Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson and Daniel Brühl star in the Nazi-era "Alone in Berlin," which premieres at the Berlinale. It's based on a gripping true story of resistance - and a posthumous bestseller.
Hans Fallada's biography itself has all the makings of an intriguing book or film.
Throughout the course of his life, the author, born Rudolf Ditzen in 1893 in Greifswald, had struggled with illness and addiction. After reaching acclaim with the novel "Little Man, What Now?" in 1932, just before Adolf Hitler rose to power, Fallada's success as an author quickly became overshadowed by the darkening political atmosphere in his native Germany.
The situation eventually led to his nervous breakdown and subsequent commitment to an insane asylum in 1944.
After his release at the end of World War II, the author set about to broadly tell the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple in Berlin whose resistance to the Nazis after the death of their son in 1940 was well documented in Gestapo files. It's these files combined with colorful stories from Fallada's own experiences in war-time Berlin that eventually culminated in the book "Alone in Berlin," now adapted for the big screen and premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival on Monday (15.02.2015).
The film couldn't have appeared at a more apropos time, as leading actress Emma Thompson told reporters at a press conference in Berlin.
"The film is about courage. And this feeling that some people are turning their back on those in need is one that is very current."
Her co-star Daniel Brühl likewise warned against a political move to the right. "We have to be very careful not to be poisoned by these racist and fascist ideologies. This illness has not yet been cured."
Small acts of resistance against the Nazis
Based on the Hampels' true story, the novel introduces us to Otto and Anna Quangel, a couple whose support for the Nazi regime shifts after the death of their son on a battlefield in France in 1940.
Besotted by grief, the pair prepares handwritten leaflets and postcards condemning Hitler and leaves them in mailboxes and stairwells around their neighborhood in Berlin-Wedding.
These small acts of resistance were extraordinarily daring for their time, especially considering the loyalties of the couples' neighbors and friends, whose presence helps create suspense in a story that ultimately centers on the ways in which grief and war transforms our everyday lives.
Although the book has seen acclaim in Germany, with a resurgence in sales in the 1970s and again in the early 2000s, it wasn't until Dennis Loy Johnson, founder of Melville House, an independent US publisher, commissioned a translation into English that it saw international success.
Released as "Alone in Berlin" in 2009 in the UK and in the US under the title "Every Man Dies Alone," by Melville House, the book quickly shot to the top of bestseller lists in the English-speaking world, with more than 400,000 copies in print by 2010.
Director's grandfather shot while resisting fascism
This success resulted in the book being optioned for the big screen. It is a German-French-British production that, although filmed in English, is directed by Swiss actor, director and photographer Vincent Perez.
Perez, the son of a Spanish father and German mother, felt he needed to tell the story of those wartime heroes, people like his grandfather, who was shot resisting fascism in Spain.
Ordinary people who, he told the "Guardian," "nobody talks about ... [people] who did tiny things and lost their lives."
Bringing these small acts of resistance to life on the big screen, however, is not as simple as it may sound.
While the story of the Hampels' struggle during the war may make for an intriguing plot, capturing the fear that had infiltrated everyday life was not something that came easy.
Filmed on location in Berlin, Cologne and the eastern German city of Görlitz, which survived the Second World War virtually unscathed, the movie's historical backdrop does well to recreate the aesthetics of wartime Germany.
The tense atmosphere, however, was something that could only truly be felt in the powerhouse performances by an all-star cast.
For that, Oscar winner Emma Thompson and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson were cast in the leading roles, alongside German actor Daniel Brühl ("Inglourious Basterds").
Their performances do wonders to affect a reaction from viewers who may very well themselves be haunted today by the question that made the book such a success in the first place: "What would I do during these circumstances?"