By Dalya Alberge | The Guardian
Vincent Pérez’s film of Hans Fallada’s bestselling novel will premiere in Berlin
In 2009, Alone in Berlin was a little-known German novel describing an act of wartime defiance against the Nazi regime. But when its harrowing pages were translated into English six decades after it was written, Hans Fallada’s book became an international publishing phenomenon.
Now the rediscovered 1947 masterpiece – a chilling portrait of courage and fear – has inspired a film that will receive its world premiere on 15 February at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The cast is headed by Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for Howards End, and Brendan Gleeson, who received an Emmy for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Into the Storm.
They play Otto and Anna Quangel, an ordinary working-class couple who resist Nazism. When their only son is killed in action in 1940, the pair are shocked out of their quiet, apolitical existence into an extraordinary act of defiance. Using the power of the written word, they leave anonymous postcards attacking Hitler across a city paralysed by terror, facing certain death if caught.
The novel was based on real-life heroes Otto and Elise Hampel, who secretly distributed anti-Nazi postcards following the death of Elise’s brother in action. Denounced and arrested, they were beheaded in 1943.
Fallada – the pen name for Rudolf Ditzen, the son of a judge – saw the couple’s Gestapo file after the war. He did not live to see his novel published, dying from a morphine overdose in 1947, aged 53. It was a tragic end to a tragic life blighted by mental illness and incarceration in an insane asylum. Refusing to join the Nazi party, he was denounced as an anti-Nazi conspirator.
The film is directed and co-written by Vincent Pérez, the son of a Spanish father and German mother, whose own German family resisted the Nazis and lost an uncle to the gas chambers. His Spanish grandfather was shot for resisting fascism. “I read the book and I got addicted to it,” he told the Observer. “It was obviously a very cinematic story.”
In making the film, he felt “the energy, the strength, the fight, the struggle” of his own family members and other wartime heroes who “nobody talks about … People did tiny things and lost their lives, and we never talk about it. We’re telling the story of those people.”
One of the film’s challenges was to convey the “fear in the air” for ordinary people living under Nazism, Pérez said: “How it was just to buy some bread, to live in the street or to know that anyone could sell the other one to the Nazis. The book shows it really well.”
Hans Fallada’s novel was based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who secretly distributed anti-Nazi postcards
Fallada’s novel was rediscovered by Dennis Loy Johnson, founder of Melville House Publishing, an American independent company, which had it translated into English by Michael Hofmann. Johnson was astonished to discover that it had not been translated before, particularly as Primo Levi, the Jewish-Italian writer and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, once described it as “the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis”.
Johnson said: “Before the war, Fallada had been a bestselling author in the US and England. His Little Man, What Now? was made into an American film, which led to his blacklisting at home because it was made by Jewish producers. The international perception of him was that he’d stayed in Germany so he had to be a Nazi, and that he ended up in East Germany, so he must be a Communist. So nobody looked at those last books and they allowed the earlier ones to go out of print. By the time I rediscovered him, it had been 60 years or so that nobody talked about Hans Fallada.”
The UK rights of Alone in Berlin were licensed to Penguin, and it sold an astonishing 400,000 copies. The film version is a British, German and French co-production. One of its UK producers is Paul Trijbits, whose acclaimed films include Saving Mr Banks, which also starred Thompson. Trijbits described the Fallada adaptation as “very faithful”.
Although about a third of the film was shot in Berlin, so much of the city was destroyed in the war the producers went to Görlitz, a town close to the Polish border, to get the right look. “It is now sadly a half-empty town, but it is a brilliant replica. You feel you really are in that world,” said Trijbits.
“I’m not saying that this is not some enormous allegorical story, but clearly we live in uncertain times. There are many places in this world where people are oppressed and where there are acts of defiance. This is a story that gives you hope. Ordinary people can make a difference.”.