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The grieving Hampels’ war of words

30 June, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as Otto and Anna Quangel, the names Otto and Elise Hampel were given by Hans Fallada in his novel

Directed by Vincent Pérez
Certificate 12a

HANS Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 1946. It took him just 24 days while hospitalised, and tells the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel. The Hampels lost their only son on the Eastern Front and turned their grief into anger against the Nazi regime. For three years, they left anonymous postcards dotted around Berlin, with messages attacking Hitler and his cronies.

Fallada bore witness to life under the Nazis. He was censored by the regime and wrote children’s books to earn a crust. It was not an easy life – addicted to morphine, he suffered from depression. He died in 1947, aged 53.

The ongoing addiction of his second wife, Ulla, who owned the rights to his work, and the fact German authors shunned him because he did not leave Germany, meant Every Man Dies Alone lay dormant for decades. It wasn’t until 2010 that Penguin published an English version – and it was a sensation.

In this adaptation we meet Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) as they are informed of the tragedy. They set about getting revenge in an original way that scared the authorities. Gleeson and Thompson have a tricky job to do justice to the source material – it is neither raw nor nasty enough to truly portray one of the most moving, horrific and incredible stories from the period.

Fallada’s book deserves to be considered in the same bracket as William Shirer’s seminal work, The Rise and Fall Of The Third Reich, in terms of original material. Primo Levi called it the “greatest book about German resistance to the Nazis ever written”, and rightly so: Fallada’s novel hits you square on the jaw. Its portrayal, sadly rushed here, of what happened to people snatched by the SS is equivalent to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon.

Fallada deserves a Spielberg to give it the power of Schlinder’s List. At its core is the idea that as an individual you are not powerless, no matter the forces ranged against you are. The film is ok in its own right – but see it as a nudge to buy Fallada’s book. Let that be the legacy of these two brave, loving parents that their story is told far and wide and never forgotten.


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