White Rose Alone in America

neutral milk hotel

“The only girl I’ve ever loved was born with roses in her eyes….” — Jeff Mangum

Spoiler Alert: With virtually all reviews of films readers should be warned. This is no exception. That said, it’s worth being told what’s here prior to viewing “Alone in Berlin” because the main reason I’m recommending it has nothing to do with its aesthetic value. Rather, I believe it plants healthy seeds for activists to consider respecting what word to spread and how to spread it… safely. For soon it will be as illegal to tell the truth in America as it was to get down authentically in White Rose Germany; see the link at the very bottom for clarity. And take the time to listen to the lyrics of Neutral Milk Hotel… when you have the time to spare… when you’re not protesting healthily in stealth.

Taking notes with you all the time, and placing them in strategic spots… to make people feel uncomfortable with their obliviousness, their daily routines rocked. Underscoring our evil thrust, what must be undermined.

The movie I begin describing below is NOT a “must see”… but it might be that it will inspire you to do something new in solidarity with others. [Pause.] No one else will do it. The “best” others will commit to is likely to be… generic protest. [“All those who are expressing anger, please gather together in this tiny corner!”]

The man has just received the worst possible news from his wife.

He leaves their apartment, his face hardened like a stone, betraying no sense of what he’s feeling inside. As he begins to descend the staircase, he stops for a moment, his hand tightening around the handrail, before proceeding down the stairs and out the door. It is a quiet, heartbreaking moment. So much is conveyed with so little.

The man in question is Otto Qaungel, a German civilian living in Berlin during World War II. The actor playing Otto is Brendan Gleeson, the great Irish character actor whose performance in “In Bruges” has been resonating deeply with me for a decade. What he does in “Alone in Berlin” ranks with some of the best work he’s ever done… including what he gave us all in my two favorites, “The General” and “Calvary.” [The latter film promotes an essential ingredient for all proactive concerned citizens to consider embracing, by the way.]

The story comes from a novel that was inspired by true-life events. Otto and Anna (Emma Thompson) were among the majority of the German populace that never officially joined the Nazi party but toed the line, offering no resistance. [READ THAT AGAIN, PLEASE.]

Otto and Anna go about their daily life — Otto works in a factory, Anna is a housewife and a member of the National Socialist Women’s League — and try to keep their heads down, until the horrors of the war and of the Gestapo regime land right at their doorstep, and they can be silent no more.

One night, Anna finds Otto composing anti-Hitler notes. He is writing in a deliberately strange style so the notes cannot be traced to him. His plan is to post the notes around the city. There’s no turning back.

Dozens and then hundreds of the cards appear in Berlin, much to the frustration of the Gestapo. Otto and Anna know they’re most likely on a suicide mission, but they remain devoted to their cause.

“Alone in Berlin” is one of the hundreds of World War II films to tell us the story of individuals who performed heroics great and small. It’s a sometimes tense but mostly quiet film, filmed in earth tones that evoke a sense of history, with the story elegantly nudged along by a beautiful and haunting score from tremendously talented Alexandre Desplat.

Daniel Bruhl is sharp (for the most part) as the chief detective who pursues the case with zeal but is not in line with the Gestapo’s extreme tactics. Emma Thompson, who can play just about anything that comes her way, disappears into her role of Anna and wears every inch of Anna’s grief and resolve in her expressions. [The film to see that features Bruhl is “The Edukators”…which (while the credits are rolling at the end) contains a stunning “message” delivered in great stealth for potential activists.]

And then there’s Gleeson, who often plays rough, intimidating, red-faced characters. He loses the Irish brogue in favor of precise, German-accented English, and he dials down the performance to just the right scale. And when “Alone in Berlin” reaches the end of its journey, it’s the performances of Gleeson and Thompson that ensure we’ll never forget the bravery of Otto and Anna.

It’s not an aesthetically satisfying movie, but — for me — it planted a seed for today’s activism. What people need to do is model the behavior of Otto and Anna. Which very much parallels what the White Rose got involved with right around the same time.

Notes around the city. Notes around the countryside. Notes everywhere to help the sheep who surround us to notice the abominations we’re supporting with our tax dollars and silence.

If you see the film, it might stir your imagination respecting what to write on the notes while you’re alone in America… riding “the circus wheel” toward oblivion. [Pause.] You can do better. We can do better together.

That’s why I write.

Richard Martin Oxman is Director of the Flannery O’Connor Academy. “Indentions in the sheets where their bodies once moved, but don’t move anymore” (as performed by Jeff Magnum) is one of his very favorite lines… ever. Forever he will appreciate anything the reader tries that’s new in this troubled world. Feel free to contact him at [email protected]. And if the reader wants to simply relax with cinematic fare that’s beyond compare (and take a break from activism)… well, everyone at Flannery O’Connor Academy has been going wild over the aesthetic accomplishment of The Sense of An Ending, the plot of which should not be read about ahead of time.




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