Political Film Review #531

Decades after the end of Nazi rule in Germany, films continue to depict the days when Hitler ruled, and the people “Seig Heil”ed one another at meetings, even when friends came over to visit. Everyone was terrorized by police. Alone in Berlin, directed by Vincent Perez, provides a fascinating exception to the brainwashing, relating a true story with some embellishment. One day Otto Quangel (played by Brendan Gleeson) receives a letter from the government. He knows the contents without opening the letter, but his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) does anyway. Their son had been killed in the latest battle of the war, sometime in 1940. Both are grief stricken. But Otto is so angry that he decides to spread his opposition to the regime by writing messages on postcards (“tweets” would describe the content today). Otto and Anna then distribute more than 200 cards all over Berlin (filming is in the town of Görlitz, Saxony) for the next two years. Detective work by Berlin Police Officer Escherich (Daniel Brühl) identifies the pattern of cards and awaits the inevitable mistake by the card distributors, angering SS Commander Prall (Mikael Persbrandt) because he does not stop the flow sooner. The ending will seem obvious as soon as the first card is left on a stairway, but there is a Hollywood-type surprise in the climax. The film is based on a novel written in 1947 by Hans Fallada, who read the Gestapo file of Otto and Elise Hampel, and was translated into English as Every Man Dies Alone (2009). The Political Film Society has nominated Alone in Berlin for best film exposé of 2017 and best film on human rights of 2017. MH

Many films have argued that the death penalty should be abolished. 5 Rillington Place (1971) caused Britain to abolish the death penalty. Dead Man Walking (1996) questions the use of lethal injection. The Green Mile (1999) influenced the abolition of the electric chair. Greenfingers (2002) demonstrated how prisoners can be rehabilitated if treated decently. There are others as well, but now American Violence joins the genre far less convincingly. The focus of the film is on Professor of Criminal Psychology Amanda Tyler (played by Denise Richards), who is teaching a class at a Texas university. Jackson Shea (Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau) has been condemned to death, but the governor has asked xx to interview him in case there are grounds for commuting the sentence from death to life. After she accepts the assignment, she goes to the prison to find out Shea’s life history, especially where he went bad. Shea describes child abuse by an uncle, being doublecrossed in a gang heist, and how the warden of a prison, Richard Morton (played by Bruce Dern), also doublecrossed him. In each case, Shea’s rage only calms down after he kills the instigator. Tyler then writes a report to the governor favoring commutation. She also tries to question a police official, Ben Woods (Columbus Short, who is convinced without evidence of various maxims about the deterrent effect of the death penalty. Director Timothy Woodword, Jr., provides an ending to American Violence that most filmviewers will find as unsatisfactory as the arguments pro and con, but the life story is well told. MH

The official ballot, which was contained in Political Film Review #533, is due by February 28. A copy can be found on the Political Film Society’s website.