Alone in Berlin
Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl
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A movie about the holocaust that lacks fire.
No one wants to criticise a holocaust film; they serve a critical purpose in remembering and learning from the atrocities of our shared history. But when they fail to even strike the middle, they become problematic. Taking a subject as terrifically painful as Nazi Germany and removing the impact is dangerous – and whether it was intentional or not, the lack of fire in Alone In Berlin downplays fascism to seem like more of an ‘upsetting happenstance’ than an extraordinarily brutal plight.
Directed by actor Vincent Pérez (whose directorial credits include little-known features 2002’s Once Upon An Angel and 2007’s The Secret), Alone In Berlin, set in 1940s Berlin at the height of the Second World War, follows working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) who receive the news that their only son has been killed on the battlefield in France. Already disillusioned with The Führer and The Fatherland, the loss of their son proves the tipping point and Otto begins a campaign of civil disobedience, writing messages on postcards that urge fellow Germans to resist the Nazi regime.
Anna soon partners with Otto and together they covertly distribute hundreds of postcards, left in stairwells and mailboxes across the city. At the head of the police force trying to track down the dissenters is detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl), who faces enormous pressure from the SS to find, stop and bring the traitors to justice.
Based on the international bestseller by Hans Fallada, the original content for the film was strong. But somewhere down the line it all became lost and laboured. Arguably the fault is Pérez’s – whose transparently fearful direction shows his inability to dig any deeper than the surface layers of a greatly sensitive subject. Clearly, his confidence and maturity as a director is wanting, and here, he’s definitely bitten off more than he can chew.
The performances, though notably better than the direction, are a bit like trying to make laksa, giving up halfway, and eating Mi Goreng over the sink instead. Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson start out with the best intentions; they are present, passionate and even rather convincing in places. But much like the laksa, it becomes less-and-less about taste and flavour, and more about just getting something in your stomach. What the pair deliver is passable, but their efforts aren’t exactly what you’d want them to be.
Ultimately the film is a flat-liner. There are just no peaks and troughs, which is remarkable given the tremendously heavy content of the film. It fails in pulling at the heartstrings or even, at the very least, giving any real context to what was a terrifying and dark period in time.