German writer Hans Fallada’s ‘rediscovered’ 1947 novel was a literary sensation when first translated into English in 2009. Based on a true story it tells of the brave resistance to the Nazis by middle-aged couple Otto and Anna Quangel (played in the film by Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson). While grieving the loss of their soldier son, they start delivering postcards around early 1940s Berlin bearing insurrectionist slogans (‘Hitler’s shadow falls over the country like the devil’s’). The book was hailed as a powerful street-level portrait of the city at war. This film version, a solid if unremarkable historical drama, lacks any exceptional ring of truth and offers a sketch of life in wartime Berlin that feels familiar and not especially revealing.
Director Vincent Perez frames his story as a muted thriller. We watch as Otto, a factory worker, and Anna, an uncommitted member of the Nazi Women’s League, become quietly radicalised after learning of their son’s death, taking increasing risks. The idea of having nothing left to lose is compelling, and Gleeson and Thompson offer subtle insights into what drives the Quangels – otherwise just another pair of ordinary working-class faces in the crowd. Meanwhile a detective, Escherich (Daniel Brühl), shows his determination to catch the unknown perpetrators – mostly by getting angry and waving his hands about in front of a map.
The familiar, if stultifying, approach of having an international cast speaking German-accented English works better for the relatively quiet two leads than many of the German cast, several of whose performances lack shade and tend towards the broad. Brühl’s performance is especially fruity – and his manic, shouty moments are not forgiven by a last-minute dash for moral complexity that results in a fairly ludicrous final scene. One for more unfussy fans of wartime dramas.