Alone in Berlin

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The film adaptation of Hans Fallada's novel Alone in Berlin shows the heroism of small acts

Otto Quangel is the foreman in a coffin factory. A mechanic, he is a small cog in the apparatus of death that was the Third Reich. Quangel and his wife Anna get notification of the loss of their son at the front. Their feelings of disengagement with the regime harden into opposition. They embark on a low-level campaign of resistance, writing postcards with anti-Nazi messages and leaving them secretly in the stairwells of Berlin businesses and apartments.

The novel, Alone in Berlin, from which this film has been adapted, was written in 1946 by Hans Fallada but only translated into English in 2009. The English translation of the book has been important outside Germany in reinforcing the fact that there was resistance to the Nazis after 1933.

Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, was a member of the Social Democratic Party in the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic. On its original publication Primo Levi said Alone in Berlin was “the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis”. The novel was based on the real life story of Otto and Elsie Hampel, who carried out their campaign over a period of years before finally being caught by the Gestapo and murdered in Berlin-Plötzensee prison on
8 April 1943.

Fallada builds a picture of a claustrophobic Berlin with informers and dirty dealing everywhere. In this situation the Quangels are forced to act alone, unwilling or unable to connect with any other resistance forces. The Quangels are not perfect heroes. Anna is a member of the Nazi Women’s League and the real life Otto was a member of the Steel Helmets, a right wing veterans association that later merged with the SA. Circumstance compels them to fight back.

The film, directed by Vincent Perez, treats the characters seriously and is a detailed exploration of their actions. It regrettably dispenses with Fallada’s multiple narrators for a straightforward chronicle but the haunting story is well told.

Daniel Brühl plays the policeman, Escherich, who tracks down the Quangels. In the process he is shaken by the Quangels’ arguments. He nevertheless carries out his duty as a “German professional” to the end, with terrible consequences. Brendan Gleeson plays Otto with a stoic stubbornness; a man who, once he has commenced his task of opposition, is determined to carry the consequences of his actions. Emma Thompson’s Anna is powerful — especially when she confronts a rich Nazi woman for not doing sufficient work for the war effort.

Certainly go and see this, and definitely buy the book, but the definitive film of this great work is still to be made.