in Europe. People are joyful in the streets.
A postmistress on her bike, seemingly friendly with authorities, of being seen to be kind towards people in the apartment block, especially to an elderly Jewish lady, delivers the letter to the parents of the young man, who died in giving his life for his country.
It is his parents who are the focus of the story, Anna and Otto, played very seriously and with dignity by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Anna is an ordinary housewife although she belongs to the union of mothers, even having to confront the wife of an official who claimed an exception to war wives working. Otto, or on the other hand, is a foreman in a factory with further demands being made for Hitler himself and for the war effort, Hitler demanding increased quotas. Otto does not belong to the Nazi party and, when challenged, says he gave to the Fuehrer his greatest possession, his son.
But the key thing about Otto and Anna is that Otto decides to write, disguising his handwriting, messages on the back of postcards, telling mothers that their sons would be sacrificed, denouncing Hitler and claiming a free press. Quietly, he places the letters in various strategic points – almost 300 of them with 275 being handed in to the authorities. He hopes he can make some difference in awareness. Anna works with him, helping with some of the deliveries.
In the meantime, Gestapo authorities are not happy with this spate of cards and the police chief, Daniel Bruehl, is commissioned to find the culprit, who is nicknamed Hobgoblin because of his evasive tactics. There is a subplot with one of the police officers coming to Otto’s building to apprehend the old Jewish widow whom local burglars had robbed, but she had given been some help by the couple and by a kindly but outwardly severe judge.
It is the same police who are charged with finding the card-writer. Eventually, the ex-husband of the postmistress is apprehended, tortured, proven to be not the culprit but, under pressure from the Gestapo, the policeman kills him claiming that it was suicide.
Otto and Anna are quite stoic in their continued mission of their card writing and delivery. However, they know it will only be some time before they are apprehended.
The film shows the interrogation of Otto, some brutality, especially the congratulatory-toasting officials smashing their glasses on his head. The results are inevitable, Otto seeming to accept that he would be condemned and executed but had decided that this is what he had to do during the war. Anna shares this.
There is a symbolic ending with the cards fluttering again down from the building onto the streets – and the sad acknowledgement of what he had done by the policeman, somehow admiring Otto, promising to release and but failing to – and experiencing some kind of disillusionment, especially after he was bashed in the face by the Gestapo chief, and remorse.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.