Monday, March 12, 2018

CRACKER? Alone in Berlin (2016)

         “Alone in Berlin” is a movie about resistance to the Nazis.  It was directed by Vincent Perez.  The movie is based on the novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada.  Fallada was inspired by the story of Otto and Elise Hampel which he learned of through their Gestapo file.  The book was published posthumously in 1947.  It has been made into a West German movie in 1962, an East German miniseries in 1970, a movie in 1975, and a Czech miniseries in 2004.

                Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) are a working class couple living in Berlin.  Their lives change when they receive word of their son’s death fighting in France.  Otto takes it stoically and resumes his factory work seemingly unaffected by the death.  However, he decides to channel his anguish into an act of civil disobedience against the Nazis, who he blames for his son’s death.  He starts writing post cards with messages denouncing the war effort.  His first says “Hitler murdered my son.  He will murder your’s, too.”  He leaves the post cards around town for strangers to pick up.  Anna joins in and their moribund marriage is rekindled.  A police detective named Escherich (Daniel Bruhl) takes on the case which he calls “Operation Hobgoblin”.  He is a professional who appreciates the challenge, but soon he comes under pressure from the Gestapo to catch the traitors.
                “Alone in Berlin” is based on a story that needed to be told.  We have so many Holocaust movies, but so few movies covering the brave Germans who resisted against the Nazi regime.  The Quangels exemplify the resisters.  Their story is well told here and is not as enhanced as you often see with most resistance films.  Although this is commendable, the movie ends up being a bit slight and predictable.  It follows the usual template for this type of cat and mouse plot.  Unfortunately, there is a lack of suspense as the mouse has no truly close calls.  It is not a movie that will have you on the edge of your seat. 

                The characters are stereotypical.  Otto is the stoical average Joe who fights the system.  Anna is his partner in a dull marriage, who insists on sharing his derring-do.  A shared cause restores their love for each other.  The leads are what separates the movie from a made for TV movie.  Gleeson and Thompson are perfect as the pair, but their unemotional characters leave little opportunity for emoting.  Gleeson, in particular, never seems to change emotions.  This may be appropriate for a factory worker, but it reduces the suspense of the movie.  The movie comes off as stolid as he is. It does not jerk tears as it clearly could have. Escherich is the most fascinating character as he goes from pride in his profession to disillusionment with law enforcement in the Third Reich.   He is not the villain, the movie adds a loathsome SS officer for us to hiss at.  The movie also feels it is necessary to throw in a Holocaust subplot involving an elderly Jewish neighbor of the Quangels.  It seems the screenwriter felt it was not enough that some Germans risked their lives against the Nazis because they launched a war that killed thousands of young German men.  However, the subplot is entertaining and the movie would have been too short without it.  Then again, the movie could have been longer if it had covered the home front.  We really get no impression of how the war is affecting other German common people. We also are unaware of the effects of the post cards until the end.

                “Alone in Berlin” is worth the watch and informative.  It is historically accurate, in general.  The liberties that are taken with the original Gestapo file are acceptable to flesh out the story and bring it to the screen. 

GRADE  =  B-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   Otto Hampel was a factory worker.  His wife Elise was a domestic servant who was a member of the National Socialist Women’s League.  It was her brother who was killed in the war and motivated them to leave the post cards.  The movie made a good decision to change the dead relative to their son.  This allowed for the marital dynamic which is surely not accurate.  There were over 200 post cards from September, 1940 to the autumn of 1942.  The statements on each card covered ideas like don’t donate money to the Nazi regime, refuse military service, avoid cooperation with the government, and overthrow Hitler.  The Jewish subplot is probably fictional, but certainly could have happened.  In reality, the Hampels were caught when they were turned in by a neighbor.  The movie version is more entertaining.  They were found guilty of treason and beheaded.


  1. Yes, being turned in by a neighbor was how the system functioned. Denunciations were key to controlling opinion.

    In a documentary that came with the Blu-Ray for Valkyrie, historian Gerhard Weinberg said something like "This regime could not be overthrown by street demonstrations. It would have taken invading Hitler's headquarters and killing him."

    Weinberg added that the plotters could only get close enough to kill Hitler by pretending to be good Nazis.

    The Nazi regime wasn't threatened by cards left around Berlin even if they concentrated on stamping it out.

  2. The subplot regarding the old Jewish woman is in Hans Fallada’s novel, so they’re being faithful to it at least that much. Not having seen the film, can’t comment on how the film handles it but it fits in fine with the rest of the novel, adding to its poignancy. I thought the book good, albeit sad, especially Anna’s fate.
    The plot is interesting in that it’s not about ‘heroes’ but ordinary people, and they don’t turn into some ‘Death Wish’ fantasy-figures but simply leave postcards lying about. Postcards! For which they assign a detective to hunt them down before beheading them.
    To be strictly fair, if an English couple was doing the same, they would not have necessarily escaped consequence: We had an offence of ‘spreading alarm and despondency’ and article records someone getting 7 days’ jail and another fined £50 (steep sum in those days) for defeatist remarks.* Still 7 days jail is a long way from executing someone, and we’d only have dedicated a detective to hunting the miscreants down if the propaganda had the look of a professional operation—printed pamphlets and posters rather than handwritten postcards.
    (* TBF again, there might be more to those two incidents: headlines often conceal more complicated stories. E.g. a commenter on Mark Steyn’s site, to show how bad Britain is getting, cited a story about someone getting prosecuted for carrying a potato-peeler—but researching the story finds a significant detail, that the offender has a hostel as an address, which strongly implies an alkie and/or druggie, and with ‘beat constables’ long gone, one can reasonably infer an altercation occurred to which the cops were called. I know my country is dying, but I’m sick of nonsense about us not being allowed butter knives or having to make cups of tea for burglars.)


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