Following its English translation in 2009, Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel, Every Man Dies Alone became a best-seller. Re-titled as Alone in Berlin, it tells the story of an ordinary, working-class couple in wartime Berlin who, after the death of their only son, embark on a quiet act of rebellion by writing and distributing anonymous anti-Nazi messages in random, public places all over the city. Based on a true story, the book’s intriguing, late discovery created a level of interest and excitement that this big screen adaptation by Swiss actor/director Vincent Pérez fails to match.
Slow-paced to the point of sluggish, it stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as Otto and Anna Quangel, the reserved, unhappy couple. Communication between them is limited and there is little sense of shared pain over the loss of their young soldier son. Otto, detached and unemotional, continues his work as a factory foreman while Anna attempts to perform her duties for the Nazi Women’s League. Gleeson and Thompson are fine actors but here they are constrained by a script that offers them little more than one-dimensional characters whose actions feel perfunctory.
Frustratingly, the actors speak English with German accents, with mixed success. This decision is a particularly strange one in the case of Daniel Brühl — who plays Escherich, the Gestapo inspector charged with heading the investigation to find the postcard-writing “Hobgoblin” — as he is a native, fluent German speaker.
Set in Berlin in 1940, amid an atmosphere of suspicion, paranoia and fear, there is a familiarity about the dark, claustrophobic, domestic interiors, period clothing and bombed-out Berlin streets. Once the chase starts to close in on the couple, stylised, film noir montages involving lines and shadows in and around stairwells and lift shafts are effective but overused.
Writing under the pen name “Free press,” Otto painstakingly disguises his handwriting, producing subversive, defiant and sometimes emotive phrases including, “The Führer will murder your son, too”, “Believe in yourself, not Hitler’s gang” and “Stop the war machine.” His resistance against the Nazi dictatorship gives him a sense of purpose and Anna’s insistence that she help him drop the cards brings the two closer together. Both are aware of the consequences if caught.
Soon enough the messages come to the attention of the Gestapo. Red flags on a map on Escherich’s office wall indicate the location of where the cards have been dropped and found. As the volume of cards increases, so, too, does the pressure on Escherich by his superiors to find the culprit. The denouement should be fuelled with suspense and although the pace does pick up, tensions are mild at best.
The story has plenty of potential but fundamentally its telling here is disappointingly dull. Better to read the book.