Seven years ago, when I heard that Hans Fallada’s novel “Alone in Berlin” had been translated into English, I immediately borrowed a copy from the Columbia library and began reading about the elderly couple who had secretly distributed anti-Nazi postcards in public places after their only son had been killed in combat during the German invasion of France in 1940. As the novel was 544 pages and had to compete with other reading tasks that had higher priority at the time, I was forced to put it aside after 60 or so pages.
After seeing a press screener for the film based on the novel that opens at the IFC Center in New York City on January 13th, I plan to take the book out again and give it my highest priority. That’s what a powerful film will do—inspire you to read the original, in this case a work based on a true story.
As the film closes, you will see a dedication to the couple that it was based on: Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple (he was a factory worker; she cleaned apartments) that composed postcards calling for the overthrow of Hitler and left them in public places around Berlin. They were eventually caught, tried, and beheaded in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison in April 1943. The title of Fallada’s novel was meant to convey the determination of the couple to act against Hitler, even if they were “alone” in doing so. As Fallada’s character Otto Quangel tells his wife Anna once they begin their fearless but desperate campaign, the death of their son—their only reason for living—has left them free to act in an unfree society. More existential than political, their choice was the only one that presented itself to Germans of conscience in 1940, when support for Hitler was at its height.
Made in France but using English actors, the film benefits from a first-rate screenplay co-written by director Vincent Perez and the husband and wife team Achim and Borries von Borries (Achim wrote the very fine screenplay for “Goodbye, Lenin!”, a film that had the nerve to find good things to say about Communist East Germany). Perez, of Spanish descent but who grew up in Spain, started off as an actor and given his being cast in the lead role of Ashe Corven in the dark thriller “The Crow: City of Angels”, you might wonder what drew him to this project. The press notes explain why:
For Perez, Fallada’s book had great, personal significance. On his father’s side, Perez’s family is from Spain. His grandfather fought for the Republicans against Franco’s Fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War and was executed for it while his family on his mother’s side is German and fled Nazi Germany. “My mother was born in 1939 but they, like many millions, joined the Exodus, walking for five years, then coming back after the war,” he explains. “When you have German blood it raises so many questions I needed to find the answers to, and through that book I found some amazing things. Reading Fallada forced me to build up a family history.”