A haunting true story

Alone in Berlin
Directed by Vincent Perez
Written by Vincent Perez and Achim von Borries, based on a novel by Hans Fallada
102 minutes, rated M
4 stars

In 1947, depleted by drugs, alcoholism and mental illness, the German writer Hans Fallada wrote a novel based on a Gestapo file given him by a friend, the poet Johannes Becher.

The book was called Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone), and it was based on the true story of Hans and Elise Hampel, a working-class Berlin couple arrested in 1943 for writing a series of postcards against the Nazis, which they left in public places around the city.

Fallada wrote the book in 24 days and then promptly died, just before it was published. It became a best-seller and has since become a classic in Germany, taught in schools and filmed four times – twice in East Germany, once in West Germany and once in Prague. The book was only translated into English in 2009 and it sold well in the US. It did well in the UK too, retitled Alone in Berlin – which is how we get to this Franco-German English language version starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson.

The ‘Euro-pudding’ form of production – typically a European story in English, with multiple nationalities in the cast and crew and EU funding – has such a bad name that this could have been horrible. Director Vincent Perez is a Swiss-French actor, there are six producers (French, German, Dutch, American) and Thompson and Gleeson do the whole thing in German-accented English. In fact, it’s a gripping tale, told with restraint and the quality of performance we expect from those two. Even their accents do not distract from the story’s quiet resonance, about questions of universal and personal guilt.

Do all Germans stand condemned for the rise of the Nazis or just those who actively supported them? It’s hardly a new question but the film approaches it obliquely, through the residents of one apartment building at 55 Jablonski Street in Berlin.

Otto (Gleeson) and Anna (Thompson) are good Germans, in their own eyes. Their son is fighting the war, Otto supports the party, and Anna is a member of the women’s branch. Then the post-woman Eva (Katrin Pollitt), who lives downstairs, delivers an official letter. Their son has been killed in action. Anna turns on her husband – you and your Nazi ideology killed him. Otto buries his grief and continues working in a factory, his face stolid and implacable.

The postie’s skulking husband Enno (Lars Rudolph) tries to rob the building’s remaining Jewish resident, old Frau Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette) who is soon dead. The landlord’s two sons, one a Hitler youth, the other an SS-officer, are part of the persecution. Everyone watches each other. This is how far the climate of fear and distrust reaches, to the very stairwells on which people live. So that is where Otto stages his resistance – on the stairwells of random buildings across the city.

He begins writing postcards denouncing Hitler and the war, changing his hand-writing. He places them furtively, thinking others will pass them on. Anna learns what he is doing and joins in. They are risking their lives, but they have hope in the German people. In fact, most of the cards are handed immediately to the police, where young Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl) tries to find their source.

What makes the story so moving? Part of it is the utter futility of their protest, at least in their own time, and the courage with which they pursue it. Part of it is that doing it brings them back together and helps them grieve. It’s a love story, in that sense. Part of it is that we know this really happened and they were utterly alone in their resistance.

So many German films about the few who resisted are expiations of the national guilt; this one gives no quarter. The Hempels distributed 285 cards over 18 months and nearly all of them were handed straight to the police. Fear eats the soul, as Fassbinder would later observe.