Can any nation ever put behind the memories of a war? The scars that are engraved on the soul, and the soil, are perhaps the hardest to get rid of.
In Germany, it is not just any war. It is the second world war. The Holocaust. And how the hubris of one man led to death and devastation on an unimaginable scale, and how the world changed.
In Alone In Berlin, Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson play a middle-aged German couple, stunned into grief at the news of an only son being slain on the front.
It is 1940. WWII is only a year old, and all over Germany, the SS is rising, pushing everyone out of the way.
The Quangels are an ordinary couple, but their rebellion is extraordinary. In a Berlin full of young people displaying the swastika armbands, the Quangels go about their job slowly, steadily, placing painstakingly hand-written cards which say: “Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son!” in public places.
Being found out will lead to certain death. And as a local policeman leads the investigation and the noose is drawn tighter, you find your breath getting shorter. Despite its stodginess (the film is based on a novel, and the adaptation carries over some of the original’s literalness), and the fact that the German couple is played by non-German actors, and a German actor (the cop) is forced to adopted a German accent, Alone In Berlin is still a solid, well-told film.
At a personal level, the film is also a study of a marriage that has retreated into silence, and how it finds its strength back.
Gleeson and Thompson flesh it out beautifully, with little touches that make you feel that theirs has been a lived life, and shared pain.
At the press conference after the film, Thompson said that the film is “more relevant than ever”, given the growing uprsurge of fascism. And that is the unhappy truth, and it is happening all over the world.
You can see a similar thread in Danis Tanovic’s Death In Sarajevo. Tanovic, who had won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for his No Man’s Land (the very same year Lagaan was up for it), who made some middling films after, is back telling a story.
The question that the film, set in the grand Hotel Europa which is getting set to welcome a bunch of special guests on the centenary of the First World War, asks is the same: can you forget?
The film’s satirical edge is blunted a little when it gets obvious, but on the whole it is a film that gets you to see how conflicts amongst countries may reflect in the dealings amongst its people: who is to decide who a Serb or a Croat is?And who is in the wrong, and who right? And who are we to draw boundaries between people?