Postcards from the edge — of grief, of rationality, and in just a few cases, of the German capital itself — are delivered by the dozen in “Alone in Berlin,” Vincent Perez’s diverting but terminally fusty story of a middle-aged couple waging an anonymous propaganda war against Nazism in the early 1940s. Perhaps it’s apt, then, that Perez’s third feature fashions something of a postcard itself from the iniquities of the Holocaust: Tastefully lit and art-directed throughout, with a somberly mellifluous Alexandre Desplat score to ease it along, this fact-based drama finally cushions its harshest emotional blows, though Brendan Gleeson’s deeply sad, stoic dignity in the lead cuts through some of the padding. With a frail, fretful Emma Thompson also on hand as Gleeson’s wife, distributors may find a receptive older audience for a downbeat tale that, while affecting, offers but a historical tourist’s perspective on events.
The same can’t be said for the first-hand conviction of “Alone in Berlin’s” literary source material. First published in 1947 as “Every Man Dies Alone,” and a belated bestseller when its English-language translation (given the title it now shares with the film) hit shelves over 60 years later, Hans Fallada’s novel was drawn from Gestapo files passed along after the war. Among the first published portraits of the German resistance movement, it betrayed in its writing the very raw injustices of life lived within the regime, even outside its direct firing line. With reportedly minimal adjustment, Fallada based the characters of Otto and Anna Quangel on Otto and Elise Hampel, a respectable working-class couple who complied with the stentorian demands of their government until their only child, Hans, was killed in the Battle of France in 1940.
Perez — whose first directorial effort this is since 2007’s misbegotten David Duchovny thriller “The Secret” — prefaces proceedings with a glimpse of the unlucky young soldier’s demise in the Ardennes, the camera’s picturesque lighting of the forest’s mossy network of trunks already suggesting we aren’t in for the grittiest of war stories. Cut to Berlin, where his parents receive the news via an impersonal military missive, delivered by their quietly anti-Nazi postwoman Eva (Katrin Pollitt). Anna (Thompson), a reluctant member of the Nazi Women’s League, is immediately devastated; Otto (Gleeson), a weary factory worker who courts controversy at work by passively refusing to join the party, takes longer to privately process the loss.
When he does, it’s with an uncharacteristically radical course of action. Carefully inscribing blank postcards with anti-Nazi invective — “The Fuhrer murdered my son; he will murder yours”; “Hitler’s shadow falls over the country like the devil’s” — he begins depositing them in an assortment of public locations across the city, positing to an eventually complicit Anna that even this small protest amounts to cumulatively jarring “sand in the machine.” Turns out he’s right: The cards may be flimsy and inelegantly worded, but they rankle Nazi brass enough to launch a city-wide manhunt for their unidentified scribe, led by young police inspector Escherich (a nattily mustachioed Daniel Bruhl, wearing the character’s moral ambivalence with a pleasingly light touch).
Perez and co-writer Achim von Borries make simple structural work of this both-ends-burning narrative, playing Escherich’s growing disenchantment with the narrowing search against the increasingly nervous, us-against-the-world atmosphere in the Quangels’ small apartment. It’s not quite the exercise in tension one might expect: The cultivatedly elegiac tone of the film, assisted by Christophe Beaucarne’s warmly dusky, dust-mote-spangled lensing, has nobler things on its mind. Any embellishing subplots, principally one involving the protection of the Quangels’ elderly Jewish neighbor Frau Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette), are somewhat abruptly curtailed.
Classically restrained in form and flavor, then, “Alone in Berlin” more or less amounts to the apfelstrudel of Europuddings, though it retains some of the transnational compromises of that festival-beloved subgenre — notably, of course, the fact that all the dialogue is delivered in German-accented English, which does little for the pic’s already faint claims at authenticity. (Otto does, however, write all his cards in German; while the script makes repeated mention of his modest education, his fluid bilingualism is truly impressive.) Despite this potential verbal hobbling factor, Gleeson is — as is becoming all but redundant to say these days — excellent, conveying his character’s dueling impulses of rebellion and resignation via his stolid, shuffling body language. His onscreen rapport with Thompson, too, is gently moving, even if her own negotiation of the character’s Teutonic identity betrays a little more quivering effort; they convincingly share the loaded, concerned silences of the long-married.
Below-the-line contributions are all handsome to a possible fault. Production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos evokes the eponymous city’s polarities of high-ranking splendor and low-end grayness with the requisite level of detail, but less palpable distress. Desplat’s music here, meanwhile, further suggests the prolific French composer tailors his work to the relative formal invention of the film in question: His score boasts expertly melancholic piano runs by the sheetload, but none that will tease the memory long after “Alone in Berlin” reaches its grave conclusion.