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 who has lent his talents to “Braveheart” and “A.I.,” to “Gangs of New York” and “In Bruges,” to a bunch of “Harry Potter” movies, to “Cold Mountain,” to “Live by Night.” Gleeson’s performance in “Alone in Berlin” ranks with some of the best work he’s ever done.
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.
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 (“The Queen,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Imitation Game.”)
Daniel Bruhl is sharp 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.
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.
IFC Films presents a film directed by Vincent Perez. Written by Perez and Achim von Borries, based on the novel by Hans Fallada. Rated R (for brief violence). Running time: 103 minutes. Available on demand and opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.