Berlinale 2016: 'Alone in Berlin' - A Good Story with Bad Filmmaking
by Alex Billington
February 15, 2016
This should've been so much better. The story is so good, but the filmmaking is just so bad, and it deserved better. Alone in Berlin is a film directed by Vincent Perez telling the story of Otto Quangel (in real life: Otto Hampel), a German living in Berlin during WWII that decided to write post cards with "free press" notes opposing Hitler and his regime. It was one of the most awkward screening experiences I've ever had - sitting in a theater full of German critics, in Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival, watching a film set in Berlin, but everyone in the film speaks English with German accents. One of the worst decisions they made. Even though I understand it's about getting this film to a wider audience, it just doesn't work, the performances are stilted, and everything seems off for the entire film. Which is unfortunate because I do love Otto's story.
After their only son is killed at the beginning of the war, Otto and Elise Hampel eventually begin a campaign to oppose Hitler's fascist regime. He realizes the only way he can encourage freedom of thought is by leaving anonymous note cards around the city saying things like "Hitler is a liar" and "don't let them murder your son." It's an inspiring story, I'd never heard of it before, and it just goes to show the power of an idea or a strong message. All it takes is one person reading this card to make them think differently. In total, he left over 200 cards around the city. Brendan Gleeson plays Otto, Emma Thompson plays Anna (in real life: Elise), and Daniel Brühl plays the police officer hunting them. At least these three performances are okay, they do their best with the terrible English-language dialogue, and actually make the characters admirable.
Even the final shot of the film is so amateur and absurd I couldn't believe it. That's it? Put up a repetitive shot of cards flying through the air and invert the colors? Come on. The best part of the film is the opening two minutes, showing Otto and Anna's son being killed as he is on the run (presumably because he, too, found flaws in the Nazi's scheme). It has the best cinematography in the entire film and is a strong opening moment, but the rest of the film never lives up to that. It doesn't even come close. Some of the shots in the city with kids playing on the street and other Germans saying hi are so staged it's painful to watch. And it's truly frustrating because the story is so good, and they do their best to make the audience focus on that more than anything else. Here is a dedicated man, and his wife, speaking out the only way they know how.
The only other part of the film worth acknowledging is the way Otto explains why he's doing this, and why it will have an impact, even in small ways. He explains that the Nazi regime is like a machine, and that each of these cards is like a grain of sand. The more he puts out there, the more sand gets thrown into the machine. A handful of sand won't stop the machine, but as more and more gets thrown in there, eventually it will slow down and come to a stop. If only they could've captured the spirit of this in a more inspiring and impressive way, but alas, this film is going to be forgotten quickly once critics have their way with it. At the very least, now I am familiar with the story of Otto and Elise Hampel and I am inspired by the way they decided to take on the fascist society they were living in. "Beneath this mask there is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof."
Alex's Berlinale 2016 Rating: 5 out of 10
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