The pervading paranoia of life lived in 1940s Berlin has never been more intensely personified than in Hans Fallada’s unforgettable novel about one family’s courageous fight against fear and fascism in Nazi Germany, Alone In Berlin. Though written in 1947, it took more than 60 years for Fallada’s neglected text to be translated, but when it was, the book became an international publishing phenomenon.
Now comes the inevitable big-screen adaptation, a serviceable but stagy affair directed and co-written by actor-turned-filmmaker Vincent Pérez. The plot is unchanged, following working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson & Emma Thompson), who, after they are informed that their son has been killed whilst fighting at the front, decide to resist the Nazis by furtively distributing postcards protesting against the ‘Führer’. An act that soon catches the attention of police inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), and his SS commandants.With its tastelessly honeyed palette, Pérez’s Alone In Berlin is a film too cosy for a story so confronting. Similarly to Stephen Daldry’s depiction of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader – another wasted attempt to try and lift the veil on the unspoken moral and political divide within German society during the Second World War – this lacks the emotional truth that’s rooted in its source; the oppressive air of terror and trepidation, so palpable in Fallada’s prose, failing to penetrate the atmosphere. Despite a strong resolve – the inclusion of a subplot involving the continued persecution of the Quangel’s elderly Jewish neighbour (a quietly magnificent Monique Chaumette) chillingly captures the ideological dominance the repressive regime had over those it ruled – the realisation is weak; a testimonial of wartime life in the German capital that’s ironically more of a postcard snapshot than the whole picture.
More successful is Pérez’s negotiating of the underlying narrative, which records the remarkable spirit of two victims determined to not have their views suppressed. When Otto and Anna are first informed of their son’s death, the pain we see etched on their faces is an all-consuming numbness, but beneath it are flashes of anger; the force that drives their covert demonstration.Both of the leads handle the weighty soul stirring with sagacity; Brendan Gleeson drawing out Otto’s dour aloofness, while the ever-excellent Emma Thompson thrives on the hushed strength that’s masked by Anna’s fragile appearance. Curiously however, it’s Daniel Brühl’s enigmatic Escherich who offers greater insight, this Nazi inspector’s developing consciousness in the face of the Gestapo’s pressurised might a reflective aside that would have benefitted from greater focus.
In Fallada’s book though, the main character was ultimately Berlin itself – a cruel and insidiously intimidating sanctum that’s propagated by panic. Yet here that autocratic aura of unmediated aggression fails to translate on to the screen, diminishing the picture’s validity. And with the filmmakers forced to shoot in English in order to secure funding, with thick Deutsch accents provided by the performers – Gleeson’s is as stodgy as a typical German diet – Alone In Berlin does more often strike you as antiquated and artificial, rather than authentic.