ALONE IN BERLIN
Germany/UK, 2016, 97 minutes, Colour.
Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Bruehl.
Directed by Vincent Perez.
Alone in Berlin pays tribute to a middle-aged couple and their private (and small) resistance to the Nazi government and to Hitler during the early years of the war. The screenplay is an adaptation of a popular novel about the couple.
The film is quite an international mixture, perhaps disconcerting for German audiences to see strongly German characters as well as police and Nazi officials all speaking in English – but that is the way of the commercial world, so many international directors making their films in English. Perhaps surprisingly, this film was directed by French actor, Vincent Perez, best known for his romantic and, sometimes, swashbuckling roles like Queen Margot and Fanfan La Tulipe.
The film opens with a very young German soldier running through the forest for his life, pursued by the Resistance, shot by them, lying dead in the field gazing towards the sky only for his soldiers to attack and run-off the Resistance.
In Berlin, there is a certain amount of public elation with the prospect of the defeat of France and the hope of the defeating England by the end of the year and Germany becoming the greatest and richest country in Europe. People are joyful in the streets.
A postmistress on her bike, seemingly friendly with authorities, of being seen to be kind towards people in the apartment block, especially to an elderly Jewish lady, delivers the letter to the parents of the young man, who died in giving his life for his country.
It is his parents who are the focus of the story, Anna and Otto, played very seriously and with dignity by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Anna is an ordinary housewife although she belongs to the union of mothers, even having to confront the wife of an official who claimed an exception to war wives working. Otto, or on the other hand, is a foreman in a factory with further demands being made for Hitler himself and for the war effort, Hitler demanding increased quotas. Otto does not belong to the Nazi party and, when challenged, says he gave to the Fuehrer his greatest possession, his son.
But the key thing about Otto and Anna is that Otto decides to write, disguising his handwriting, messages on the back of postcards, telling mothers that their sons would be sacrificed, denouncing Hitler and claiming a free press. Quietly, he places the letters in various strategic points – almost 300 of them with 275 being handed in to the authorities. He hopes he can make some difference in awareness. Anna works with him, helping with some of the deliveries.
In the meantime, Gestapo authorities are not happy with this spate of cards and the police chief, Daniel Bruehl, is commissioned to find the culprit, who is nicknamed Hobgoblin because of his evasive tactics. There is a subplot with one of the police officers coming to Otto’s building to apprehend the old Jewish widow whom local burglars had robbed, but she had given been some help by the couple and by a kindly but outwardly severe judge.
It is the same police who are charged with finding the card-writer. Eventually, the ex-husband of the postmistress is apprehended, tortured, proven to be not the culprit but, under pressure from the Gestapo, the policeman kills him claiming that it was suicide.
Otto and Anna are quite stoic in their continued mission of their card writing and delivery. However, they know it will only be some time before they are apprehended.
The film shows the interrogation of Otto, some brutality, especially the congratulatory-toasting officials smashing their glasses on his head. The results are inevitable, Otto seeming to accept that he would be condemned and executed but had decided that this is what he had to do during the war. Anna shares this.
There is a symbolic ending with the cards fluttering again down from the building onto the streets – and the sad acknowledgement of what he had done by the policeman, somehow admiring Otto, promising to release and but failing to – and experiencing some kind of disillusionment, especially after he was bashed in the face by the Gestapo chief, and remorse.
1. A German British co-production? Irish and British stars? Everybody speaking English? The credibility for this kind of film and the English tone?
2. In Berlin, 1942 1943, the city, the buildings, the streets, the cars, clothes and style is? Ordinary homes, factories, Gestapo headquarters, police headquarters? The countryside and the lake? For the credibility of the story? The plaintiff musical score?
3. The opening, the young soldier, running figures life through the forest, his being shot, gazing at the sky, the soldiers coming and shooting at the resistance?
4. Berlin, the woman from the post office, her comments with various authorities, kindness to Mrs Rosenthal, friendship with Otto and Anna? Her bringing the letter with the sad news? Otto and his calm response? Anna and her collapse, tearing the letter, grieving, sitting at the table, reconstructing it?
5. The judge living in the building, his seeming strictness, his kindness in taking in Mrs Rosenthal? Her friendship with Anna, Anna taking her in after the burglary? Going back to her flat during the search of the judges apartment? The carefully keeping her possessions, her husband disappeared? The authorities coming, questioning, the throwing herself out the window? Anna’s shock? Otto passing the body in the yard?
6. Otto and his work at the factory, foreman, reliable? The union boss and the Gestapo? Is speaking about those shirking work and the pressure on Hitler’s quarters and the need for new machinery? His not belonging to the party, being asked what he had done for the war effort, the silence when he said giving his son?
7. The scrounging man, the postman’s juices ex-husband, the going to the flat, trying to Robert, rolled it, official authorities, ousting the burglars but taking everything themselves?
8. Otto and his decision to write the cards, disguising his writing, the first one to the mother that she would lose her son, the development of the others, the attack of Hitler, on free press? His careful delivering them on steps, and doors? People reading them, the majority handing them to the police? Anna and her delivering some of the letters, being stopped when she met her sons friend teaching at the school, having lost his arm?
9. The Gestapo, wanting a solution, the pressure on the police officer, the graph harshness of the military?
10. The policeman, his assistant, the betting about the cards, the identity of the writer? The investigations, the map, the red pointers to where the letters were found?
11. The policeman, his shrewdness, thinking a mechanic, intelligent, but not using his own writing? The search, the interrogations? Looking for someone who had lost a son in war?
12. The interrogation of the postmistress, her husband to being taken in, interrogated, his having two sons alive? His being let go, the Gestapo and their anger, brutalising the policeman? His seeking the man out, confronting him, saying was innocent, the fee would be arrested and tortured? The man thinking death was better – and the policeman shooting him, claiming a suicide?
13. Otto going to work, standing in front of the shift, the hole in his pocket, the worker finding the letters, Otto upholding the regulations, the reporting of the letters to the authorities? The visit of the policeman, the dossier, the address, taking Otto in? Interrogation, torture, the authorities toasting and smashing their glasses on Otto? His request that and not be arrested?
14. Anna, at home, the knock on the door, her being taken?
15. The court, and coming in, the bond between the two, the soldier coming in between them? The judge coming in – and the audience assuming their condemnation?
16. Anna in prison? Otto, changing into the final garb for execution, the policeman talking trend in the corridor, asking if he could do anything, Otto saying he could get a card and pen, and denouncing him for imprisoning Anna?
17. The policeman, going to his office, Otto having told him the number of the letters cards and therefore he had missed 18? His throwing them out the window, his sense of disillusionment – shooting himself?
18. The 21st century story about World War II, Hitler, Nazism, people’s fanaticism – with their salute, the militaristic children, the war effort in the factories, alleged triumph over France and the ambition to defeat France and England within the year? The irony of what happened?