“What’s interesting is that unlike almost all other movies from this era, it’s not as if it’s Nazis versus the rest of the world. It’s people in an apartment building versus each other. The structures of oppression you see functioning vertically as well as horizontally, radiating outward across society and to the rest of the world. And also inside people’s heads, inside their relationships, inside how they deal with each other in the most intimate way. That’s a point of view you almost never see.”
Alone In Berlin is directed by acclaimed actor turned filmmaker Vincent Perez (La Reine Margot), who adapted revered German novelist Hans Fallada’s international bestseller Every Man Dies Alone / Alone In Berlin for the big screen with Achim von Borries (Good Bye Lenin!),
“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.”
Two-time Academy Award-winner Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks), three-time Golden Globe-nominee and Emmy Award winner (Into The Storm) Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), and Golden Globe-nominee Daniel Brühl (Rush) star in Alone In Berlin, a powerfully moving, true-life drama-thriller set in Second World War Berlin.
Berlin 1940. The city is paralyzed by fear. Otto and Anna Quangel are a working class couple living in a shabby apartment block trying, like everyone else, to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when their only child is killed fighting at the front, their loss drives them to an extraordinary act of resistance. They start to drop anonymous postcards all over the city attacking Hitler and his regime. If caught, it means certain execution.
Soon their campaign comes to the attention of the Gestapo inspector Escherich and a murderous game of cat-and-mouse begins. But the game serves only to strengthen Otto and Anna’s sense of purpose and a renewed love for each other. Slowly their drab lives and marriage are transformed as they unite in their quiet but profound rebellion…
Over 60 years after its initial publication, Fallada’s novel, written directly after the Second World War, became a worldwide bestseller. Based on a true story, the powerful and redemptive novel was described by Primo Levi as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.”
Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone was one of the very first anti-Nazi novels, and remains as pertinent a depiction of human repression and resistance today as when it was originally published in 1947.
Based on actual Gestapo files given to him by a novelist friend just after the war, Fallada’s remarkable tome tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel — in reality Otto and Elise Hampel — a working class couple in Berlin, Germany who, having lost their only son, Hans, to the conflict in France, wage a two-person propaganda war, by writing postcards with seditious messages, urging their fellow Germans to stand up to Hitler’s ruling Nazi party, then leaving them in public places to be read. They manage to write and deposit 285 postcards over the course of 18 months before being caught.
“The ordinariness of them is what’s paramount,” says Brendan Gleeson who stars as Otto Quangel in Alone In Berlin. “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.”
“We’ve all read books written by very highly educated people during that period,” says Emma Thompson who stars as Anna Quangel. “What’s interesting about them is they’re not the intelligentsia. I guess Fallada, once he learnt about the story of Otto and Elisa Hampel, was inspired. It was important to him to express the revulsion of the ordinary, working person to what was going on, to the rise of anti-Semitism, the wearing of the yellow stars. People were revolted by it and often didn’t know how to deal with it. And these two, who were not part of any kind of group, for them, suddenly, to engage in a propaganda battle that is treasonous, was remarkable, and reminds you resistance is vital, and doesn’t require any special education to know when things are seriously wrong and out of balance.”
A seminal work of German literature, and a required text in German secondary schools, Every Man Dies Alone has previously been adapted for the small screen several times by West German television in 1962, East German in 1970 and in the Czech Republic in 2004. In 2009, however, Fallada’s book belatedly became an international bestseller and global phenomenon when it was published in abridged form in English for the first time. In America, Melville House published it under the original title Every Man Dies Alone, while in the UK Penguin Books followed the French publishers’ lead in releasing it under the title Alone In Berlin, selling more than half a million copies.
Vincent Perez, the Swiss-born actor who made his name in France starring in Cyrano de Bergerac and La Reine Margot, then later in America with The Crow: City of Angels and Queen Of The Damned, before moving behind the camera, had read Fallada’s book in French in 2007, and, like so many others, found its subject matter revelatory, not least in its depiction of ordinary Germans during World War II. “This was a different angle,” Perez notes. “This was the every day life of the German people during the 40s.”
“What’s so unique about it is it’s lifting the veil on what life in Germany, in Berlin, would have looked like,” says producer Paul Trijbits. “You get a view that we haven’t seen before, about what life would have been like for ordinary people under a Totalitarian regime. It’s not an occupied country but, of course, for many people who didn’t agree with that regime it was a form of occupation.”
“I was brought up thinking of the Germans as all being Nazis and it was completely wrong,” notes Thompson, who has German family on her husband’s side. “And it was only when I got older and started reading about it that I understood what had really gone on.“
Adapting the novel
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.
And so, Perez embarked on his own personal journey of discovery, keen to understand what had become of his German family under the Nazi regime. “I had three uncles and one of them was killed on the Russian front,” he reveals. “I had a great uncle who was in a psychiatric hospital, then gassed in those prototype gas chambers. I went to all those hospitals. And to those gas chambers. The Germans are very good at keeping the memory alive. They feel nobody should forget what happened.”
During his trip, Perez also discovered that no one in his family had ever been a member of the Nazi party. “That was quite something,” he says, “because if you weren’t a member at the time they would give you a tough time.”
At the time, Perez was going through his own personal crisis, albeit a creative one. After helming two features — 2002’s Once Upon An Angel and 2007’s The Secret — and several shorts (two of which were selected for the Palme d’Or), he decided to quit directing. “I thought I had no stories to tell, but when I read the book everything changed. It really felt that this was something I had to live with for quite a while. I didn’t expect that it was going to take so long.”
Perez approached his friend and French producer, Marco Pacchioni, and together they tried to option the film rights to the novel, a process that proved complicated and lengthy. “It took a year and a half,” he explains, “because I think the publishers, the German publishing company, was in transition. Also, they were suspicious why this French/Spanish/Swiss guy/actor wants to make a film out of it.”
Not to be deterred, Perez started writing the script, despite not owning the rights. But when the situation dragged on, he “became really worried after so many months of work. I felt my life was connected to that book. Losing it would have been really something.” Eventually, Perez and Pacchioni optioned the material and began approaching financiers in France, but found no takers. “The French weren’t interested in telling a German story,” Perez explains.
“It’s true that at the time we were starting to worry about finding finance,” says Pacchioni. “The challenge made us all the more determined to fight on and make this movie.”
Then, in May 2009, Perez was visiting the Cannes Film Festival and met with German film producer Stefan Arndt (Good Bye Lenin!) who’d picked up that year’s Palme D’Or for Michael Haneke’s drama The White Ribbon about the early roots of National Socialism,. “I knew Vincent as an actor, I did not know much about his career as a director,” recalls Arndt. “He said to me, ‘I want to make a movie of Alone In Berlin — do you know Hans Fallada?’”
Arndt remembers reading the book when he was 11 or 12, having been handed a copy by his mother. “I said to him it’s one of my favourite books but why do you want to make a child’s movie?” laughs Arndt, who’d misremembered it as a kids’ book. But Perez soon put him right. “He told me the history of this novel, about the Hampels and the Quangels, and we started our collaboration.”
“I remember meeting Stefan after that in Cannes and our collaboration started right away,” recalls Pacchioni.
For Arndt committing to Alone In Berlin meant breaking a promise to himself never to make what he dubs “Swastika movies”. “When I started producing I swore I would never do a movie with Nazi uniforms because it’s too easy for a German filmmaker to decide the antagonist is a Nazi,” he states. “I thought there are enough Nazi movies around, so I never wanted to do any.”
But Fallada’s book offered an alternative Arndt could live with. “There are many, many German movies about this period, but because it’s a working class couple, and it’s not a huge story that changes the history, it’s a small story about a couple who fall in love again through these little postcards, and, in the end, they were killed, and didn’t change much,” he reflects. “But for me, as German, they showed there werepeople who fought for a better world. Not making revolution but just throwing a little sand in the gears.”
Bring Alone In Berlin To The Big Screen
At that time, the idea was to make Alone In Berlin as a German-language film. But even with the international success of Good Bye, Lenin! and The White Ribbon which, in addition to the Palme d’Or, won Best Film at the 2009 European Film Awards, and was nominated for two Oscars including Best Foreign Language Film, and with the might of his company X Filme behind him, Arndt found German financers only marginally more interested than their French counterparts, and still required compromises Perez wasn’t prepared to make.
And so the project very nearly collapsed. “I completely failed,” admits Arndt. “It was a shame because I was convinced I would be able to finance it. But I was not able to, with all my power, with all my influence, and I’m not bad at financing movies — it’s my job. I remember very well having to call Vincent and tell him, I will not be able to finance it as a German-language movie.”
Then, as fate would have it, the book was translated into English for the first time and became a bestseller in the US, the UK and Israel. Suddenly it made sense to make Alone In Berlin in English. “We wanted to make a universal story,” says Perez. “It was important to tell the story not only for Germany, but for France, for Britain, for Israel, everywhere where the extremes have a chance to pop out. It’s important to show that everyone can fight, everyone. It demands courage. Suddenly we felt it was logical to do it in English because it was opening the project to everyone. And it’s a story everyone should know.”
But filming in English meant, effectively, beginning from scratch. “It’s another group of people we are aiming at, and we have to start again, with a treatment, with another writer,” Arndt reflects.
Arndt reached out to James Schamus, the Oscar®-nominated producer and screenwriter who had just left his position as CEO of Focus Features, and was returning to independent producing.
Then, at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, Arndt and Uwe Schott of X Filme partnered on the project with FilmWave’s Paul Trijbits and Christian Grass. “Even before we formed FilmWave, Christian and I had one eye on that book; we loved it,” says Trijbits. “We jumped at the opportunity. Here was a possibility of bringing that book and the film to a wider audience.” And so from no takers, Alone In Berlin became a German-French-UK co-production. “It became this machine we couldn’t stop,” recalls Perez. “It was like a lot of miracles happening.”
It is at this time that Pacchioni and Perez succeeded in interesting Pathé in Alone in Berlin, to co-produce and distribute it in all French territories, helping greatly in completing the final funding of the movie.
While Schamus opted not to write the script himself, he worked with Perez and co- screenwriter Achim von Borries in developing their various drafts, helping focus Fallada’s tapestry of voices into something more cinematic. “We worked very hard on the dialogue to make sure it wasn’t simply English that had been badly translated from German to make it sound German, but rather find an idiom that represented as best we could the German sensibility,” says Schamus. “What you saw in the development of the script was the emergence of this very charged, very tragic relationship between our couple who begin at a loss, not only of their son but of their relationship, and yet in the course of their actions they really fall in love again.”
To play the quiet, reserved housewife and mother Anna Quangel, Perez only ever had Emma Thompson in mind. “For me, she was Anna,” he says of Thompson, who won an Academy® Award for Best Actress for Howards End and another for adapting Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility for director Ang Lee and co-producer James Schamus. “She can play a German. She can play that proletarian woman really well. She’s an amazing actress and she responded straight away to the script.”
Thompson had, by then, read Fallada’s novel and was immediately on board, recognizing in Perez a commitment to the material that mirrored her own. “I felt in Vincent a commitment to the story that was out of the ordinary,” she recalls. “I knew James was involved. And then, of course, when Brendan came on board I couldn’t be more delighted because I’ve always wanted to work with him.”
Even with Thompson attached, the project still took another 18 months to fully finance and cast Otto. According to Perez, Thompson was “a rock” throughout, her faith in the project never wavering. “I was calling her my guardian angel because she was just amazing,” he says. “She wanted the film to be happening.”
At the beginning of Alone In Berlin, Anna is “someone who has really had the stuffing knocked out of her,” says Thompson. Her marriage to factory foreman Otto is in ruins, even before the death of their only son. “Her whole joy is in her son. She’s given up on her marriage; it’s just a job that she has to do. And there’s something very noble in the way she carries on.”
Neither Otto or Anna are particularly well-educated, nor are they especially politicised, and yet the death of their son, an event that would shear most couples apart, proves to be the spark that not only reignites their lives but brings them back together. “Who knows what would have happened if Otto hadn’t undertaken what he undertakes and she hadn’t decided to join him,” Thompson reflects. “The whole story is about how they find each other again through these acts of sedition. It’s a portrait of the relationship between two people changing amidst this extraordinary backdrop.”
To play Otto, Perez cast hulking Irish actor Brendan Gleeson. “I know he doesn’t look like the character in the book, because in the book he’s a skinny guy,” admits Perez. “But when I saw Brendan I just felt something. He has that wonderful capacity as an actor that you feel it all with him, and I needed that. We always dreamt about a surprising couple, and when you see them together it was meant to be.”
“He’s quite a closed man. His marriage is not good. His son has gone off to war. He’s somebody where duty and being regular and work is important to him. So when that son is taken away from him, there is no future. There is no reason to work. There’s no reason to keep going, really,” reflects Gleeson of Otto. But through the writing of the postcards, Otto finds a reason. And that, ultimately, has an impact on his marriage. “They grow to find each other as people, first as a kind of two-man resistance cell, and then start to open up a bit where their grief can be something that binds them rather than tears them apart.”
Once the couple’s seditious postcards start to attract the attention of the authorities, it is Inspector Escherich who, along with his deputy Zott (Daniel Sträßer) is given the task of hunting down those responsible by the ruling Nazi party, specifically his superior, SS Officer Prall, played by Mikael Persbrandt. “It’s a very complex role because he’s not a Nazi,” says Trijbits of Escherich. “Nonetheless, as a good policeman, he’s charged with finding what is seen as an attack on the State, and he’s put under huge pressure by the SS to perform.”
Played by Spanish-German Daniel Brühl, Escherich is an old-fashioned policeman who tries the best to do his job properly and find those responsible for the postcards through detection rather than intimidation or force. “Escherich is a character most people can probably understand and identify with, because he is going through something that many Germans experienced,” says Brühl. “Escherich is not a convinced National Socialist, but is broken by the system out of fear, out of humiliation. Eventually he gives in and becomes part of the system. Ironically, the only man Escherich respects is his victim, Otto Quangel, because he stands for the old Germany and he is not as barbaric and stupid as the others surrounding him. Escherich finally sees his country is dying and doesn’t exist anymore.”
Perez also gave his actors homework, providing them with “a lot of documentaries” to watch, but chiefly he asked them to read Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner. “That was essential,” he says. “It’s a fantastic book, a journal of a German from 1914-1939, and it really explains what happened in the German culture and how suddenly you became a Nazi and how slowly you could fall into the trap. It was a very good example for them to understand how an entire country can suddenly become Nazis.”