Once again, World War II turns up another true story of quiet valour to turn into a motion picture. At a time when Trump is pontificating about so called “fake news”, here is a timely tale from history which centres on the battle against genuinely fake news: the Nazi propaganda machine.
After losing their only son in the French campaign, Berliners Otto (Brendan Gleeson,”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) and Anna (Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr Banks“) turn against the regime and in repeated acts of rebellion Otto laboriously hand writes subversive postcards to leave in office blocks around Berlin.
Out to catch him is local police investigator Escherich (Daniel Brühl) but in an age before CCTV that’s no easy task and with increasing SS pressure the stakes for Escherich steadily increase. For Otto and Anna, the stress is there but both are resigned to their fate: with their son stolen from them for an unjust cause they are an island of indifference in an unholy land. Both are ‘alone in Berlin’.
After 70 years it still chills the blood to see German locations decked out in Nazi regalia, but one of the joys of this film is this rendering of life in wartime Berlin: starting with jubilation at German progress prior to D-Day and turning to despair and genuine danger as the tide turns towards 1945. In a pretty bleak film there are touches of black comedy now and then: Otto’s carpentry company is being encouraged “by the Fuhrer” to double and triple their output… of coffins.
More joy comes from the star turns of Gleeson and Thompson, both of who deliver on their emotionally challenging roles. Gleeson in particular makes a very believable German with a sour demeanor and a steely determination. But the star acting turn for me goes to the wonderful Daniel Brühl (“Rush“) as the tormented police detective, bullied into an ethical corner by the SS. The finale of the film – whilst not seeming quite believable – makes for a nicely unexpected twist.
Based on a novel by Hans Fallada, the lead writing credits for the piece are shared between Achim von Borries and the director Vincent Perez – in a rare directorial outing for the Swiss actor. The script exudes a melancholic gloom and at times expresses beautifully both the grief and love shared by this older couple. But some of the dialogue needs more work and we don’t see enough of Thompson in the early part of the film where her motivations should be being developed. This rather comes down to a lack of focus by the director. While the primary story of the card distribution is slight, it is compelling and a detour into a sub-story about an old Jewish lodger living upstairs is unnecessary and detracts from the overall story arc. I would have far preferred if the running time had been a tight 90 minutes just focused on Otto’s mission. One final comment on the script: did I mishear that Anna claimed to have a 6 year old child during an air raid scene? I know Emma Thompson looks great for her age, but….
I can’t finish this without commending the beautiful piano score of Alexandre Desplat. From the first note I knew it was him – he has such a characteristic style – and his clever use of the score complements the film exquisitely. “Small” films like this tend to rather disappear into the woodwork for Oscar consideration, but here’s a soundtrack that I think should be considered: (but what do I know… when “Nocturnal Animals” wasn’t even nominated in one of the Oscar crimes of the century!).
In summary, I found this a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, that – despite some of the mean reviews I’ve seen – I thought was well crafted and with excellent production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos (“Amour”). It will be particularly appreciated by older audiences looking for an untold story from the war, and by all lovers of fine acting performances by the three leads.
Fad Rating: FFFf.
Trailer Spoiler warning: I thought this was a really nicely made and spoiler-free trailer that gets the sense of the film over really well. Then with a few poorly chosen shots in the last 20 seconds it shows too much of its hand. I haven’t made a “One Mann’s Movies” special trailer of this… but you know where the stop button is!