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.