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'Alone In Berlin' Features The Story That Continues To Revise And Resonate

Leo Barraclough
In the new film Alone In Berlin, based on Hans Fallada's beloved but once-banned novel, Emma Thompson plays Anna Quangel. Real-life Otto and Elise Hampel were executed in 1943 for their acts of resistance against the Nazi regime.
It's not only about their story. It's my story, your story, the story of so many millions of people who suffered from those incredible wars ...

Alone In Berlin stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as an ordinary middle-aged working class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, just trying to keep their heads down in 1940s Berlin. But when their son is killed on the battlefield, grief sparks them into defiance. They begin writing anti-fascist postcards bearing small truths like "Mothers, Hitler Will Kill Your Son Too" and leaving them in public places.

They hope others will follow their lead.

Their story comes from the 1947 novel, Every Man Dies Alone, by German writer Hans Fallada. It wasn't published in English until 2009, after Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson got a tip from designer Diane von Fürstenberg.

"She said it's just a crime nobody's reading Hans Fallada in English anymore," says Johnson. "So I went off in pursuit."

He learned that Fallada's novels had been international best-sellers between the two World Wars, chosen as book-of-the-month-club selections, even made into Hollywood films — which got Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, blacklisted by the Nazis.

Rudolf's son, Ulrich Ditzen, speaking at a 2010 literary event, explained that his father was driven to write.

"Taking the title Everyman Dies Alone, you could say 'every man writes alone,' " Ditzen says. "In his mind ceaselessly, the next chapter developed. So by 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, he got up, made himself some coffee and sat down to work. With the fantastic and awful rule that on no day should he write less than the day before."

Ditzen said his father wrote to live, desperate to support his family. And like his characters, Ditzen lost a loved one in battle — his brother in World War I.

But Every Man Dies Alone has its roots in yet another real-life tale, explains Dennis Johnson.

Dennis Johnson pages through a copy of the mugshots of the real-life Otto and Elise Hampel, which was given to Rudolf Ditzen after the war. The couple was executed in 1943 for distributing postcards with messages like "Hitler's War is the Worker's Death!" Ditzen turned their story into the first anti-fascist novel of the post-war period.

The English translation became a surprise hit, selling more than half a million copies, resonating with readers everywhere, especially with Spanish-German actor and director Vincent Perez.

"Something happened in me, it was as if something was calling in me, and needed to tell that story," Perez says.

He wanted his film to portray the pervasive fear that dominates life under a dictatorship.

In one scene, Otto leaves his first postcard in a busy office building. He could be discovered at any moment: on the sidewalk, in the doorway, on each step of the spiraling staircase.

"The fear is one of the main characters in the film," the director says. "I wanted to fill the air, that space in the movie with the fear."

Perez's family lived through that kind of fear. His grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain. After Perez acquired the film rights, he traveled to Germany to do research and learned that his great uncle had been killed in a gas chamber, and another uncle died fighting on the Russian front.

"I understand why I needed to make that film," he says. "Because I wanted to tell their story. But it's not only about their story. It's my story, your story, the story of so many millions of people who suffered from those incredible wars — huge massive destruction, the apocalypse fell onto Europe. We have to be very careful not to start that again. So the movie talks a little bit about that, too."

Rudolf Ditzen died just weeks before his final novel was published, after a lifelong battle with depression, alcohol and drugs. He left behind more than a dozen novels, as well as essays, memoirs and children's books that tell the stories and struggles of ordinary Germans in turbulent times.

Still, publisher Dennis Johnson says Ditzen thought he never did enough.

"He had done what he could do, and all he could do was write," he says.

Like his characters, the Quangels, and their inspiration, he resisted the only way he knew how — by using his pen as a weapon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 20, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web version of this story confused the characters' names. The characters in the movie are not Otto and Elise Hampel. The characters are Otto and Anna Quangel, who are based on real-life Otto and Elise Hampel.
Susan Stone
Susan Stone is a contributing reporter/producer for NPR based in Berlin, Germany. Before relocating to Germany for a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship in 2005, she was a producer, editor, reporter and director at NPR’s headquarters in Washington for 10 years. Most recently, Stone was a producer and director for the weekend editions of NPR's award-winning news magazine All Things Considered, where she created a signature monthly music feature for the show.