Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Alone in Berlin: Postcards of Resistance
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Cinematographer Christophe Baucarne and composer
Alexander Desplat give the film an old-fashioned tone that suits the period and
Pérez’s unabashed veneration of the Quangels’ courage and dignity. Frankly, it
is rather bizarre there has not been more German enthusiasm for a film that
celebrates working class resistance to Hitler for a change, rather than the
Juncker military elites of Valkyrie.
Regardless, it is a fine film worthy of your attention. Recommended for popular
audiences, Alone in Berlin opens this
Friday (1/13) in New York, at the IFC Center.