Film Review: Alone In Berlin

Running for his life, a young soldier Hans Quangel (Louis Hofmann) finds himself jolting in a bleak and otherwise bare forest somewhere in the battlefields of World War II. Scared, alone and out of breath, the young German soldier seems lost and directionless. As his breaths sharpen and his fear settle, the young soldier spends most of his run with his head looking back; whether it be an enemy, the war itself, or a version of himself he is fearful of becoming, the young Quangel maneuvers himself between the tall and dark trees, the mysteriousness of the forest and the impending and looming death that looks for many young men in the battlefields of war. Before anyone can make any sense of it, we hear a gunshot, fatally wounding the young soldier and forcing him to the ground. As his bright blue eyes begin to turn to grey, life fleeting him quickly and the forest embodying his body, Alone In Berlin begins with what seem like an insignificant death to many, but an impactful one for few. 

As the next scene cuts to a very bustling and busy city front in Berlin, a young newspaper boy yells at the top of his lungs, “Victory Over France”, with cyclists, pedestrians and automobiles passing him. One of these people, is the city’s many cyclist mail correspondents, delivering news from the Military Postal Services to civilians within the city, a not so glorified profession. As the cyclist makes her way through the city, she stops at a small and very ordinary looking building. The building, which provides a home to Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson & Emma Thompson), parents of the fallen Hans, sets forth a string of events that would change the course of the second World War and Germany’s participation in it, forever.

Alone in Berlin is a small film with very big ambition, following the events of two very persistent and hard working people. While Anna & Otto Quangel are never really explained, the couple they are based off of were two very impressional individuals that caused a great uproar in Hitler’s Germany from 1940 to 1943. The real life couple which the film is based from were Elise and Otto Hampel, a working class couple who created a very fundamental way of protest while living in Hitler’s Germany, specifically Berlin, early in the second World War. Elise, who lost her brother in the war, distressed and ruined by the news, denounced Hitler. With the help of her husband Otto, the two began composing and leaving postcards within Berlin’s most public places, which would very simply denounce Hitler’s government, war and methods, informing the very average people of Berlin the perils of joining his war and his methods. For three long and secretive years, the Hampel’s left over two hundred cards in Berlin, and only eighteen of the over two hundred cards were not reported and given to the local Gestapo, leaving them lasting to the people of Berlin who recovered them.

While many inconsistencies can be found from the history books to the film’s reenactments, director Vincent Perez does a marvellous job of keeping the content and tone of the film quite bleak yet extremely entertaining. Aside from the marvellous cinematography from Christophe Beaucarne and the miraculous score from Alexandre Desplat, the mood of the film is anchored effortlessly by the film’s two incredibly talented lead actors Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson. The Quangel show a variety and range of emotions, without ever really saying much, even upon the very early discovery of their son’s death, keeping their words short and sweet, but their actions fierce and impactful. The true anchors of the film are the two very talented actors who help guide the tension of Alone in Berlin throughout, without ever making the film of their performances melodramatic or overwrought.

Another very powerful performance of the film is none other than the always impressive Daniel Brühl, an actor who can play a villain or hero without skipping a beat, and even turn his heroes or villian’s to either side without hesitation. The very dramatic and theatrical cat-and-mouse game director Perez establishes between Escherich and the Quangels is one that keeps the audience engaged at all times yet really shows the very simple impact of their truth-telling letters the Quangels leave, even to members of the Nazi Regime. Brühl, Thompson and Gleeson are in top form from beginning to end.

While screenwriters Achim von Borries, Bettine von Borris and Vincent Perez make great use of the source material written by Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, written in 1947, the screenwriters and director never overemphasize much of whats happening on the warfront of Berlin too much that it becomes severely unbelievable. Otto, who is portrayed of being a factory worker in the film, specifically, a manager in charge of producing coffins for fallen soldiers of the war, and Anna, being a domesticated mother and member of National Socialist Women’s League in Germany, tread through their very sad lives after the news of Hans’ death as many parents would. Yet, one of my favourite aspect of the film’s and history’s story is how such an average couple were able to make such a a large impact on the plans of a larger than life, and the world’s most notorious non-fictional bad guy. Their letters, which cause such an uproar to the Third Reich, made them the Gestapo’s biggest priority in the early 40’s.

While Otto and Elise’s letter often urged citizens from refraining of doing a handful of things, like; refraining  from donating money to the Nazi regime, urging people to refuse to cooperate with the Nazis and refraining from using military services, all these very small and tedious acts acted as catalysts of overthrowing Hitler.

While Alone in Berlin seems to be a very faithful adaptation of Fallada’s novel, one can’t help but notice that, like so many other historical stories before this, the use of grandiose cinema techniques were used to heighten the spectacle of the story, for the sake of the medium. Yet, how embellished much of the action was in the film and story, one of my favourite parts of Alone in Berlin was how toned down this action really was and how the action is only secondary to the actions of the couple on screen. What was easy one of the most enjoyable aspect of the film, was the discovery and story of this amazing couple after, and my desire to learn as much as possible of them and the legacy they left behind well after the final credits rolled.

As history would have it, eventually, the Hampel’s were caught, tried and guillotined in the later part of 1943, and this is by no means a spoiler. Their legacy and the small revolt and revolution they left behind could be examined as one of the many reasons for Germany’s defeat in the second great World War, yet, no one really knows. What many do know however is, how much respect people had for this almost unheard of couple and the sacrifices they made to give people truth, without ever being selfish of their own need to live.

I applaud Alone in Berlin’s director Vincent Perez and the very talented cast and crew behind the film, not only because of the subject matter, but also for their desire and passion to bring to life a story that desperately needs to be told in a very contemporary and similar time in history. Now more than ever, people are finding themselves unable to communicate their true feelings, emotions and speak freely without the very real threat that prosecution and danger awaits them.

Alone in Berlin is a cry for the humane a call to intellectual and articulate arms, a calling for a freedom of speech again and a film that encourages people, regardless of their social status, race, colour or gender, to stand up and not feel alone with their thoughts. Protesting for what you believe in and what may or may not be right, is one of the most fundamental reasons of being a human being. As can be seen in the film and in the history books, Hans Fallada, the author of the original source material for Alone in Berlin was given the file of the Hampel’s by the Gestapo who was hired to find them. This file inspired a novel, many adaptations of that novel and this film to exist today. And while what happens in the film is very different and a little more theatrical than what happens in the history books, the film is a perfect example of how, no matter how invested or stubborn people may be in their sides of; good and evil, right and wrong, it proves that people are unexpected creatures who find it in themselves to follow what they believe in, regardless of the side they have chosen during a period of their lives. Alone in Berlin is a powerful, predominant and important film that many people should see, regardless of whether you feel empowered together, alone or simply lost in a crowd. Alone in Berlin has an unprecedented way of bringing people together. Watch this film with someone you love!

I wanted to share one of my favourite lines in the film:

“Germany has taken my only son. Yesterday I was informed he died in combat for you, for the Führer.
What more can a man donate, that his child?”   

Night Film Reviews: 8.5 Out of 10 Stars.

What did you think of Alone in Berlin? Accurate representation of historical World War II events or overdramatized fiction? What did you think of the performances? Leave your thoughts and comments below. Don’t feel alone! 

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