As the name suggests, Alone in Berlin takes places in Berlin during the Nazi regime in the 1940’s and is loosely based on the real life working-class couple of Elise and Otto Hampel.
In the film, the characters are named Anna and Otto Quangel (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, respectively) and after learning about their son’s death during battle, they decide to start a resistance against the Nazis. Being in the pre-internet days, Otto and Anna start writing postcards and place them in public spaces to urge people to stand against the Nazis. Tasked to find out who has been writing these postcards, police inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl) gathers the necessary clues, but can’t help feel a certain level of respect for whomever is behind this act of resistance.
Thompson and Gleeson are sublime as per usual. Doing a lot with very little, they try very hard, speaking English with German accents, to bring the Quangels’/Hampels’ story to the screen. But no matter how talented the cast is, including the perpetually type-cast Bruhl, they aren’t able to create the tension that is so desperately needed, especially in a movie where we want our heroes to win against the Nazis.
It’s a valiant effort, because we do care about Anna and Otto and we want to feel their pain and share in their grief, but their story was just never meant for the big screen. At least not in this capacity and with this script. There’s only so much you can do in trying to make someone writing postcards and leaving them around the city interesting. With all the potential tension lost by dragging scenes out and none of the heart-pounding action that we might be used to seeing in other war films, this one seems too tame. I don’t want to say the film was boring, because I was definitely interested in this couple’s story, but I found my mind wandering to other things on my to-do list a couple of times while watching the film.
Alone in Berlin opens in Toronto, Ottawa, and Victoria on May 19th.