The German Resistance during the Second World War is not as widely reported as its contemporaries in other Nazi occupied countries. Indeed, unlike the French Resistance, it largely consisted of pockets of isolated groups trying to drum up anti-Nazi sentiment. Otto and Elise Hampel were one such couple. Their story, told in Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein, has been brought to the screen multiple times. Director Vincent Perez adapts the story for English-speaking audiences, highlighting an often forgotten piece of Germany history.
Following the death of their only son during the war, working class citizens Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna (Emma Thompson) Quangel become disillusioned with the Nazi regime. Coupled with the state sanctioned treatment of their Jewish neighbour, the duo begin small subversive acts with an anti-establishment sentiment. Placing postcards around Berlin, calling the führer a ‘liar’ and the murderer, theyurge others to take a stand against Hitler. It attracts the attention of the powers-that-be, and police inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) sets out to track down the man he dubs the “Hobgoblin.”
ALONE IN BERLIN is striking for its depiction of life inside a dictatorship, especially when all the newsreel footage of the era tends to show us the uniformly willing supporters of the regime. Emotional moments include a Jewish woman’s recognition that her snitch, now a member of the Hitler Youth, was none other than the boy that used to come and ask her for treats as a child. Her fate mirrors that of millions across Germany and western Europe who discovered that death was the only escape.
Gleeson and Thompson give solid and understated performances, never prone to grand speeches or gestures, but quiet actions of good citizens who are simply ground down by the system. Brühl’s character, with elaborate maps with tiny flags pinpointing the Quangel’s movements, seems over-the-top in comparison. Yet the dichotomy is a simple cat and mouse affair, and for the most part sets up an engaging thriller.
The original title of the novel, and all previous adaptations, typically translates to Every One Dies Alone or Every Man Dies Alone. This is perhaps due to the book’s author Fallada penning his great novel from the confines of a mental health care facility just prior to his own demise. Yet it, and the films that follow, are a testament to all acts of resistance, whether its penning a postcard or a novel. Its a lesson we could do well to remember as a wave of conservative governing sweeps across the globe.