Film review: Alone in Berlin

David Gritten / 29 June 2017

Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson turn in top-notch performances in this old-fashioned thriller.



If you’re a film producer making a wartime drama centred on a middle-aged couple, and you secure Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as your lead actors, then you’re already ahead of the game. Alone in Berlin boasts excellent performances from these two first-rate actors, both of them in watchable, top-rate form; but the film itself doesn’t quite match their presence or talent.

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They play Berliners Anna and Otto Quangel, who in 1940 learn to their horror that their soldier son has lost his life while fighting for the Nazi war effort. 

Already weary and suspicious of the Third Reich’s shrill rhetoric and casual arrogance, the Quangels re-direct the misery of their loss into subversive propaganda. They leave anonymous postcards at random points around the city with provocative handwritten messages: “Hitler’s war is the worker’s death!” The Fuhrer has murdered our son!”

Their aim is to turn the city’s population against the Nazis by stealth – a quality in which they excel. Many of the postcards are handed in to the police by fearful citizen informers, but the Quangels succeed in leaving 250 such messages before the authorities rumble them.

It’s a terrific resistance story, based on a 1947 novel by Hans Fallada – and it should make for a tense, nail-biting thriller. Yet despite Thompson and Gleeson’s best efforts, Alone in Berlin somehow falls short. Its script often feels laboured and over-obvious, and director Vincent Perez (best known as an actor) fails to create the necessary tension in too many promising scenes.

Yet this subject matter yields different facets, and a third character, a police inspector named Escherich, played immaculately by Daniel Bruhl, highlights them. He’s effectively leading the hunt for the postcard writers, and initially seems little more than a cruel Nazi functionary. But Escherich turns against his masters when he is violently assaulted by an SS officer, and comes to admit a certain nobility in the Quangels’ mission.

Alone in Berlin has been a long time in finding a UK release (its European premiere was at the Berlin Film Festival, in January last year) and in commercial terms, it’s clearly a dicey prospect. Yet it’s well-intentioned, somewhat old-fashioned (not in a bad way) – and completely free from irony, which can sometimes be a relief. For all its faults, it feels blessedly grown-up compared with most of the films being released this summer. Its appeal is clearly to older audiences, and many may find it intriguing.

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