'Alone in Berlin' Is Sloppy and Uninspired. And What's With the German Accents?

A riveting, worldwide best-selling novel about a singular historical protest in Nazi Germany is reduced to a wartime anecdote in Vincent Perez's film.

Isn’t it time that actors of a particular origin who are playing characters of a different origin and speaking English – which is not the language of those characters – should speak English without an accent that represents the characters’ origin? For if English is being used in place of the characters’ language, why the accent? This annoying custom crops up anew in the wretched film version by Vincent Perez – the Swiss-born French movie star’s third directorial effort – of “Alone in Berlin,” based on the novel by Hans Fallada. The film’s functional style displays no talent and less inspiration.

Fallada’s book, which was published, posthumously, in 1947, under the title “Every Man Dies Alone,” became a huge international bestseller in 2009, in the English-language translation. It’s a work of substantial historic (and artistic) importance. But the film adaptation represents everything that mars cinematic productions possessing a cosmopolitan air.

Show and tell

Even though the plot unfolds in the Germany of 1939-43, the movie is English-speaking – its three lead actors are of British, Irish and German origin (all speak English with a German accent, but it sounds authentic only from the German actor) – and this gives rise to a host of additional linguistic paradoxes. For example, even though everyone speaks in English, the newspapers, street announcements and anti-Nazi postcards the protagonist scatters around Berlin are all in German.

Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson in 'Alone in Berlin.'
Christine Schroeder / Lev Cinema

Sloppy, even amateurish movies like this are not in short supply, but it’s rare for those unprofessional qualities to intersect with such a high-quality source and story. Fallada’s novel is based on the deeds of Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed by the Gestapo in 1943. In the film (as in the book) Elise becomes Anna and their surname is Quangel. The death of their son, Hans, at the front, is depicted in the opening scene; its memory is presumably supposed to resonate in our consciousness throughout the film and provide an emotional context for the parents’ activity. But it falls flat because of the routine manner of its presentation.

Until their son’s death, Otto and Anna have been trying to live their lives in Nazi Germany as stably as possible, even though Otto has not joined the Nazi Party, and Anna is a reluctant member of the Nazi Women’s League.

After losing his son, Otto adopts a singular method of protest. He places postcards on the stairwells of office and apartment buildings and writes on them messages such as, “The Fuhrer has murdered my son. He will murder your sons, too.” At one point, he adds to the messages, which depict Germany as being in the grip of Satan, a call for a free press. Does Otto believe that these postcards have the power to transform the consciousness of Berliners, or is this a way for him to vent his bereavement and anger at the death of his son in the war? The picture does not address this question, nor does it explain Anna’s motivation for agreeing immediately to her husband’s project and joining him when he leaves the postcards around the city.

Otto’s distinctively human form of protest called for a director with a distinctive style, but Perez does no more than show and tell, without the necessary dramatic and emotional heft. And even though Otto sometimes takes the high risk of waiting to see the reactions of those who find the postcards, the movie is completely devoid of tension. One could suggest that Perez adopted an emotionally arid style as part of an effort to avoid melodrama and sentimentality. However, even though all the scenes between Anna and Otto are marked by this dryness, Perez switches tactics in one of the subplots, involving the Quangels’ Jewish neighbor, an elderly woman.

Her story seems to be stuck gratuitously into the film’s already flawed structure. Its primary purpose, besides instilling some light feeling and a quick reminder of the Holocaust – Otto’s postcards make no mention of the Jews’ fate – is to portray the immediate milieu of Otto and Anna, from the postwoman who brings them the news of their son’s death, to the retired judge who lives in the building, as being anti-Nazi.

The stylistic barrenness might have been effective if it had worked to densify the picture, but instead it creates distance and alienation that have no real purpose. The director appears to be striving for dramatic and emotional subtlety, but as he lacks the cinematic ability to convey this with the requisite means, the film veers from the ostensibly subtle into the patently obvious. The same limitation vitiates the depiction of the police search for the person who is behind the postcards. (In the course of three years, before he and his wife were caught, Otto left some 300 postcards in places around the city. Almost everyone who found them turned them over to the police immediately.) Despite the importance of the young officer who manages the search (Daniel Bruhl) to the plot, his character, too, is hollow, and not even the fact that he becomes a victim of his superiors adds significant dramatic clout.

Because the characters are shaped drily and remotely, all that remains for the actors is to demonstrate their familiar presence. This they do skillfully, Gleeson in particular, but it doesn’t empower the movie. The overall result is a film that seems to present a historical anecdote rather than a historical drama that should have forged in its viewers a degree of identification, fear and pity.