The 2016 film “Alone In Berlin” by director Vincent Pérez, has for the most part received either modest praise or harsh criticism.
On Rotten Tomatoes, critics give the movie a 39% rating and 31% of viewers liked it. Usually, such low numbers and poor reviews would scare me away from viewing such a film. But, having read Hans Fallada’s 1947 powerful novel, Every Man Dies Alone (originally published in 1947), upon which the movie is based, I was interested enough to try the Pérez version. I am glad I did not give in to the negativity around this film.
Fallada’s novel was based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, renamed Otto and Anna Quangel in Fallada’s telling of their story. They were a working class husband and wife whose only son was killed fighting with the Werhmacht in the Battle of France in 1940. After receiving news of their son’s death, Otto and Anna channeled their sorrow and anger into a small, but enormously courageous act of treason.
On small postcards the couple wrote a series of anti-Hitler and anti-Nazi statements. Over time, they dropped off 285 of these postcards in various public places around Berlin, hoping they would be picked up and passed on to others. In the end, all but 18 of the cards were immediately turned into the authorities.
Whatever its faults, the power in the film for me is that it captures what I imagine must have been the dark, oppressive, terrifying atmosphere for anyone living in Germany from the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933 through to their final demise at the end of six years of horrific fighting at the end of the Second World War in Europe.
The Pérez film is a salutary wake up call for anyone who who might feel qualified to sit in judgment on Germans in the early twentieth century for not having done more to oppose the Nazi regime.
Film critics crticize “Alone in Berlin” for being slow moving, flat, grey, and lacking drama. But it seems to me that during the period of the Hempels’ activity starting in 1940 and ending with their arrest 20 October 1942, the atmosphere in Berlin, and throughout Germany, may have been much as it is portrayed in the film. It was impossible to trust anyone. Everyone was a potential informer or enemy.
In many of the Hempels’ cards, the Nazis were described as a “machine”. Throughout the film, the Nazis appear as an inhuman mechanical force simply grinding forward devouring anyone who dares, in even the tiniest way, to get in its path.
It is unimaginable for those of us who have lived in the relative freedom of the post-war western world to even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live with the ever-present sense of foreboding, threat and anxiety that the Nazi dictatorship carried for everyone, no matter their status in the society. No one was above suspicion. And, the slightest hint of suspicion, or even simply happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, could be cause enough for the Nazi machine to run amuck and gobble up another victim.
At times, watching “Alone in Berlin” it is hard to breathe. There is no space. The viewer can find no light or clarity. It is hard to get one’s bearings. These qualities seem to lie at the root of many viewers’ problem with the film. But, in fact it may be the very stultifying atmosphere that is the most realistic aspect of the movie’s portrayal of the insane world of Nazi oppression.
“Alone in Berlin” is a stark reminder of how important it is for us to attempt to see clearly in order that we may respond to the realities in which we live with truth and courage.