So begins also the exquisite play of contrasts that characterises the film, which opens in cinemas on Friday, having been among the official selection at 2016's Berlin Film Festival. We witness the death of a German soldier, whose face, in sharp focus, reveals that he is barely old enough to grow a beard – only to be transported to Berlin, where a paper-boy’s triumphant cry of ‘Victory in France!’ rings through the streets. Even before we meet Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple living in the German capital, the bitterness, psychological anguish, and deep ironies of existence under the Nazi regime are already painfully clear.
For Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna (Emma Thompson), the death of their son on the front line leeches any meaning from their lives. The couple withdraw into anxious isolation. Otto begins to protest the regime through the only means available to him, hiding handwritten messages of vehement dissent in the stairwells of Berlin’s crumbling apartment buildings. It is only a matter of time before the authorities are on their trail – even as the desperate mission continues: 'Mother, Hitler murdered my son. Mother, Hitler will murder your son.'
Based on a true story, the film’s tragedy derives partly from the inevitability of the Quangels’s fate, but equally from the brilliance of Perez’s enactment of author Hans Fallada’s central preoccupation in the original book: of what it means to be totally and truly alone. In Nazi Berlin, residents – whether safe from persecution, or in hiding – exist on a knife-edge and in psychological isolation.
A glance exchanged between a retired judge standing in an apartment window and a Nazi Officer in the street below can seal a fate. A heart-stopping moment in which a cheerful troop of Hitler Youth brush past Anna, ignorant of her transgression, contrasts her quiet terror with their destructive enthusiasm. The characters of Alone in Berlin cling to objects and places that symbolise a safer past. Frau Rosenthal, a neighbour of the Quangels who, it is implied, is Jewish, returns at night to her ransacked flat, risking death. Below her, Otto whittles a rudimentary bust of his dead son, of whom there remains no trace. The constant, crippling anxiety and solitude of many Berliners in the 1940s is vividly rendered.
Alone in Berlin is visually stunning. There is a remarkable attention to detail in every shot, and Berlin’s apocalyptic wartime architecture – crumbling buildings, ancient lifts, blackened fireplaces, facades out of a Riefenstahl film – is made use of to choreograph fraught chase scenes. Perez neither shrinks from nor over-indulges in brutality on screen: the violence perpetrated against those who resist the regime retains its ability to shock on the rare occasions that it appears.
Gleeson, as rough-hewn as the wood he painstakingly
carves, delivers a magnificent performance as a tortured and yet eerily calm
Otto. Only Daniel Brühl’s transformation, as Officer Escherich, from Nazi
bloodhound to resistance sympathiser is too rapid and too impassively acted to
be convincing. Nevertheless, in Fallada’s bleak vision of the capital, there is
a pervasive sense in which all of the film’s characters are alone in Berlin,
each moving with the utmost care and with deep-seated terror through the city
streets, with both the regime and the resistance moving toward the same
|What||Alone in Berlin film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
30 Jun 17 – 28 Feb 19, Times Vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|