Review: Alone in Berlin and Schindler's List

by Molly Day-Coombes

L2 undergraduate

When examining acts of resistance, two pieces of work come to mind: the film Schindler’s List and the novel Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Both are set in World War Two and examine two different individuals’ acts of resistance to the Nazi regime.

Alone in Berlin was originally published in 1947 and translated into English in 2009. The novel is based on the true story of the working-class couple Otto and Elise Hampel whose names are changed in the book to Otto and Anna Quangel. After the death of their son Ottochen in 1940, the pair became hostile towards the National Socialists. Otto is provoked into resistance and thereafter spends his Sundays writing postcards protesting against the regime and dropping them in stairwells of public buildings.

Alone in Berlin is an elegantly written novel, which follows a series of complex characters, all of whom are involved in the trials and tribulations of resisting a powerful enemy, the Nazi regime itself. The novel was the first anti-Nazi novel to be released in Germany after the Second World War and is therefore significant in showing the non-compliant views and actions of ordinary people in Berlin.

The book focuses on one house, 55 Jablonski Strasse, and follows the lives of the Hitler loyalists the Persickes, retired Judge Fromm, the Quangels, and criminals Kluge and Borkharsen. By examining an entire house, Fallada analyses all aspects of society to show the pervasiveness of resistance to a regime. Fallada shows the importance of rebelling against regimes you do not agree with: even though individual action might not make a significant difference, it is essential for your own morals. Otto led an unsuccessful campaign due to the terror which gripped Berlin at the time; however, this is not shown as an insignificant effort in the book.

Schindler’s List is a film adaptation of the book Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Released in 1993, the film was directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg. It portrays the war profiteer Oscar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, who saved the lives of over 1,000 Polish-Jewish refugees by claiming they were skilled workers and employing them in his factory.

Despite the success of Schindler’s actions, Schindler himself is shown to be in a state of despair at the end of the film as he feels as though he did not save enough lives. In the final black and white scenes of the film Schindler falls to his knees in tears after he begins to see the objects that surround him as the people he could have saved, and on seeing his gold ring he realises it would have been ‘one more person’. However, in reality Schindler’s efforts in saving Jewish lives were incredibly successful. The final scenes of the film are the only ones in colour which symbolise the long lasting effect which Schindler’s actions had throughout history. The scenes show a vast crowd of people visiting Oscar Schindler’s grave: these are the many people who Schindler saved as well as members of their families.

The techniques used in the two forms of media differ due to their nature. Typical of Steven Spielberg’s films, many cinematic techniques used in the filming of Schindler’s List add to the drama of the film. He frequently used a long lens when shooting crowd scenes, most significantly when those Schindler saved from Auschwitz were boarding a train, in order to emphasise the sheer number of people he saved. The film was also shot in black and white with a young girl’s red coat being the only thing shown in colour. Schindler saw the young girl during the liquidation of the ghetto and later sees her dead body in a mass burning event, which marks the turning point for Schindler in taking more direct action to save Jewish civilians from death.

In comparison to the cinematic display in Schindler’s List, Alone in Berlin leaves the reader formulating their own ideas on the characters and situation. However, they are aided by the inclusion of copies of the postcards originally written by the Hampels. From these postcards the reader is able to see the handwriting and spelling mistakes of the working-class resistors. This reinforces the view that your position in society is irrelevant where resistance is involved.

Both Schindler’s List and Alone in Berlin are based on real events which exaggerate the relevance they can have to the ‘real world’ in encouraging action to be taken against unjust regimes. Saving an entire religious population is unachievable for the average individual, however, small acts like those of Otto Quangel can make a difference. In a world where the political climate demands weekly protests and campaigns, we are encouraged by past examples to remember that even the smallest act of resistance can contribute to meaningful change.