Film Review: Alone in Berlin, An Inspiring Rebellion

Photograph courtesy of IFC Films
Photograph courtesy of IFC Films

The 1947 novel “Every Man Dies Alone,” by author Hans Fallada, is best known for being one of the first anti-Nazi books published by a German writer after World War II. Based on a true story (that became a global bestseller after it was translated in English in 2009 and retitled “Alone In Berlin”), the book told the story of working-class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) whose only son is killed in combat, triggering in them the burning desire to undermine the Nazi party in any way they can.

Driven by nothing more than a father’s pain and the urge to encourage even the smallest amount of descent and resistance, Otto begins writing messages on postcards, encouraging citizens to push back and even overthrow the party. The pair leave the cards all over the city and almost inadvertently, without telling anyone else what they are doing, become major players in the German Resistance and a major thorn in the side of the Nazis.

Perhaps best known as an actor, director Vincent Perez (The Secret, Once Upon an Angel) co-wrote the screenplay with Achim von Borries, and the two have done a remarkable job capturing the quiet, pent-up suffering of this couple who seem almost compelled to carry out these inspiring acts of civil disobedience in the face of certain death if they are caught. Gleeson and Thompson are perfectly suited to embody these middle-aged citizens, effectively faceless in the eyes of the Nazi, despite their son’s sacrifice. In the end, they ended up leaving hundreds of these notes, giving the more up-front Resistance a certain amount of encouragement.

The full-blown investigation to find whoever is leaving these cards in public places is led by Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), who becomes almost in awe at the determination of these enemies of his party. He himself is bullied and humiliated by his superior officer (Mikael Persbrandt), and as a result, a small piece of his spirit is on the side of his unknown targets. The period details in the production design coupled with the steely cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne combine to place us in the largely hopeless, joyless world of this couple, whose lives have been largely ruined by the Nazis. In many ways, it becomes clear that the Quangel might have initially began this endeavor because they felt they had nothing more to lose. In reality, of course, they had everything to lose, which makes their actions all the more heroic. Alone in Berlin serves as a much-needed reminder of how small acts of defiance have meaning and weight in the face of a soul-crushing force in power.

Alone in Berlin opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film is also available to rent digitally on most major streaming platforms.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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