As London Book and Screen Week approaches, Rebecca DeWald takes a look at the relationship between the page and the silver screen in German- language culture, finding that this is not always a one- way street.
It took Hans Fallada only four weeks to pen the 700 pages of Jeder stirbt für sich allein, the novel that we now know as Alone in Berlin (tr. Michael Hoffmann). Seventy years later, a new lm version premiered at the Berlinale, starring Emma Thompson and directed by Vincent Perez (2016). The following year saw the filmic debut of In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts, based on the family saga by Eugen Ruge set in the GDR. And only a few weeks ago, Fatih Akin won the Golden Globe for best foreign language lm for In the Fade, a fictionalised rendering of Neo-Nazi attacks in contemporary Germany. As varied as these subject matters are, so are the relationships between fiction, history and film in each case.
The novel Alone in Berlin depicts a cross- section of society in 1940s Germany and follows their often very personal resistance to the Nazi regime. The plot eventually centres on the couple Anna and Otto Quangel, who lose their only son in the war and start writing postcards denouncing the regime.
Though based on a true story, both novel and film make distinct changes. The prevailing atmosphere is that of fear and distrust, while the Quangels’ resistance ultimately stems from a deep-rooted sense of justice. The underlying heroism of the Quangels’ actions, however, takes centre-stage in the film adaptation, to the detriment of the characters’ subtleties: the varied portrayal of Germans living under the Nazi regime is replaced by a detective plot. And from the investigation emerge the heroes who prove that not all Germans supported the regime.
Eugen Ruge’s In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (published by Faber as In Times of Fading Light, tr. Anthea Bell) recounts events between 1952 and 2001, but repeatedly returns to step-grandfather Wilhelm’s ninetieth birthday in 1989. The film, however, centres on the last month of the GDR, with a short post-lude set a few years later, lending the adaptation its focus. It gives the political discussions among party functionaries at Wilhelm’s birthday gathering gravitas, since they are unaware that the GDR is about to collapse. Despite the changes, the main sentiment of the book finds its way into the film – the rise and fall of multiple generations of one family serves as a metaphor for the rise and fall of socialism. This effect might be partly due to the fact that author and director share similar life stories: both were born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the West before its collapse. Personal experience of this particular time in German history informs both novel and film.
The relationship between book and film receives a contemporary twist when recent history moves in front of the lens. German-Turkish author Selim Özdogan and director Fatih Akin’s collaboration began in 2000 with Im Juli, Akin’s second feature lm. In this case the novel followed the film, with Özdogan rewriting the script and changing the narrative perspective. Writer and director have developed a fruitful partnership, which reframes the expected book > film dynamic. The first book in Özdogan’s ‘Anatolian blues’ trilogy, Die Tochter des Schmieds (2005), features in Akin’s The Edge of Heaven (2007). Both book and film tell of the estrangement of a Turkish-German father/son pair, as they cope with the mother’s death. When the pair in the film are tentatively finding their way back to one another, the son picks up the Turkish translation of Özdogan’s novel. The credits urge the audience to read the book, doubtlessly to understand the life and motivations of Gastarbeiter (‘guest workers’ – post-war immigrants to West Germany) and their families.
These snapshots of current German film showcase the intimate relationship between literature and film, and what can happen when one informs the other. But Özdogan and Akin stand alone as a true creative partnership, opening up possibilities for trans-mediation beyond convention.