If the topic of a film is unpleasant but presented in an exaggerated or outlandish manner, audiences flock to see the movie. In superhero blockbusters, characters borne in comics fight to the death to save whole populations from misery and the world from mass destruction. Audiences can’t get enough of this type of entertainment, and profits of hundreds of millions of dollars result.
However, if the topic is unpleasant and presented in a sober manner as history-based, audiences may well choose to give the film a pass. Such may have been the case with two serious film dramas about Germany under the Nazi regime which were released theatrically on a limited basis earlier this year and recently were made available for home viewing. I think of these as good films you do not want to see! Having now made the effort to see them, I recommend each heartily, especially at this time when there is a growing fear and repugnance of hatred and fascism in our own society.
ALONE IN BERLIN, which only grossed $33,000 in theaters, is a fact-based story of a middle-aged German couple – Nazi party members – who went undercover as anti-Hitler protesters after they lost their only son on a battlefield in Hitler’s campaign to rule the world. When we first encounter them, the husband is a plainspoken factory foreman and the wife is an active member of the Nazi Women’s League. Over the course of the film, they become the writers and distributors of hundreds of anti-Nazi postcards and spark a long-term police investigation in Berlin.
It’s a well-made film by popular European actor/director Vincent Perez. Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, and Daniel Bruhl are the stars, and Perez is sharp enough to realize he is working with the real deal. In scene after scene of ALONE IN BERLIN, Perez allows for silent faces to tell the story. Thompson and Gleeson provide worlds of information about their feelings through carefully placed close-up shots.
The second feature film is titled THE EXCEPTION, with Christopher Plummer, Lily James, and Jai Courtney. And if you pay attention, you’ll see the underutilized, outstanding British actor Anton Lesser. By coincidence, the two films pretty much begin at the same time in the same place: Berlin, the headquarters of the Third Reich, in 1940. However, THE EXCEPTION, which grossed a meager $708,000 in theaters, quickly moves from there to a stately manor house in Holland, the home of none other than elderly Kaiser Wilhelm. While he isn’t alluded to often at that point in history, the Kaiser actually lived in exile in Holland, supported by the Germans, till his death from natural causes in 1941.
In THE EXCEPTION, a battle-weary Nazi Captain is assigned to safeguard the Kaiser and his wife, and to uncover a British spy who is rumored to be infiltrating the Kaiser’s home. His duties bring him into contact with an intriguing young woman who works as a maid—a secret Jewess. While the storyline of THE EXCEPTION is not as cohesive as ALONE IN BERLIN, it, too, is a story of people who make the right choices when they have little left to lose.
Something else that ALONE IN BERLIN and THE EXCEPTION have in common is the drabness of its heroines. In the first film, Emma Thompson appears beyond plain; she almost might be considered homely. In the latter film, Lily James also foregoes make-up and lets her hair straggle, in need of a good wash. By far, the coolest looking character in THE EXCEPTION is Christopher Plummer whose Kaiser character allows him to preen like a peacock in a stylized, Victorian-era beard and an array of colorful royal uniforms. As it rolls along to an ending, THE EXCEPTION script abandons its most serious themes. Its story becomes artificial, while the mood of ALONE IN BERLIN never waivers from the horrifying world of fascism. Even so, both films deserve a larger audience.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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