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BERLIN 2016 Competition

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Alone in Berlin: Letters to strangers


- BERLIN 2016: Vincent Perez’s attempt to adapt a post-war bestseller on the resistance of German citizens to Nazism misses the mark at Berlin

Alone in Berlin: Letters to strangers
Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin

Judging by the reactions of the press gathered at the Berlin Film Festival for the morning screening, Swiss actor Vincent Perez would have been right to feel rather alone at the gala for Alone in Berlin [+see also:
film profile
, his third feature film, selected in competition. It must be said that the press and the German public are particularly sensitive when presented with films on the darkest period in their history, namely the Nazi era, and Perez is not the first to be hissed at – even Clooney had to deal with a wave of criticism two years ago at the out-of-competition screening of his film The Monuments Men [+see also:
making of
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The film’s intentions are certainly commendable: if he wanted to adapt (with Achim von Borries, one of the screenwriters for Good Bye Lenin! [+see also:
interview: Wolfgang Becker
film profile
) the bestseller of the same name by Hans Fallada, which Primo Levi himself at the time, i.e. just after the war, described as the “best book ever written on the German resistance to Nazism”, it’s because he liked the “different angle” taken by the novel, the idea of portraying the lives of ordinary people under the appalling totalitarian regime and showing that not all Germans, not even back then, had Nazism engrained in their souls. Indeed, Alone in Berlin, based on true events, is the story of how two parents, who have just lost their son in the victorious attack against France, distribute anonymous postcards, designated as the only remaining form of “free press” in the country, around the German capital, branding Hitler a murderer and calling upon citizens who come across the postcard to pass on the message. Alas, Otto and Anna Quangel’s initiative (the pair are played by Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) comes up against the submission of a people intoxicated by the first victories of the Führer and reduced to the state of an obedient flock which, far from passing on the postcards, end up handing over almost all of them to the authorities immediately. And so, the couple is pursued by detective Escherich (played by none other than Daniel Brühl), who is all the more determined as he faces heavy consequences if he fails to track down the mysterious author of these postcards (such is the nature of totalitarianism).

And so, the film is divided into private moments between the two inconsolable parents which are quite moving (like the scene in which Otto spends some time in his son’s room, touching his things and books, which is rather emotional) on the one hand, and the game of cat and mouse with Eschrich which intensifies over the course of the film on the other. All the same, the power of the original story and the book is missing from the film, the dramatization of which, which is well-done but rather conventional, fails to make it stand out from the many films that have already been made on the subject. Moreover, the understandable but clumsily-executed choice to use international stars (those mentioned above and Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt as the ruthless SS officer), saddling their English accents with strong German accents and making the rest of the actors, in other words German actors, speak English, simply adds grist to the critics’ mill. Some will merely deplore the artistic triteness of the film, the naivety of its clichés and the schmaltz of the final scene. The more brutal will suggest that like when he was an actor, and especially when it comes to tackling such a delicate subject in the very place it happened, Berlin, Perez would have been wise to take some advice from the skilful Cyrano.

(Translated from French)

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