Based on Hans Fallada Tracking down resistance

“Alone in Berlin” by Vincent Perez
“Alone in Berlin” by Vincent Perez | Photo (detail): Marcel Hartmann © X Filme Creative Pool

The adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel “Jeder stirbt für sich allein“ (Every Man Dies Alone, or Alone in Berlin) bombs as an international star-studded project.

Hans Fallada wrote his last novel in a “white heat” of only 24 days in the last months of 1946, shortly before his death in ’47. Jeder stirbt für sich allein (eventually translated and published in 2009 in the US as Every Man Dies Alone, then in the UK as Alone in Berlin) was not recognized as the masterpiece it is until many years later: a brilliant panorama of Nazi society within the microcosm of an ordinary Berlin tenement. Its very recent international success has now given rise to an international adaptation for the screen, starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as the Quangels, a couple who – and this is based on a true story – distributed postcards all over the city calling for resistance to Hitler. The investigating police inspector is played by German actor Daniel Brühl, who speaks English in the film, however, like the rest of the cast – a directorial choice that was clearly bound to be hard on German ears. But this adaptation of the German material – the fifth to date – by Swiss director Vincent Perez fails for very different reasons.

Postcards against Hitler

With the exception of Emma Thompson, who can presumably play anyone, nearly all the actors seem miscast. Brawny Brendan Gleeson is not the simple German worker who has cowered and cringed his whole life long and now rebels for the first time. In fact the only credible thing about his portrayal of the character is the spelling mistakes on his postcards. Daniel Brühl understands the criminological ambition driving Inspector Escherich to follow up on his leads, but he utterly lacks the character’s basic brutality. Above all, however, the film has no sense of the book’s epic arcs of suspense, its depiction of oppressive day-to-day life pervaded with pettiness and anxiety. Naturally, Fallada’s novel, as the German scriptwriter Achim von Borries says himself, offers enough material for a while series. And faithfulness to the original is not necessarily a cinematic virtue. But the handful of scenes peripheral to the main plot – such as those of an old judge hiding the last remaining Jewess in the building – go to show that more could have been achieved even within the bounds of a single feature film.

As though it were a German film

As an international star-studded project, Alone in Berlin, representing something like the unofficial second German entry in the competition, makes just about every mistake that German history pictures are commonly accused of – and even adds a few for extra measure. A morally inflated ending, as if the Quangels’ execution were not clearly enough, basically betrays the whole book. Perez claims he secured the rights to the book long before the international hype set in, and yet it’s hard to believe he actually read it.