Tragedy often brings people together, and with nothing left to lose, one is free to take a stand against oppression. At least that’s how it works in theory

Alone in Berlin, a new adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, puts that theory to the test, as well as the viewer’s patience.

First published in 1947, the book is based on true events, eventually becoming a belated international bestseller in 2009. Considered an authentic representation of daily life in Berlin during the war, it shows a select few citizens attempting to revive a hopeless, lethargic public.

Director Vincent Pérez, better known for his acting roles in French films (Cyrano de Bergerac, La Reine Margot), chooses, however, to focus mainly on the inherent melodrama of the Quangel’s relationship.

Postcard Sabotage

The word “lonely” cannot begin to describe how Anna (Emma Thompson) and Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) feel at the height of Nazi power. Their marriage has been lacking passion for years, they barely communicate and the loss of their only son on the Western Front gives them no desire to carry on.

In the face of despair and hopelessness, they turn to each other for comfort; channeling their grief into small-scale acts of rebellion against the regime. These tiny acts come as messages written on the back of postcards, advising Germans to resist and “throw sand in the gears” of the Nazi war machine until the “motor begins to stutter.”

Naturally, it doesn’t take long for the Gestapo, embodied by Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), to catch wind of these subversive cards appearing all over Berlin. Escherich is commanded by his superiors to locate their origin and “resolve” the situation.

Adaptation pains

A hurdle anyone creating an adaptation must overcome is which subplots or themes to disregard and which to emphasize – this can make or break a picture.

Sadly, the tearjerker atmosphere wastes the opportunity for a quiet, powerful anthem of courage and moral dignity. Only the Gestapo pursuit drives the often directionless story forward; intriguing subplots showing everyday life during paranoia and terror go unexplored.

The cast certainly delivers, but is unable to show off their best. Trapped within a pedestrian plot and underdeveloped characters, Thompson, Gleeson and Brühl are left trying to make the most of it. The English-language adaptation doesn’t help – spoken with a heavy German accent, it comes across as a desperate attempt to make the film “international.” Though the principal actors manage this with surprisingly convincing authenticity, subtitles would have been a more immersive choice.

The original novel is in fact quite thrilling, bordering on terrifying, and certainly does not lack the potential for a compelling film. However, Pérez’s version possesses just barely enough drama to keep you awake until the credits roll. The surprising lack of suspense certainly does not do the novel justice and fails to make a splash in the sea of countless other WWII dramas.

Starts Nov 18