Emma Thompson: Confronting war and death
It was a true story of a small act of resistance against the Nazis that was documented in a 1947 German-language novel. Sixty years later, the book Alone in Berlin was translated into English and became a surprise international bestseller.
Now French director Vincent Perez has made an English-language film adaptation, starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, which had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Thompson and Gleeson play Otto and Elise Hampel, a working class couple from Berlin, who were guillotined by the Nazis in 1943 for leaving hand-written postcards around the city encouraging resistance against Hitler.
In the novel, author Hans Fallada calls them Otto and Anna Quangel, and it”s the death of their son that motivates them to rebellion, but Thompson notes, “the story is based in fact”.
“They were just ordinary people, there was nothing remarkable about them and their lives apart from the turbulent times they lived in. But they refused to go along with the policy of hatred and that in itself is no small thing.
“They wrote nearly 300 postcards, with the same kinds of messages of resistance towards the Nazis and, such was the climate of fear at the time, nearly all were turned in to the Gestapo. Yet, even though in the film we see them mocked for losing their lives for such a small act of defiance, 70 years later we”re still talking about this couple. So they did win.”
Thompson, who won an Oscar for her role in Howard”s End in 1992, and another in 1995 for writing a film adaptation of Jane Austen”s Sense and Sensibility, jokes that in the character of Anna, “yet again I”m playing another good woman in a frock,” but adds that she believes “this film is important for Europe at the moment because it”s about being brave and saying things that aren”t popular.
“I”ve always been one for saying things that aren”t common opinion in society – that protest is an important part of life. Riots are important too, I believe. This story has particular meaning because it reinforces the idea that you need to be courageous if you want to speak up. You will be pilloried. You have to be brave to raise your head above the parapet, particularly now, if you disagree with a certain popular viewpoint.
“Yet this couple find their real humanity in standing up against something inhuman, so much so that they are happy to pay the cost, to lose their lives. It was a beautiful thing to play.”
Thompson adds that it was the recent death from cancer of her close friend, actor Alan Rickman, which reminded her it was possible “to die well”.
Saying that she has spent time “with many people who have been dying, including Alan”, Thompson adds she has come to the conclusion that “it”s possible to die beautifully, as my friend Alan did. It inspired me so much. And these two people in this film die with so much integrity.
“Why don”t we want to think about dying at all, never mind the manner in which we will do it? It”s going to happen to all of us so I don”t understand why we are so blind and deaf to it.”
The film itself has received mixed reviews from the international press, the Guardian lamenting that though Thompson and Gleeson “give of their best in their respective roles, neither get to display the live-wire intelligence that, in different ways, is a trademark of both”.
It”s also received some criticism for being made in English, when it was filmed entirely in Berlin.
However, Thompson credits the film with helping “change my viewpoint about the Second World War, which I had researched for other roles in the past, but always from a British point of view. It didn”t occur to me for a long time that many Germans felt the Nazis had invaded them too and were suffering just as much.
“What I have realised is that like in any period of history, including now, in many parts of the world, if you set the population of a country or a city to spy and inform on one another, you create a living hell. Without freedom of speech there is no freedom at all, and this couple, by exercising that right under the Nazis, managed to come alive – even in the face of death.”
Alone in Berlin is yet to receive a UK release date.