Review: Alone in Berlin

Set in Germany during WWII, Brendan Gleeson stars as a German factory foreman who along with wife Emma Thompson lose their only son in battle, serving Hitler’s Germany. Crippled with grief and looking for a direction to put his anger towards, Gleeson comes to hold The Fuhrer himself responsible for his son’s death. Gleeson has the inspired but very dangerous thought of writing postcards to warn others of what The Reich are sentencing their sons to and placing them all over the city. It’s an act of defiance that could lead him and Thompson (who, loyal to her husband, goes along with the scheme) to an untimely death themselves. Daniel Bruhl turns up as the police inspector assigned the case when word finally gets to the brass.

This 2017 wartime drama from director (though largely an actor) Vincent Perez sounds like a can’t miss on paper. Two of the world’s best actors in Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, a third very fine young actor in Daniel Bruhl, and an inspired-by-fact-based story that would seem to not only bring in WWII buffs but also tug at the heartstrings and really draw an audience in to a personal pain endured by the lead characters. Sadly, as much as Brendan Gleeson gives a mighty lead performance, the film is surprisingly uninvolving and it now makes sense to me why the film isn’t terribly well-known.

Gleeson really is one of the best actors going around today, and he’s immediately perfect in this, as he brings more than just weight of the physical kind here. He says a lot early on with his face and zero words. A working class German, he suffers a personal tragedy that now has him becoming more and more defiant against Hitler and his regime. I don’t like to give Germans of the period too much of a free pass, especially those who served in the military, but one isn’t going easy on them to simply tell the truth and say that they were following orders given by their government figurehead. Failure to follow orders or to dissent was likely to be killed. Here’s the story of one guy who did, in his own way, dissent against the status quo. Early on you think this will result in a powerful story in the “Schindler’s List” vein but from a more personally motivated point of view. This guy blames The Fuhrer specifically for the senseless death of his son and now wants everyone to be made aware of it. So it’s a shame that Perez has taken such a distressingly low-key, dreary approach. Given the emotions inherent to the story and the tension involved in Gleeson’s defiance at great risk, the film is distressingly inert and flat.

As for the cast Gleeson’s great, Bruhl’s fine in a multi-layered part, but Emma Thompson has had better days on the job. None of the three are able to elevate the film out of the stodge, though in Thompson’s case her poorly written character leaves her a bit disadvantaged to begin with. The fault, I think comes down to the script and director Perez, who doesn’t energise the plot nor put enough emphasis on emotion to make the thing work. It also feels a bit slight, even at 90 odd minutes you feel it’s a bit underdone and too slow-moving as well. 

This could’ve and should’ve been great. It looks great, Gleeson is great, WWII is usually a fascinating subject but…it’s actually a really dull film. Perez has failed his actors and the subject matter, I think. Based on a novel by Hans Fallada, the screenplay is by the director and Achim von Borries (writer-director of “4 Days in May”, another WWII film).

Rating: C


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