RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In 1947 Germany, a population recovering from the brutality of Hitler's regime took some small comfort in a book called "Every Man Dies Alone," written by Hans Fallada. It was the first novel by a German author that told the story of the small acts of domestic resistance against the Nazis.
The book waited years for an English translation, but when it finally came out, readers loved its portrait of the working people of Berlin - ordinary, but heroic - brave, foolhardy and vividly real. Now, it's a film called "Alone In Berlin". It just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and opens in theaters later this year. Susan Stone has more from Berlin.
SUSAN STONE, BYLINE: An ordinary middle-class working couple is just trying to keep their heads down in 1940s Berlin. Then, 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. Anna and Otto Quangel are played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson.
BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Otto Quangel) It's like with a machine. A little sand in the gears will not stop the machine. Whenever a person throws a little more sand and more, the motor begins to stutter. The assembly line stops.
STONE: They hope others will follow their lead.
GLEESON: (As Otto Quangel) In my mind, I see lots of people throwing sand in the gears.
EMMA THOMPSON: (As Anna Quangel) You are romantic, Otto Quangel.
GLEESON: (As Otto Quangel) I'm a mechanic.
THOMPSON: (As Anna Quangel) Yeah, that, too.
STONE: Their story comes from a 1927 novel by Hans Fallada called "Every Man Dies Alone." It wasn't published in English until 2009, after Dennis Johnson got a tip from designer Dian von Furstenberg.
DENNIS JOHNSON: She said it's just a crime that nobody's reading Hans Fallada in English anymore. And so I went off in pursuit.
STONE: Johnson runs publisher Melville House. 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.
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ULRICH DITZEN: Taking the title "Every Man Dies Alone," you could say every man rides alone.
STONE: That's Rudolph's son Ulrich Ditzen speaking at a literary event in 2010. He explained that father was driven to write.
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DITZEN: In his mind, ceaselessly, the next chapter he developed. So by 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, he got up, (unintelligible) some coffee and sat down to work with a quite fantastic and awful rule that on no day should he write less than the day before.
STONE: 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.
JOHNSON: This file was the actual Gestapo file on Otto and Elise Hampel. And as you can see here, the second page is their mug shots.
STONE: Johnson pages through a copy of the file given to Rudolf Ditzen after the war. Otto and Elise Hampel were 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 postwar period. The English translation became a surprise hit, selling more than half a million copies, resonating with readers everywhere.
VINCENT PEREZ: Something happened in me. It was as if there was, like, something in me that it was calling. I needed to tell that story.
STONE: Spanish-German actor and director Vincent Perez wanted his film to portray the pervasive fears that dominates life under a dictatorship.
Otto Quangel 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.
PEREZ: The fear is one of the main characters of the film. I wanted to fill the air with that fear.
STONE: 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.
PEREZ: I understand why I needed to make that film - because I wanted to tell their story. But it's not only about their stories, it's my story, your story, the story from so many millions of people - suffered from those incredible wars. The apocalypse fell onto Europe. We have to be very careful not to start that again.
STONE: 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 telling the stories and struggles of ordinary Germans in turbulent times. Still, publisher Dennis Johnson says Ditzen thought he never did enough.
JOHNSON: He had done all he could do. And all he could do was write.
STONE: Like his characters the Quangels and their inspiration, he resisted the only way he knew how - by using his pen as a weapon.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone in Berlin.
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