German novelist Hans Fallada had a complicated relationship with the National Socialists. He survived to watch the regime fall, but not long enough to see the publication of his most celebrated novel, a fictionalized account of underground anti-Nazi activists Otto and Elise Hampel (renamed Otto and Anna Quangel). In 2009, the belated English translation became a surprise bestseller. Their story of resistance gets the big screen treatment in Vincent Pérez’s English language Alone in Berlin (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
The Quangels never joined the National Socialist German Workers Party, but Anna Quangel was a member in good standing of the Women’s League. They appeared to be loyal working class supporters of Hitler’s government, but the death of their son (Elise Hampel’s brother in real life) left them profoundly disillusioned. He is so shaken, he starts leaving “subversive” messages on spinner-rack consumer postcards in public stairwells. At first, it is a way to release the grief welling up inside him, but with the encouragement and active assistance of his wife, they develop a small but systematized propaganda distribution campaign.
Quickly the cards bearing the heading “Freie [Free] Presse” catch the attention of the authorities. Poor, officious Inspector Escherich is probably the right cop to track them down, because he still favors real police work over confessions extracted through torture, but that inevitably puts him at odds with the Gestapo. Plotting each postcard’s location (there will be over two hundred), Escherich slowly closes in on the Quangels, while his own position becomes increasingly precarious.
Although Euro critics were not especially kind to it, Alone has considerable virtues. At the helm, Pérez (the actor best known for succeeding Brandon Lee in The Crow franchise and the red cloak scene in Queen Margot) shows a remarkably sensitive touch. Frankly, Alone is most effective as a portrait of grieving parents. The ambiguously humanistic portrayal of Escherich is also strangely compelling, but the film definitely feels small in scale, as if the entire Nationalist Socialist power structure were confined to half a dozen blocks in Berlin.
Once again, Alone demonstrates why Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson got to be such accomplished old pros. Both their performances as the Quangels are admirably smart, honest, restrained, and deeply moving. Daniel Brühl’s work as Escherich is also quite notable for its complexity, without inviting sympathy for the obedient government servant. All three are absolutely first-rate, but the film’s limited scope feels like we should be talking about them for Emmy consideration rather than bemoaning how they will be long forgotten by the year-end awards season.