When Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged couple in early '40s Berlin, receive a letter informing them their only son has died in the Battle of France, they take the news with curious resignation. Otto can't even bring himself to open the envelope, leaving his wife alone to process its contents. Their reaction is somewhere between shock and a grim acceptance of the inevitable, and it stands in sharp contrast to a city buoyed by Nazi victories and nationalist propaganda. They've lost their child and they've lost their country, perhaps long before. And their grief hardens their resolve to embark on a suicide mission in protest of Germany's extinguished conscience.
Based on Hans Fallada's bestselling 1947 book Every Man Dies Alone, director Vincent Perez's Alone in Berlin should crackle with paranoia and suspense, as Otto and Anna, a comfortable couple of means, plant seeds of rebellion in seemingly infertile ground. Yet this adaptation chooses to go the prestige route instead, smothering the action in an autumn-hued respectability that condemns it to mediocrity. A veteran actor making his second feature, Perez tells the story cleanly, getting fine performances out of the decidedly not-German Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as Otto and Anna, and the quite-German Daniel Brühl, who plays their investigator. But he's made an exceedingly well-mannered film about rejecting autocracy in its darkest hour, and the disconnect is jarring.
As the Nazi regime thrives around them, in a city of outward exuberance and hidden fear, Otto and Anna reside in an apartment building that's like a quiet oasis of contrary values. Their anti-Nazi postwoman Eva (Katrin Pollitt) soberly delivers the bad news about their son and the Quangels, along with a kind widower, do what they can to protect a Jewish neighbor from the looters who raid her apartment. During the day, Otto logs time as a machinist while Anna reluctantly canvasses the city on behalf of the Nazi Women's League, which goes door-to-door reminding other women of their duties.
After hearing of his son's death, Otto sets to work meticulously handcrafting anti-Nazi postcards to distribute surreptitiously in buildings around the city and Anna quickly volunteers to act as his lookout. They know that the vast majority of the postcards will be turned into the authorities and they also know that they face execution for treason if they're caught. Yet they do it anyway, under the nose of police inspector Escherich (Brühl), who catches flak from his SS superiors for his failure to snuff out this embarrassing counter-propaganda.
Gleeson and Thompson probably haven't given a single bad performance between them, and they do better than speak English with German accents — they share a bond steeped in grief and moral conviction, and a mutual willingness to skip to the death-do-us-part vow sooner than expected. But Alone in Berlin only quickens the pulse when the drama shifts to Brühl's riveting work as Escherich, a professional who obsesses over triangulating his suspects' location, but runs up against seething Nazi officers who want someone — anyone — to pay for defying the Führer. He has to fall to line, too, when just doing the work isn't enough.
The dynamic between the Quangels and their half-sympathetic investigator recalls The Lives of Others, the superb 2006 German thriller about an East German couple monitored by the Stasi in the mid-1980s. The analogy isn't perfect — not all flavors of German oppression are the same — but Alone in Berlin conspicuously misses the suspicion and dread that fog everyday life under an oppressive regime. Perez's Berlin is too art-house-handsome, too committed to the look and feel of conventionally well-appointed historical drama. Just a scintilla of the Quangels' audacity would have gone a long way