There is a way that you do World War II films. You adapt a well-known book. You pay a lot of attention to locations and period costuming. You send up the bat-signal for Daniel Brühl and/or Sebastian Koch to lend some genuine Germanness, get a respected DP to lend texture to the mandatory brown/gray palette (with splashes of shocking Nazi red), and secure the services of an Oscar-winning composer known for his neo-classical/orchestral talents. And you cast notable, never-miss non-German thesps as your main leads and have them speak in accented English.
“Alone in Berlin,” adapted by French actor-turned-director Vincent Perez from the bestselling novel by Hans Fallada with cinematography from Christophe Beaucarne (“Coco Before Chanel,” “Beauty and the Beast“), is an English-language film, scored by Alexandre Desplat, starring Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson and Brühl—one imagines Koch must have been indisposed. This film adheres to the playbook with almost admirable dedication.
That said, there are some aspects of Perez’ approach that send up little flares of interest into the film’s leaden skies. While there have been some narrative changes from the book that make certain characters a little more active, or that lift the otherwise unendingly dour proceedings infinitesimally upward, mostly “Alone In Berlin” unfolds with a grim fidelity to the novel’s seriously downbeat atmosphere. Is there such a thing as impressively depressing?
And even the hokey, old-school practice of having everyone speak English though they’re playing Germans is, if you want to stretch a point, meta-level curious in the context of Fallada’s book. Largely overlooked until it became an international bestseller in 2009 —following its first translation into English— the novel seems to resonate most in the English-speaking world. Perhaps that’s due to the Teutonic tendency to find serious fault with anything that comes with even the slightest whiff of German apologism. Though it may still portray Nazism as the ultimate, pervasive evil, this is a story of “Good Germans,” and in the country itself that remains, politically speaking, a controversial proposition, especially when it’s not Germans doing the telling.
The Good Germans in question are Otto and Anna Quangel (Gleeson and Thompson) who, following the death of their son at the front, are stirred out of their keep-your-head-down attitude and moved to active —if impotent and largely suppressed— rage against the Nazi regime and its “lies.” And it should be noted that their opposition to Nazism has less to do with a generalized moral disgust for its policies (despite their sympathy toward their elderly Jewish upstairs neighbor, for example) than with the fact that Der Fuhrer’s propaganda machine is fabricating reports of the army’s successes, in battles very like the one their son died in.
As a tiny act of rebellion, Otto starts writing anti-Hitler messages anonymously on postcards and leaving them around the city, believing the seed of resistance will spread in secret. But he is mistaken —told you it was a downer story!— as all but a handful of his painstakingly written missives go straight to the authorities. They land on the desk of Inspector Escherich (Brühl), a talented and dogged police officer who is about to get a rude awakening as to where he stands in the pecking order and who, before the case is closed, will more or less lose his soul.
Within the narrow confines of Serious Drama About The War, Thompson and Gleeson are reliably excellent. Thompson has such a facility for projecting internalized suffering that she could probably suffer internally in her sleep, and in moments like when the inevitable hammering at her door occurs, the dignified resignation that she conveys in the gentle removal of an apron is pleasurable to watch simply on the level of seeing a fine actress ply her craft. And Gleeson is even more impressive, despite not at all resembling the book’s description of Otto as “birdlike.” In fact, it’s his bulky normality, his big, magnificent ordinariness, that breathes some sort of life into an otherwise often overly by-the-numbers picture.
Brühl is always watchable, but his character is the trickiest to navigate, His arc sees a shift from ego-driven detective to cold-blooded murderer to SS lackey laying his quarry at his master’s feet. He simply undergoes more reversals and changes than Perez allows time to wholly account for. It’s understandable that the director is most interested in charting the slowly inexorable net-closing-in that happens around the Quangels, but if, as he’s said in interviews, his chief aim here is to communicate the pervasive climate of fear under which Berliners at the time lived, there would have been a certain value in exploring the story of a man who submitted to that fear. And in containing more outright drama, Escherich’s story more fully told could have added new notes to a film that otherwise plays out in more or less a monotone. This impression is enhanced because outside the performances, the filmmaking is pretty much business as usual, and rather overreliant on montages of painstakingly scrawled postcards (in German, despite the spoken language being English, which is always an irritant) being left on stairwells. It’s not the most visually thrilling sight to behold.
“The book was so much better!” is a regular and fairly useless critique of literary adaptations, but it’s true that this is probably a story better read than watched. The Quangels’ act of rebellion was literary in its way, and it feels too minute and internalized to lend itself easily to the broad brushstrokes of the prestige drama. Caught between intentions that are all good but directly oppositional, “Alone in Berlin” becomes a hard sell: a film too perfunctory to be embraced by arthouses, and too damn depressing to be a mainstream proposition. Still, there is always something of value in the sincere recreation of ordinary heroism. And Perez’ film does sincere if ordinary justice to the idea that where there is a will for it, resistance can find a way, be it so small as to be postcard-sized. [B-]