Quiet acts of defiance in a world that has found itself in the thrall of brutish populism – sounds like it might be a scenario applicable to our contemporary awfulness, doesn’t it? Instead, the true story of Otto and Anna Quangell is set in Hitler’s Germany shortly after the fall of France.
The couple has lost their only child, son Hans, in the fighting and neither is willing to accept that their boy’s death was a glorious sacrifice to the Fatherland of which they should be proud. They are as embittered as any parents would be and, fed up with the Third Reich’s propaganda machine and their fellow countrymen’s zealous adoption of the party line, Otto (Brendan Gleeson) resolves to undermine it in his own way by leaving postcards with subversive handwritten messages at random locations throughout Berlin. Anna (Emma Thompson) is his willing accomplice and though they understand that their campaign might be futile they are sustained by the conviction that someone must stand up and speak the truth – Hitler, they are telling anyone who might read their words, is ‘murdering our children’.
The wonderful German actor Daniel Brühl (he always manages to elicit sympathy) is the police officer whose responsibility it is to find who is responsible for the distribution of the cards, but when he is unable to do so the heavies from the SS get involved. It is the casting in Vincent Perez’s film that lifts it above the ordinary; Gleeson is a generally dour character and here he is perfectly suited to the role of brooding fatalist, while Thompson gives to Anna individual courage as well as unquestioning loyalty.
What they do is never reduced to game-playing, for the stakes are too high for Perez to indulge in a ‘let’s outsmart the Nazis’ adventure and, with the despicable SS Officer Prall (Mikael Persbrandt is cliched but perfect) the tension mounts inexorably. The postscript, explaining what became of Otto and Anna, will stay in your head for a long, long time.