In 1943, a German factory worker named Otto Hampel and his wife, Elise, were found guilty of treason and sedition after writing anti-Hitler slogans on postcards and secretly distributing them around Berlin. It was an ingenious campaign of silent revolt for which the Hampels were ultimately executed by guillotine, though their brave legacy survived in the files of the Gestapo and was subsequently enshrined in Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel, “Every Man Dies Alone” (an English translation of which was published in 2009).
A number of film and TV adaptations have already been made of Fallada’s book, the latest being “Alone in Berlin,” a well-acted but creaky and curiously bloodless portrait of life during wartime from the Swiss-born actor turned director Vincent Pérez. The film stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as Otto and Anna Quangel, who find themselves under psychological siege in a Berlin where everyone speaks German-accented English, and the worst horrors are either kept politely off camera or filtered through the gently softening light of Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography.
It begins with a brief evocation of the 1940 Battle of France whose attempt at stark simplicity comes off as merely underpopulated; war may be hell, but that sentiment will be conveyed more through the actors’ restrained conviction than any particular sense of verisimilitude. A young German soldier named Hans (Louis Hofmann) is shot down by enemy soldiers in a forest glade, and word of his death soon reaches his parents, Otto and Anna, around the same time that their country is celebrating France’s defeat.
In reality, it was the death of Elise Hampel’s brother that spurred her and her husband to take action against Hitler’s Germany, quietly channeling their grief into a posture of defiance. But Fallada, showing the shrewd instincts of an emotional strategist, reconfigured that loss as the death of an only child. The payoff in Pérez’s movie is undeniable when Otto writes “The Führer murdered my son; he will murder yours” on a postcard and leaves it on the bustling staircase of a nearby building.
There will be many more postcards — 285, to be exact, each one scrawled in a deliberately crude graphic style that takes Otto hours of time after work, but which helps him and Anna evade detection. (Daniel Brühl plays Escherich, the young police inspector who is charged with identifying and capturing the card writer and undergoes his own bitter crisis of conscience.)
But the Quangels’ plot is shown to be merely the most elaborate and ambitious of many acts of principled resistance, from Otto’s outright refusal to join the Nazi Party to Anna’s skillful internal sabotage of her membership in the Nazi Women’s League. There is also an older Jewish neighbor, Frau Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette), whom the Quangels and others try in vain to protect from Nazi harassment.
Though no amount of cognitive gymnastics can quite transform Thompson and Gleeson into persuasive German citizens, the actors beautifully convey the ease of a long-married couple, capable of reading each other’s silences and body language; her tremulous emotion flatters his stoic resolve perfectly.
But you never quite feel a rush of immediacy in Pérez’s staid, suspense-free retelling, which, like so many half-hearted cinematic re-creations of sweeping historical events, has both the clarity and the mustiness of hindsight. The movie seems to be ennobling the Quangels, and mourning them, long before their inevitable capture.
Even in an era in which written postcards have been replaced by 140-character digital messages as the propagandistic tool of choice, there is something undeniably timely about a picture that, like its characters, calls out the evils of militarized fascism and advocates for the necessity of a free press. But “Alone in Berlin” is ultimately hobbled by its own cinematic inertia, its inability to reimagine the past with the kind of intensity that would also speak to the present.
‘Alone in Berlin’
MPAA rating: R, for brief violence
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles