Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Alone in Berlin’

Does this count as a genuine coincidence or not? About six months ago I was visiting relatives when my cousin (NB to family: I am aware this is a bit of a simplification, stand down), a man of great energy and rigorous thoughtfulness, descended on me and raved about the book he was reading at the time, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. I’d never heard of the novel or the writer, but obviously this was not a recommendation to take lightly. Now here we are with a movie adaptation of the same (until relatively┬árecently) slightly obscure novel enjoying what I will politely describe as a limited release.

The movie is directed by Vincent Perez, and is also called Alone in Berlin – the book has previously been adapted for German audiences under the title Everyone Dies Alone, and if that gives you the sense that there may not be a lot of laughs in this one, you are entirely with the programme.

We are currently in the midst of one of those occasional outbreaks of movies about the Second World War, with new ones appearing on a very nearly weekly basis (or so it feels, anyway). Alone in Berlin opens towards the end of the initial Nazi conquest of France, with the death in battle of a young German soldier. In most movies this would not be cause for concern, but this is not your typical film taking place in this particular setting. German soldiers have parents, too, and the next thing we see is the dead boy’s parents receiving the telegram notifying them of his death.

They are Anna and Otto Quangel (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson); she is a housewife, he a factory foreman, and they live together in a slightly pokey flat in the centre of Berlin. Previously it seems they have been apolitical when it comes to their government, but the death of their son ignites something, first in Otto, then in Anna, and they decide to do something, anything, to resist what they see as the lies of the ruling regime.

This takes the form of writing seditious postcards criticising Hitler and his ideology, which they then leave in public places for others to find and (hopefully) pass on. You might think this sounds pretty small beans when it comes to insurrectionism, and I might be inclined to agree with you, but even this small act of defiance cannot be tolerated by the ruling Nazis, and a police detective is assigned to hunt down the writer of the treasonous missives. The cop on the job is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), who nicknames his quarry ‘the Hobgoblin’ – but while not an educated man, Quangel is no fool, and the cat and mouse game between him and the authorities stretches on for years, with tensions rising on both sides…

In case you are wondering, Fallada’s novel was based on a true story, and was initially published quite shortly after the end of the war. It has been called ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. This is not, in my admittedly very limited experience, an especially large field, but it is certainly a memorable book, although I remember it more for its tone and atmosphere than for any details of plot or writing.

Certainly this is a somewhat free adaptation of the book. Quite apart from the facts that Gleeson is far from the bird-like figure of the novel’s Quangel, and Bruhl is considerably younger than the book’s Escherich, many of the book’s profusion of subplots, dealing with a wide range of characters and situations, have either been heavily cut down or completely excised – the younger Quangel’s fiancee and her involvement with another, more active resistance cell is completely gone, for instance. This may allow the film more focus and make it easier to follow, but it means the film depicts much less of a cross-section of German society and how different people made their accommodations with living under the Nazi regime.

Instead, it is much more about the Quangels. Obviously they are well-played (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, for crying out loud), and the script goes to the trouble of introducing new material in order to give Thompson a bit more to work with. The moral righteousness of Otto Quangel is perfect for an actor of Gleeson’s power and gravitas, of course, and he does produce some memorable moments – but the problem is that the Quangels, apart from at the very beginning of the story, are so wholly, stoically good, that they’re not especially interesting characters. The really interesting character in this version of the story is Escherich, who begins by treating the postcards as just another case, only to realise – rather too late – that the Nazi authorities don’t respect niceties like the rule of law or the independence of the police. The inspector’s own moral journey from somewhat wry, apolitical observer, to a conflicted, guilt-ridden man is where the real dramatic meat of the film lies (and Bruhl is good in the role).

The book obviously has an axe to grind, given the context in which it was written, and I have to say I found it to be somewhat unsubtle and – in its closing stages – awkwardly sentimental. The film avoids this to some extent, but there are no particular insights here, and it skips over, to some extent, the fact that the Quangels’ quarrel with Hitler is not motivated by any particular moral concern but simply because they feel him responsible for getting their son killed. At the heart of the story there is always one very basic question – is there any real value in an act of resistance as, to be blunt, petty and ineffectual as the one carried out by the Quangels? I suppose there is something to be said for standing up to be counted, which qualifies as a moral victory of a sort, but even so. Naturally, Fallada, and also to some extent the film, is in no doubt that the Quangels (and the couple they were based on) are heroes, but I found myself wondering. They are clearly good, decent people, but their goodness takes a curiously muted form. Bereft of the epilogue of the novel, which implies their actions may have had other, wholly unintended positive consequences, you are left to wonder if the whole affair has achieved anything of real merit at all – has it just been an exercise in self-sacrificial futility?

The movie has been impressively assembled and is well-acted and competently directed, but it’s still a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t expose moral truths, it just raises questions which it never quite answers, and it comes perilously close to presenting the fact that the Nazi regime was bad as if this is some kind of important new revelation. Alone in Berlin s a watchable movie, but quite heavy-going, and less profound and moving than it seems to think it is.

Read Full Post »