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Alone in Berlin

Based on a true story

There’s a story about the creation of the novel behind this film, and it might even make a good movie in its own right. In 1945, author Hans Fallada was given a captured Gestapo file on Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple who wrote anti-Nazi postcards during the war and left them around Berlin. The new Soviet regime wanted anti-Fascist stories told, so Fallada turned their exploits into a book, Every Man Dies Alone. He died a few months later.

The story has been made into TV and film several times in Germany and the Czech Republic, but when an English translation of the novel appeared in 2009, wheels started to turn on a new adaptation. It’s shot solidly and unfussily by Swiss actor-turned-director Vincent Perez, although it does suffer from that oddity when English actors put on German accents.

Even weirder, all the writing remains in German, and so the seditious postcards crafted by Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) require subtitles, except when they’re being read aloud. But if you can jump through all those linguistic hoops, the story provides satisfaction, not least from Emma Thompson as Otto’s wife and sometimes partner in crime. She’s so good that she shows up lesser supporting actors; hardly her fault.

The Quangels’ fate is set in motion in an opening scene which sees their only son shot and killed on the battlefield, apparently while trying to desert. The motivation provides an interesting side debate; would these ordinary Germans have tried to resist the Nazi regime without such a personal reason? Otto isn’t a party member, but he hardly seems like the agitator type, which is why local police inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) has such a hard time tracking him down.

Brühl’s performance is fascinating to watch as well. His character seems a basically good chap, and initially even enjoys the puzzle of his postcard-writing “hobgoblin,” as he chooses to nickname his quarry. But with the Gestapo pushing for an arrest – preferably the guilty party, but they’re not fussy – the inspector soon finds himself forced to bend his methods to fit the Nazi mould.

Alone in Berlin thus stands as a nice example of a minor war story. We all know about Oskar Schindler, The Zookeeper’s Wife and others who did great things to oppose the Nazi cause. And even today many Germans are haunted by the spectres of those who did little or nothing. The Hampels weren’t Tom Cruise trying to kill Hitler in Valkyrie. But in the ledgers of history, we have to put them on the side of the angels.

Courtesy: Chris Knight, National Post


No screenings currently scheduled.

Directed by: 
Vincent Perez
Running Time: 
Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl, Uwe Preuss, Lars Rudolph, Katrin Pollitt
Official site: 
Screenplay by: 
Vincent Perez, Achim von Borries, Bettine von Borries

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