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Issue #1916      May 25, 2020



Recently SBS showed the movie Alone in Berlin on its World Movies channel. If you missed it, it is available on SBS OnDemand, or you might be able to catch it when it is, inevitably, repeated on that channel. The film is particularly powerful for its illumination of the existence of German working-class resistance to Nazism.

Alone in Berlin presents the spectrum of possible human responses to living under the Nazi regime in Germany during the Second World War. Fanatical support, mere acceptance (or resignation?), ambiguity, compromise, self-interest, corruption but above all, courageous resistance – in this case on the part of Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson).

Based on the novel by Hans Fallada, which in turn was a fictionalised account of the real-life resistance of Otto and Elise Hampel, Alone in Berlin follows the Quangels from their state of despair upon learning of the death of their soldier son in France in 1940, to embarking on a solitary campaign of resistance against the Nazis. This resistance takes the form of writing anti-regime and anti-war messages on postcards which they leave around Berlin in places such as stairways and doorways in buildings where there is a chance that passers-by will see them. Those who might read the cards are encouraged to pass them on.

Otto, whose idea it is to distribute the postcards, equates the strategy to putting sand in a machine; a little will not do much, but if increasing amounts are added (others passing on the cards), the machine will eventually grind to a halt.

The imagery of machines and machinery is a recurring theme in the messages Otto writes on the postcards, as the police officer investigating the matter (Daniel Brühl) recognises. It leads him to conclude that the person who is writing and distributing the postcards is probably a worker with machinery. Otto does work in a factory, holding the position of foreman.

References to the Nazi/German war machine, “Hitlerism,” and also, recurringly, the “Free Press,” suggests a level of political sophistication on the part of Otto; these are not simplistic “good versus evil” messages. These messages, along with the Quangels’ working-class status, together with the politically progressive history of “Red Berlin” – in which the Communist Party of Germany had been a dominant force in working-class districts – may imply that the Quangels’ opposition derives from a politically left perspective. But the left, certainly the organised left, is non-existent in the film. The impression is given that the Quangels are operating out of their own personal motivation, and, as Otto says, alone.

This absence of the left resistance is a weakness of the film. The reality was that, while isolated Otto and Anna may have been because of their personal circumstances, they were never alone.


The German resistance to Nazism – including within Germany – never stopped, including during the war years. Although repeatedly and savagely persecuted, the Communist Party of Germany played a leading role in the resistance movement, continually striving to give it organisational coherence and political direction.

In his 1985 book, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany, Allan Merson explored the extent of the Communist resistance:

Communist resistance to the Third Reich exceeded that of all other parties and groups. It never ceased altogether […]. Wherever events had brought Communists together – in factories, in working-class suburbs, in army units, in prisons and concentration camps – they had formed groups and tried to organise political resistance, and they had fought side by side with the Spanish Republicans, with the partisans of many European freedom movements, and with the Red Army.

German Communists paid a heavy price. Merson estimates that up to 30,000 German Communists perished due to the fascist persecution.

Although repeatedly attacked, the Communists showed remarkable resilience, trying again and again to re-establish and/or build networks among Party members – but also with, notably, other sections of the resistance movement of diverse social origins and political perspectives, so as to broaden and strengthen the movement. Imbued with internationalism, the Communists also did much work among the millions of foreign and slave workers in Germany, who, incidentally, do not rate a mention in Alone in Berlin.

Within Berlin specifically, Communists courageously engaged in a range of resistance activities during the war, including preparing and circulating clandestine newspapers, holding Marxist educational classes and small group discussions, distributing news sheets, leaflets, and pamphlets – including in the thousands – and placing stickers, and chalking and painting slogans, on walls.

The Communists organised a network of cells within factories, including within the big armaments works in Berlin, and there was industrial sabotage engaged in.

And on the question of individual and apparently spontaneous resistance activities on the part of German workers, Merson notes that it “was a very disciplined kind of behaviour,” suggestive of action taken under the influence of Communist, or Social Democratic, Party influence or instructions, and often with the aim of maintaining and/or reactivating party apparatus. Could Otto and Anna Quangels’ resistance have been at least influenced (if not instigated) by what they heard from others more politically conscious?

Regardless of these considerations, the film is important for the light it turns on the existence of German working-class resistance to Nazism. Resistance was not just engaged in by groups with a religious inspiration, or by disaffected aristocratic military officers, but was very broad-reaching, clearly involving hundreds of thousands of people from all strata of German society. Additionally, millions more chafed under Nazi oppression.


Class is a motif of Alone in Berlin. While the film does not identify the purpose and function of fascism as the armed terroristic manifestation of the dictatorship of reactionary finance capital, it does highlight the existence of class divisions in Germany under the Nazis. Besides the working-class Quangels, there is the idle-living wife of a senior SS officer, with domestic servants who manages to shirk her obligation to take on a war job in a factory; there is the former judge who is prepared to protect an elderly Jewish neighbour of the Quangels, but within limits; there is the lumpen character leading a petty criminal existence, who the Nazis use to spy on his neighbours.

These class divisions, which put paid to the Nazi nonsense of an undifferentiated German Volke, and together with the compromises made and the uncertainty and doubts clearly harboured by many of the characters (there is even some ambiguousness on the part of the Quangels initially), demonstrate that Nazi Germany was not a monolithic state in the sense of having a population comprised of fanatical adherents of the regime. In this diversity of human interests, motivations, and concerns too, is fertile ground for resistance and, of course, for progressive and revolutionary change when there is the application of astute political leadership – conscious of the contradictions, and concerned to build alliances between different sections of society with varying needs and demands, just as the German Communists did under the Nazis.


Finally, Alone in Berlin raises the question of the effectiveness of different forms of resistance. Towards the end of the film, there is a discussion between the police investigator and Otto Quangel about the effectiveness of the latter’s postcard campaign. The policeman points out that of the 285 postcards that the Quangels distributed, only 18 were not turned in. The rest were handed over to the Gestapo, presumably because people feared being caught with them.

So, is such resistance, conducted in an isolated and diffuse way by individuals, effective? Is it to be recommended in such circumstances where the consequences of being discovered are so terrible? These are questions for consideration which are usefully suggested by the film. It would seem self-evident that collective resistance, organised and with a clear direction, must be the preferred course. But in conditions such as those that prevailed in Nazi Germany, organised resistance – which absolutely did exist – was repeatedly and ruthlessly attacked anyhow. And of course, the example of brave individuals who do take action can inspire others to act – remember also that not all the postcards were handed in.

For Otto and Anna Quangel, there was no choice. They had to resist. They needed to, and in recognising this, they were liberated. This is depicted in the film by the lighting as much as anything. From the dark and claustrophobic setting of their apartment in the early scenes, much of the rest of the film is set outdoors in sunlight. The Quangels themselves, played with superb understatement and dignity by Gleeson and Thompson, also show in their demeanour that they truly have become free in a sense.

And faced with the inevitable, they are strengthened by their love for each other. Perhaps surprisingly, given the context, this is a tender and uplifting film in the end.

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