Still from “Alone in Berlin.”
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.”
Casting for “Alone in Berlin” was brilliant. Veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays Otto Quangel as if he had been born for the role. His comment in the press notes reveals an awareness of the existential choice made by the Quangels: “The ordinariness of them is what’s paramount. They’re totally ordinary. It’s about personal redemption and the idea that by withdrawing your support, by withdrawing your permission, you liberate yourself, even if it makes absolutely no difference to anything else. It’s part of the human quest.”
His wife Anna is played by Emma Thompson. Now 57, she has been an outstanding actress for many years. Like Gleeson, she brings an intelligence to her performance that might have been lacking in other actresses especially since she has been a human rights and environmental activist for many years. She is an outspoken Jeremy Corbyn supporter and a member of the British-based ENOUGH! coalition that seeks to end the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
“Alone in Berlin” is a film about political action with little possibility of winning your goals. After his capture, the detective who had been pursuing Quangel taunts him. You distributed 285 postcards and all but 17 were turned in to us. It was those 17 of course that drove the Gestapo crazy and willing to unleash a massive manhunt for the man they referred to as “the hobgoblin”. Like the pea beneath the princess’s dozen mattresses, they could not get a good night’s sleep as long as he was on the loose.
It is also a love story. Even though everything is lost to them, the Quangels still have each other. In the midst of this very somber and doomed tale, their hugs and kisses shine through like a candle in the darkness.
Hans Fallada was ideally suited to write their story as an outsider in German society from an early age. After discovering that he and a best male friend were sexually attracted to each other, they decided on a joint suicide pact that would end their lives honorably. With Germany steeped in homophobia in 1911, a staged duel would give the impression that they were proper heterosexuals. But because of their inexperience with pistols, it was only partially successful. His friend was shot and killed while Fallada was missed by his friend’s bullet. Fallada was so distraught that he picked up his friend’s gun and shot himself in the chest, but managed to live on as a social outcast in a mental hospital after being declared innocent of murder because of insanity.
Fallada was committed to mental hospitals on and off for the rest of life. He also battled morphine addiction stemming back to the pain killers he took after being injured in a horse-cart accident when a child. To secure drugs, he resorted to petty thievery–landing him in a prison a couple of times until he kicked the habit in 1928.
His career as a novelist was integrated into the German left, even though he was not a party member of the Communists or Social Democrats. His 1932 novel “Little Man, What Now?” is about the desperate lives of a ruined middle-class that was made into a Hollywood movie in 1934. Since the film was produced by Jews, the Nazis began to regard him as an enemy and had him arrested on political charges in 1933. The charges were dropped and Fallada found himself in the precarious position of being both a respected author and even admired by Goebbels while barely being able to hide his disgust with Nazism. Throughout it all, he remained in Germany trying to avoid confrontation with the Nazis by writing non-political books. This earned him the wrath of German writers who had become refugees such as Thomas Mann. Whether Mann had ever come to properly appreciate Fallada for his entire body of work, including “Alone in Berlin” is a question for scholars to contemplate. For my part, it is hard to imagine an author with more integrity, especially in light of the suffering he endured as a human being.
The Hampels were not the only Germans of conscience who challenged the system in a “lonely” fashion and who were eventually commemorated in film. In 2005, the German film “Sophie Scholl—the Final Days” opened to generally favorable reviews in the United States.
Scholl was a leader of the student-based “White Rose” group that like the Hampels conducted an isolated and doomed movement against Nazism that took the form of distributing leaflets on college campuses. Like the Hampels, Scholl and her comrades were caught and guillotined.
Fortunately, the film can be seen for free on Youtube and is an ideal accompaniment to “Alone in Berlin”.
Most of the action in “Sophie Scholl” takes place in the office of Robert Mohr, a Nazi cop played by Gerald Alexander Held, who begins by using conventional interrogation techniques. He is determined to extract a confession from Sophie (Julia Jentsch) by confronting her with contradictions in her alibi, while she continues to insist on her innocence. Eventually she is overwhelmed by the mass of evidence seized from the apartment she shares with her brother and confesses–without acknowledging that what she did was a crime.
Mohr is not satisfied with her confession. He wants her to see herself as a criminal. The dialogue between the two characters at this point turns into a memorable clash of ideas about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The cop, who has climbed the Nazi hierarchy from a meager rural background, resents this woman who strikes him as relatively privileged and refined. He cannot understand why these students, who are only attending college through state funds provided by the Nazi party, are such ingrates. He also challenges their patriotism. Why would they want to undermine the fighting will of German troops who are only trying to defend their way of life? Although clearly addressing German history, the film will certainly remind Americans of the conflicts between authority and rebellion that take place here during wartime, especially Vietnam and Iraq.
During their trial, Sophie, her brother, and Christoph Probst answer the lunatic Nazi judge with dignity and courage. The final scenes of the film amount to a kind of Passion Play as the three activists await their execution. In contrast to the older film, “Sophie Scholl” makes their Christian convictions quite clear. For them, resistance to Nazism is obedience to Christ. Sophie repeatedly prays to God in her cell, like a latter-day Joan of Arc.
Both films serve as a reminder of what life under fascism was like and suggest why facile comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump ill-serve the left. Under Nazism, capitalist rule was totalitarian—to the extent that even the weakest opposition to the system had to be suppressed by the guillotine. The Nazis feared that a leak in the wall might lead to a flood that would sweep across a system that was based to a large degree through force rather than consent.
Our problem in the United States today is not having to deal with naked repression but finding a way to penetrate the brick wall of consent that is propped up by a bankrupt media and spectacles such as football games and situation comedies designed to keep the masses impassive and obedient. If the Hampels enjoyed a real freedom that came from an existential decision to break with the system, our problem is a false freedom that is buttressed by meaningless elections and political debates between talking heads that tiptoes around the real problem we face: a capitalism in steep decline that will increase hardships until people awake from their slumber and choose the real freedom that comes from political resistance.