Thursday, 13 July 2017

David at the movies: A small stand against Hitler

ALONE IN BERLIN



Germany 1940. Anna and Otto Quangel receive the telegram that every parent dreads. Their only son has been killed during the Nazi invasion of France. Otto's reaction is to place handwritten postcards around the city denouncing the Hitler regime. The inspector (Daniel Bruhl) in charge of finding the ‘traitor’ gets harsh treatment from his superiors as the cards keep turning up. But it only takes a small mishap for the case to be solved and justice, swiftly and harshly, administered.

This is a true story, recreated in a city very much like 1940s Berlin with ageing trams and the ever-present swastika banners. Emma Thompson's Anna has one moment of rage against her son’s death, and then for the rest of the movie her grief is internalised but always vivid in her face. Brendan Gleeson's Otto keeps his emotions even more in check, but you sense his concentrated fury as he slowly pens the seditious cards, careful to disguise his handwriting.

I didn’t know that the Nazis used the guillotine – that most grisly of capital punishments, always associated in my mind with France's revolutionary Reign of Terror. The fate of a Jewish widow in the Quangels' building is handled with a delicate touch that barely hints at the vaster horrors which lie in the years ahead.

The film has some of the flavour of repertory theatre. Its slight story gains magnitude from the subtle intensity of the two central performances. It perhaps does well to remind us that not all Germans rolled over in the face of the Nazi ‘machine’ – and that the loss of a son is just as momentous to an enemy as to ourselves and our allies.



CHURCHILL


The critics have not taken very kindly to this 4-day biopic, but I found much to admire. It’s June 1944, in the week before D-Day, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is having grave doubts about the Normandy landings. World War One saw a similar beachhead go catastrophically wrong at Gallipoli, and Churchill took much of the blame for the disaster. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery (John Slattery and Julian Wadham) are gung-ho for a great victory, and even King George (James Purefoy) is quietly optimistic. Clementine, Mrs Churchill (Miranda Richardson), worries about her husband’s stress – and his drinking. She doesn’t seem to worry about his smoking: we hardly ever see him without a cigar.

This is something of a ‘chamber piece’, more like a play than a movie, all talk and little action. There are no battle scenes; the Blitz is in the past; London is more or less a safe place in which to be planning a mighty campaign to defeat Hitler and Nazism. Brian Cox is made up to be a very believable Winston and he does a splendid job with the great man’s voice without lapsing into caricature. Only the cigars are overdone.

The rest of the cast are convincing, although Ms Richardson could have done with some sharper lines: her Clemmie is a bit like a Jane Austen mumsical matriarch. Cox is well-served by the script, although critics and historians are claiming that Churchill never actually had the four dark days of doubt and despair pictured here. There’s a scene of him at prayer which becomes very Shakespearean – the PM as King Lear!

So: a talky drama, not slight but a bit slender (in spite of Churchill’s Hitchcockian girth). The eve of a great moment in history. Authentic or not, this is stirring stuff.

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