Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Alone In Berlin (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: When news reaches them that their son has died on the front line, German couple Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) begin to feel disillusioned with the Third Reich. Wanting to voice protest, but knowing full well what the consequences of that would be, Otto decides to rebel in a different way. He starts writing postcards, detailing how the Nazi regime doesn’t have their best interests at heart, and leaves them all over the city of Berlin. However, once police detector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) starts to find them and senses a pattern developing, Otto and Anna will have to think fast if they want to keep spreading their message to the people.

Everyone in the cast functions under the same low-key style of performance. Some of them do really well with it, while others end up falling behind. Gleeson does nicely with his bubbling-under-the-surface want for justice and change in his home, while Thompson ends up being too passive for that same sense to get across. Brühl ends up making a nice change of pace from the usual antagonists of these kind of stories, playing a detective who is more drawn to solving the mystery than who the solution would end up assisting. Monique Chaumette as Frau Rosenthal, an old Jewish woman who lives in the Quangel’s building, easily gets that sense of quiet rage and despair out the most of the entire cast. Katrin Pollitt as the local courier Eva Kluge brings some warmth to the proceedings, and Lars Rudolph as an apolitical scavenger leaves a surprising impression (surprising in that, despite his limited screen time, I actually remember that he was in it).

It’s genuinely depressing that a film like this, a period drama set in Nazi-ruled Germany, would feel timely in this day and age. And yet, with the influx of Nazi theology nowadays with it even cropping up here in my neck of the woods (a little too close to my neck of the woods, but that’s a rant for another day), that’s the effect we get. It goes the same route as Downfall in how it shows the Third Reich not exactly as this soul-crushingly oppressive and nigh-fantastical regime, but as something that has been normalized and treated as just a normal part of their society. Also like Downfall, this approach ends up making the reality of the setting even more terrifying. Right from the opening scene, with Anna and Otto’s son fighting and dying on the front line, we get a sense of how dehumanizing and demagogic that ideology is in practice, as well as the effect it leaves on everyone involved. Because of this, it feels like any action that could undermine it, even something small, is what needs to be done.

Propaganda seems to have gone a similar route to ideas like postmodernism, irony and feminism… namely, that the word has become so overused that most people have lost contact with what it actually means. The term ‘propaganda’ is something that fits in with what we think of in terms of Nazi ideology: Information, usually fabricated, that exists solely to enforce ideas and behaviours in the masses. However, what comparisons like that end up doing is ignoring that the definition of propaganda is a lot broader than that. Boiled down to its bare essentials, propaganda is just information that promotes a specific political point-of-view. Dig deep enough and you’ll see that a lot of media, including almost everything I’ve reviewed on this blog, would fall under the umbrella of propaganda for some form of political mindset.
I bring all this up because this film ends up highlighting the more positive side of such things. It acknowledges that this specific form of rebellion and dispersal of information is rather small, but that’s what happens with certain ideas. All it takes is for the idea to be out in the world before it starts to grow within the human mind. For some, it grows into another example of the problem that a given regime exists to get rid of, while for others, it becomes a sign that whatever feelings they have that go against the teachings of the regime are worth holding onto.

However, this is where the intersection of political rebellion and the need for secrecy starts to chip away at the film’s positives. I said before that everyone here acts as if they have something to hide, keeping to hushed tones because of that, and while that keeps with the tone of the narrative, it also saps away at the engagement value of the overall film. As good as some of these actors are in that mode, the fact that everyone exists within that mode makes the film feel monotonous at times. 
There’s also how the Quangels’ actions end up affecting their environment… which is to say that we don’t end up seeing much of the impact. The most we get is seeing Escherich reacting to the fact that the postcards exist at all, never giving us a glimpse at whether they are making any changes. Admittedly, that is part of the point, with Otto in particular doing this because he feels he has to get the truth out of his system rather than just suppressing it within himself, but it would’ve helped if we got any idea that his actions had that impact. Especially since one of the main sources of tension within the film is whether or not Otto and Anna will be caught for their insubordination; hard to feel tense about actions where we can’t tell if they are actually doing anything worthwhile in the first place.

All in all, this is a decent film with a rather poignant statement to make, highlighting how rebellion against an unjust system, no matter how minor said rebellion turns out to be, is to be celebrated. However, between the pacing, the hit-or-miss acting and the tonal monotony, its merits are tougher to fully appreciate than they should be.

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